An introduction to applying for a NIH grant

NIH funding is a major resource for medical researchers
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by Seema Sharma

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US, is one of the world’s largest funders of biomedical research grants. It awards funding of over $30B annually, for research that falls within its mission to understand living systems, enhance health, extend healthy lives, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability. The NIH is funded by the US federal government and is made up of 27 institutions and research centres, with 24 actively offering funding grant awards. The funding criteria for each individual institution may vary from that of the NIH as a whole, so researching the institute whose grant you are applying for is crucial.

NIH grants have three types of calls to funding, including program announcements, requests for applications and parent announcements. All current funding opportunities are listed here https://grants.nih.gov/searchguide/. The first type, program announcements, are open for 3 years and usually highlight an area of focus, offering three opportunities for submitting applications a year. The second category are requests for applications (also known as RFA’s). The latter have a narrowly defined title and focus, a single submission date and a preallocated amount of funds.

Finally, if there are no available program announcements, or RFA’s available for your research project, a third type of grant called parent announcements are on offer. These allow researchers to submit speculative or investigator-initiated applications, encouraging new research ideas. Note that parent announcement applications need to be in line with the NIH’s mission, and fall within the criteria of specific NIH activity codes available here. For further information and advice on the different types of grants available, including help on which would suit your needs best, resources are available online at http://grants.nih.gov

Tips on submission

Remember to pay close attention to any specific requirements and instructions outlined in the funding announcement. Your call to funding will normally stipulate whether electronic or paper submission is required. Paper submissions require use of the PHS 398 application form, whilst electronic submission requires the SF424 (R&R) application. The majority of calls require electronic submission, details of which will be included in the funding announcement. A general application guide is also available for guidance on submission.

You need to take into account that there are multiple systems that your institution must be registered with to insure you can submit an application. These include having what’s called a Dun & Bradstreet number, (comprising a unique 9 digit code), registration with eRA commons — a grant administration interface used to share application information and track its status, institutional registration at grants.gov and also at the system of award management (sam.gov). Individual investigators applying for grants also need to register on eRA commons and grants.gov.  It can take up to 8 weeks to register with all of these, so make sure you factor this in when preparing your application.

NIH encourages you to contact their staff during the grant submission and review process. A list of staff contacts and the types of support they provide is available here. Program officials can be a useful point of contact for researchers when submitting an application, as they are responsible for developing grant initiatives and the programmatic content of a grant. Scientific review officers are responsible for conducting the technical and scientific review process. A review panel will be recruited by them from global scientists with relevance to your field. They evaluate the application to ensure it meets the criteria set out in the funding announcement, review it for scientific merit and identify potential conflicts of interest. Ultimately, their job is to provide a fair review of the grant application and provide a summary of their evaluation to applicants.

When writing your application, bear in mind NIH awards favour high impact research, that meets the priorities of the specific institute you are applying too. They also ask that you directly address the following key criteria in your application, each of which will be assigned a score by reviewers:

  1. Reviewers will want to know how the project will advance knowledge, solve a key problem and help progress in your scientific field. They will want to see a sound scientific premise for the research. Make sure you highlight the impact of the successful completion of the research project. They’ll be looking for it to be described in terms of scientific knowledge progress, advances in technical capability, or clinical practice, as relevant. Take time to describe how it might change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that are key to your field.
  2. Investigator(s). All those team members carrying out the project should be outlined here, including a clear programme of work for each contributor. You need to describe how they hold relevant training, experience and an outstanding research track record relevant to the area. If a collaboration is required, how will the experiences of the Principal Investigators, or other researchers involved, come together to deliver a successful project?
  3. Your project should aim to use new theoretical concepts, methodologies, instrumentation and interventions. You should clarify whether these represent a novel approach in your specific field or are unique across fields. Describe how you will seek to advance current research or clinical practice paradigms through your project to show innovation.
  4. Approach. Reviewers will be seeking a sound strategy, clear methodology, and analyses, that are all pertinent to achieving the stated aims of the project. They will want you to detail and pre-empt potential roadblocks and risks to the project that might arise. More importantly, you will need to state how you will deal with problems, including the alternative approaches could you take. Benchmarks for success, with clear quantifiable objectives throughout the course of the project, should be made evident. Your methodology should be justified as being scientifically robust, free from inherent bias and addressing biological variables. The use of animal and human subjects needs to be clearly justified.
  5. Environment. Here, an outline should be given of the scientific environment in which the work will be conducted. This should include all relevant resources, equipment, institutional support and collaborations, outlining how they will contribute to success.

What happens after submission

After submission of your application through your existing institute, it is handled by the Center for Scientific Review at NIH. They assign the application to the relevant reviewers and the institute you are applying too. There is a two tiered version of peer review, with the first level being referred too as the study section. During this time, your project is evaluated solely for scientific and technical merit, with the assignment of an impact score.

At the next stage, your grant submission is passed on to the institute you are applying too. The institute then evaluates it against its current priorities. After review, an advisory board from the institute will recommend whether funding should be awarded or not. The Institute Director will receive their recommendation and holds the final decision.

If successful, the institute will make the grant funding award via an applicant’s organisation to allocate funds to the Principal Investigator(s) involved in the project. The entire process normally takes at least 9 – 10 months, from the point of a submitted application to the successful receipt of a grant. There may be further stipulations that need to be met in order for the grant funding to be awarded – for example education certifications, or relevant documentation regarding any use of human or animal subjects in your research.

Good luck with your application!

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18 October 2017, 11:30 -12:00 CEST

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