Our ‘Second Chance’ Program for NIH Transformative Research Applicants

In this post, “we” refers to Good Ventures and the Open Philanthropy Project, who work as partners.

As part of getting started in science funding, we’ve explored several different methods of finding high-impact giving opportunities, including scanning published research, networking in fields of interest, and considering proposals sent to us by people we know. We recently announced four grants totalling $10.8 million that represent another approach: piggybacking on a government grant program designed to find transformative research.

The approach, in brief:


The NIH launched the Transformative Research Award program in 2009 with an explicit goal to support "exceptionally innovative, high-risk, and/or unconventional research projects that have the potential to create or overturn fundamental paradigms or otherwise have unusually broad impact" in response to a perceived deficit of high-risk, high-reward funding opportunities.

According to our conversations with the NIH, the TRA program has generally funded 8-12 of approximately 150-300 proposals received each year, though more proposals were considered worthy by peer review. Grant amounts for selected projects have varied widely, ranging roughly from $250,000 to $3.5 million per project, and there is no cap to the funding for any one grant.

We decided to pursue this project because:

In addition to sharing their already-written proposals, applicants also shared the feedback they had received from the NIH peer reviewers with us, which helped accelerate our review process.


The projects we decided to fund through this process are:

Lessons learned

First, we found little correlation between our evaluations of the 120 proposals and the NIH peer review panel’s evaluation of these proposals. About half of the proposals we advanced to the second stage of our review failed to advance in the NIH peer review process, and the same can be said of proposals we declined to move forward. We think this might be because we evaluated proposals against a different set of criteria. Specifically, we were looking to support projects that could have the largest humanitarian impact, regardless of whether they “overturn fundamental paradigms,” as the NIH phrases it. (That said, when we went back and tried to evaluate the 12 projects ultimately funded by the NIH in 2016, the majority scored highly in our review process, which indicates some overlap on that subset.) There was some internal debate about how to rate specific proposals we reviewed, and we are confident that even after our process some deserving research projects were “left on the table” (though staff disagree on which ones).

Second, we thought many of the proposals we reviewed were similar to proposals in more typical RFPs in terms of their novelty and potential impact. In other words, we considered many of the submitted proposals to be a bit on the conventional side. This surprised us given the "transformative" premise and focus of the TRA program. We speculate that this may be due to the constraints within which applicants feel they must work to get through panel reviews.

Third, the process called attention to areas we hadn't thought about yet, and we feel we learned a lot about underfunded areas of science. We believe this was a low-cost way to get a diverse set of good proposals into our pipeline, though we struggled at the end of the process with evaluating both the science and the humanitarian value of such wide-ranging proposals.

Ultimately, we found the overall RFP process to be a useful undertaking both for the lessons learned and diverse funding opportunities identified. We are still determining whether we will pursue a similar process in future years.

We’re grateful to Ravi Basavappa at the NIH, who provided information about the TRA program and helped us circulate our RFP to prior NIH applicants. We’re also grateful to all the applicants, who trusted us with their proposals and reviews, and our external reviewers, who provided valuable insights.

To learn more about our process for making these grants, read the full writeup here.