In the aftermath of the tragedy in Aurora, Colo., that left 12 dead and 58 injured, many pundits have focused their attention on suspect James E. Holmes' occupation as a graduate student in the neuroscience department at the University of Colorado, Denver. In particular, media sources have focused on the $26,000 stipend he received from a National Institutes of Health grant, the federal agency that funds most biomedical research in the country.
“Did NIH Funds Help Fund the Massacre?” asked a headline on CNN on Tuesday. A news story on the website of a local TV station in Washington, D.C., finished with the thought, “It is difficult even to consider that taxpayer dollars may have helped fund his alleged rampage.”
Many news reports have suggested that Holmes applied for and received an NIH grant. This is not true, and it implies an NIH vetting process regarding Holmes that never took place.
According to a statement from the university, Holmes was paid by what’s called an institutional training grant. The University of Colorado, Denver has had this particular grant since 1993. That means the NIH funds went to the school’s neuroscience department, and from there they were distributed to six students at a time, including Holmes. Because of this, the NIH likely never even saw Holmes' name.
The goal of these training grants is to support graduate students before they decide to join a specific laboratory. Once they do, their salaries are paid with money from the research grants of the professor who heads the lab they joined. Sometimes, grad students apply for their own funding as well.
I am familiar with these funding procedures because I am a neuroscience graduate student at Weill Cornell Graduate School in New York. From my vantage point, institutional training grants are one of the linchpins of American scientific competitiveness. They are given to programs from the most competitive universities and research institutions, where they allow schools to pay stipends to their students to defray living expenses. Without them, many schools would struggle to recruit students, particularly in expensive cities like New York (where I work) and San Francisco.
The situation is similar to a nonprofit that applies for a federal grant, receives it, and uses it to pay salaries of employees.
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