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Navigating the NIH Grant Application Process

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01.19.21 By Marie A. Bernard
Funding Process
Credit: Scott Graham

The NIH encourages and supports applications for grants and funding by all members of the biomedical research community. Given the gap in funding between scientists from underrepresented groups (URGs) compared to well-represented groups, closing this gap continues to be a priority. The representation of URGs diminishes as individuals advance in their careers [1]. While there are many potential reasons for this [2, 3], the complexity of assembling a grant application can be a hurdle for early-career researchers.

In this post, we will provide information relevant to applying for NIH grants and provide steps that can be taken to submit a competitive grant application.

Understanding the NIH

The NIH consists of 27 institutes and centers (ICs), 24 of which make grant awards. Each IC is separately funded by Congress and makes independent decisions about what types of grants it will fund.

As a prospective grantee, you will first need to get acquainted with the approach the NIH takes to grant funding. The NIH’s Office of Extramural Research (OER) provides a multitude of resources that can help you learn the basics, including written and video materials that provide a grant process overview and go through important factors to consider when planning your application. OER also hosts webinars, houses a valuable archive of podcasts, and manages an active YouTube channel. You should also consider following the Open Mike blog—authored by Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research—where you can get an NIH insider’s perspective on a variety of current topics relevant to the NIH extramural research program.

One of the first steps before applying for a grant is to identify which IC might be interested in your research area. In addition to talking to your colleagues, you can use the online NIH RePORTER tool to search through NIH-funded research projects. RePORTER has a Matchmaker interface where you can paste in an abstract and it will return the 100 most similar NIH-funded projects.

As you identify related research that has been funded, keep notes about which ICs support your type of work. Also, take note of investigators that have been successfully funded and consider if a collaboration may strengthen your application.

All NIH grant applications go through a peer-review process where independent scientists assess the feasibility and merit of the application. As an early-career researcher, one way to become more competitive is to gain first-hand knowledge of how the peer-review process works. The Center for Scientific Review (CSR), the IC in charge of organizing peer-review for all NIH funding applications, has an Early Career Reviewer program that allows early-career researchers to work side-by-side with accomplished researchers to get first-hand knowledge about how grant applications are scored. In addition to giving an insider’s view into this process, the program also helps develop research and writing evaluation skills.

Outreach

Ultimately, all research grant awards are made as a response to a funding opportunity announcement (FOA). As such, you will need to apply to a specific FOA at an IC. Some ICs publish “cleared concepts,” which are research areas the IC is considering creating a FOA to support. If your identified IC publishes a cleared concept, you can start developing a research plan around a potential future FOA.

After you understand which IC and potential FOA(s) apply to your research area, it can help to consult with a mentor at your institution. Conversations that would be useful include the following topics: the scientific merits of your proposed project, the feasibility of completing the work (including any potential collaborators that could be brought on board), and which IC and FOA would be the best fit.

An approach many ICs suggest is to write a “concept paper.” This can be a one-to-two-page overview of your proposed research that addresses how it matches the criteria outlined in the FOA you’ve identified. Writing a concept paper can be a useful exercise to ensure the project you are proposing is appropriate and on-target before you go through the process of writing an entire application. After you’ve written a concept paper, consider going to a mentor to seek guidance about the merits of your concept and how well it fits the needs of the identified FOA.

It is important to reach out to the NIH and verify your proposed research project falls within the scope of the IC and FOA you have identified. You should collect information about the relevant program official (PO) for related research projects (found under the “Details” tab of RePORTER). The relevant PO will also be listed in the FOA. Now is the time to contact them!

Phone or email the PO of the FOA to which you are interested in applying and ask about the appropriateness of your research project for the FOA. Depending on their workload, POs at many ICs will read through your concept paper and give you feedback. Contacting a PO before you start writing your application provides advantages as you move on to writing your full grant application.

