Scientific research takes money. As a result, the pace of scientific and medical advancement is dictated in part by a slow grant review process, typically lasting several months. Meticulous application reviews have their place—government agencies tend to be deliberate in how they move substantial public dollars, and even the richest private foundations tend to consider their investments carefully.
But when a global pandemic like COVID-19 is raging, every day takes a heavy and readily apparent toll in lives, dollars and societal well-being. That’s forcing philanthropists to seek out new ways to get money where it’s needed, when it’s needed.
They may want to take a look at Fast Grants, a funding program for coronavirus researchers recently launched at George Mason University in Virginia. It’s the brainchild of GMU economist Tyler Cowen and tech entrepreneur Patrick Collison, the billionaire co-founder and CEO of Stripe. Other tech businesspeople contributed funds to launch the program, including Stripe co-founder John Collison (Patrick’s brother), Elon Musk, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, among others.
Fast Grants was designed to offer a speedy review process that will enable biomedical researchers to keep their work going full-steam-ahead, and ideally, help get the world back to some kind of normalcy that much sooner. Scientists at academic institutions currently working on COVID-19 projects were invited to apply for Fast Grants of $10,000 to $500,000. But the more interesting number is 48—that’s the number of hours after submission that it takes reviewers to make a decision and commit the money.
In addition, applicants are only eligible if their work could help with the COVID-19 pandemic within the next six months; otherwise, grant recipients have full discretion over how funds are spent. All resulting research must also be submitted to a preprint server, which publishes drafts of papers prior to peer review.
Cowen is one of the most influential economists of the last decade, and probably one of the most widely read economists outside the discipline. When the coronavirus emergency struck, he recognized that delays in the lab translate to substantial global harm. “We’re living in a situation where large numbers of people are dying, trillions of dollars of economic value are crumbling in weeks, so the need has never been higher,” Cowen said.
In mid-April, within days of opening its call for submissions, Fast Grants received about 4,000 applications, many of them well-qualified and from top institutions. Twenty referees divvied them up and went to work, and within days, about $21 million was committed across 127 awards. Fast Grants has since paused accepting applications, but Cowen said they are seeking additional funding for a second round.
It’s helpful to look at the organizations and the setting from which Fast Grants emerged to understand why it was able to move so quickly. Fast Grants is a sister program to Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grants program with a similar focus on fast funding, but for a broader array of interests and recipients beyond health research. And Emergent Ventures is based at GMU’s Mercatus Center, a think tank seeking to advance market-based ideas that “bridge the gap between academic research and public policy problems.”
Mercatus and Emergent Ventures have unique funding backstories themselves, each one seeded and heavily backed by libertarian donors. Mercatus was created with funding from Charles and David Koch to advance free-market policy ideas, and Charles Koch formerly served on the think tank’s board. Emergent Strategies was founded in 2018 with a $1 million donation from the Thiel Foundation, the philanthropy of Peter Thiel, who is known as much for his conservative politics and support for Donald Trump as his venture capital career.
So while Fast Grants is based in academia, it is an organization with one foot on campus and another firmly in the marketplace. While its growing list of donors is not necessarily aligned with Mercatus’ ideological stance, most of its backers come from the tech and startup world—including Y Combinator’s Paul Graham, Yuri Milner, Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s outfit Schmidt Futures, and the Emerson Collective. In other words, people who like to move fast (and hopefully not break things).
Another likely reason for the quickness of Fast Grants’ conception and execution is that Cowen has been chairman of the Mercatus Center for 22 years: As the boss, he can make things happen.
During the Fast Grants review process, Cowen and his colleagues had an opportunity to speak with several applicants. “We conducted an informal poll of a number of these people and places, and we asked them, ‘What’s your funding situation?’ And a lot of them said, ‘We’ll get money in six months, maybe four months, if we’re lucky.’”
Most funders are just too slow, Cowen said—but that’s something they already know. In fact, Cowen said he’s received numerous inquiries from foundations and government funders asking how they can speed up grantmaking at their own organizations. So what’s the secret sauce? Cowen says it’s mostly a matter of commitment from the top down‚ and at Fast Grants, Cowen is the top guy.
Many grantmakers, particularly larger foundations, have hierarchies and infrastructures that slow down the review process and ultimately the check writing. If funders want to respond more quickly to the ongoing coronavirus emergency or other pressing causes, cultural change at their institutions will be necessary. This is something a lot of foundations have been grappling with in the past few months, with some institutional funders relaxing red tape and application requirements. After all, that’s one of the potential benefits of the philanthropic sector—if it wants to, it can move fast. For some foundations, too much control at the top can actually be a cause of the slowdown, but Cowen says in the case of Fast Grants, leadership’s commitment to speed has made the difference.
“Part of it is just deciding to do it, and taking your top people and putting them on it full time,” he said. “Most (funders) don’t do that. But we need more fast grants models.”
However those models take shape, Cowen says the pandemic should open people’s eyes to the potential dangers of delay. “You know who was really fast was the NBA,” he said. “I give them a lot of credit—they canceled the whole season before anyone did anything, and it seemed crazy, but they were totally right, and it woke up the whole country.”