What we learned doing Fast Grants

Here is my new piece with Patrick Collison and Patrick Hsu.  The title says it all, here is one excerpt:

…we recently ran a survey of Fast Grants recipients, asking how much their Fast Grant accelerated their work. 32% said that Fast Grants accelerated their work by “a few months”, which is roughly what we were hoping for at the outset given that the disease was killing thousands of Americans every single day.

In addition to that, however, 64% of respondents told us that the work in question wouldn’t have happened without receiving a Fast Grant.

For example, SalivaDirect, the highly successful spit test from Yale University, was not able to get timely funding from its own School of Public Health, even though Yale has an endowment of over $30 billion. Fast Grants also made numerous grants to UC Berkeley researchers, and the UC Berkeley press office itself reported in May 2020: “One notably absent funder, however, is the federal government. While federal agencies have announced that researchers can apply to repurpose existing funds toward Covid-19 research and have promised new emergency funds to projects focused on the pandemic, disbursement has been painfully slow. …Despite many UC Berkeley proposals submitted to the National Institutes of Health since the pandemic began, none have been granted.” [Emphasis ours.]


57% of respondents told us that they spend more than one quarter of their time on grant applications. This seems crazy. We spend enormous effort training scientists who are then forced to spend a significant fraction of their time seeking alms instead of focusing on the research they’ve been hired to pursue.

The adverse consequences of our funding apparatus appear to be more insidious than the mere imposition of bureaucratic overhead, however.

In our survey of the scientists who received Fast Grants, 78% said that they would change their research program “a lot” if their existing funding could be spent in an unconstrained fashion. We find this number to be far too high: the current grant funding apparatus does not allow some of the best scientists in the world to pursue the research agendas that they themselves think are best.


Some of the other Fast Grants investments were speculative, and may (or may not) pay dividends in the future, or for the next pandemic. Examples include:

  • Work on a possible pan-coronavirus vaccine at Caltech.
  • Work on a possible pan-enterovirus (another class of RNA virus) drug at Stanford University that has now raised subsequent funding.
  • Multiple grants going to different labs working on CRISPR-based COVID-19 at-home testing. One example is smartphone-based COVID-19 detection, being worked on at UC Berkeley and Gladstone Institutes.



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