Additional Factors to Consider in Assembling Your Application

At this point, you should have a research plan and have made personal contact with an NIH program official about the fit of your research for the FOA that you are targeting. Below are some major factors you may want to consider as you move forward.

Collaborators

The NIH is dedicated to fostering collaboration among researchers. If you are an early-stage researcher, consider collaborating with more experienced, well-known grantees who can assure reviewers that your project will have the expertise and resources needed to be successful. You can also consider a multiple principal investigator model if your work is more amenable to a team science approach.

New investigators

The NIH is committed to supporting early-career investigators. Applications by relatively junior investigators are given priority by focusing more on the proposed research than the track record of the investigator. Early-stage investigator (ESI) status typically applies to applicants who have not been awarded a previous research grant and who have completed their terminal research degree (or postgraduate clinical training) within the last ten years. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many ESIs have seen their research progress slowed. If you have been impacted, you should investigate the possibility of extending your ESI status. There are also policies to allow extension of ESI status due to life-changing circumstances such as childbirth.

Diversity

The NIH encourages individuals from diverse backgrounds, including those from groups underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences, to pursue careers in research. To this end, NIH ICs occasionally release FOAs with a focus on enhancing diversity. OER maintains a list of diversity-related FOAs that can be helpful to check.

One important FOA to look out for is PA-21-071, the Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research. This funding opportunity offers individuals holding specific types of research grants avenues for obtaining additional administrative funds. These supplemental funds are meant to enhance the diversity of the research workforce by recruiting and supporting students, post-doctorates, and eligible investigators from diverse backgrounds. The NIH definition of diversity is broad, including women, individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, persons with disabilities, or individuals from low socioeconomic status backgrounds.

Evaluation of resources

Your reviewers will evaluate whether you have the required resources to complete the proposed work. You should conduct an organizational assessment to figure out what resources and support you have available at your organization or coordinate with an experienced researcher at your institution to develop this section of your proposal. It is important to ensure the facilities and environment are supportive and conducive to your research plan. Collaborations with researchers at other organizations can demonstrate you have critical resources available to you if you identify a deficiency.

Bringing It All Together

After planning and networking, you will be well-positioned with the following:

  • An idea for a research plan that falls in the scope of what an NIH IC is interested in funding
  • Collaborations with other researchers or mentors with greater experience in your field of interest
  • Approval through your institutional review board (IRB)

With proper preparation, submitting an NIH grant application is a sizable but attainable goal. You will need to ensure you plan enough time to develop the entire application. Make sure you give yourself enough time to get input from others. For example, ask your colleagues for feedback about your specific aims before writing the entire application. Once your application is written, give yourself some time to read it with fresh eyes. When you’ve developed a refined and complete grant application, ask colleagues, collaborators, and mentors to revise and edit.

Forming relationships with colleagues can be an invaluable asset. Your colleagues may share information about funding opportunities of which you are unaware, you can gain a sounding board made up of the people who may review your application, and you can learn about and establish potential collaborations that can expand the scope of your work. Expand your network beyond just your home institution. Reach out to researchers in your field at national and international conferences, or consider looking into the NIH-funded National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN). Finally, make sure to follow up with personal emails and messages of appreciation when you meet somebody to help solidify the relationship.

Parting Thoughts

The process of matching your research goals and funding opportunities rightfully takes effort. Contacting colleagues and NIH program officials early and often can be a key part of successfully applying for an NIH grant, especially as an early-career researcher. As one goes through the process, it is important to ensure that the direction of your efforts to obtain research funds are compatible with your overall career goals.
 

1. Valantine, H.A., NIH's scientific approach to inclusive excellence. The FASEB Journal, 2020. 34(10): p. 13085-13090. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1096/fj.202001937.

2. Ginther, D.K., et al., Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards. Science, 2011. 333(6045): p. 1015. Available from: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/333/6045/1015.abstract.

3. Hoppe, T.A., et al., Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-American/black scientists. Science Advances, 2019. 5(10). Available from: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/10/eaaw7238.

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