Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Really, NIH? Seriously?

If you're reading this blog, chances are you are likely aware of the NIH. It happens to be the biggest single funding source for biomedical research in the U.S. and has a 2010 budget of nearly $31 Billion. If you do biomed science in the U.S., NIH is kinda a big deal.


NIH walks around town.

For those of us who do more "basic" science (meaning stuff that doesn't directly cure cancer), sending a proposal to the NIH is something people talk about, but rarely do. Afterall, I'm not interested in what my work can do for people because little of what I do is directly relevant to the NIH mission. At the same time, I would be stupid to ignore a potential funding source and so, at the behest of some colleagues, I've been poking around to figure out if I can identify a mechanism for NIH support. My plan all along had been to try and get an NSF grant or two under the belt and then see what I could do about sending something to NIH, but plans have changed. If often read the NIH-related posts at DrugMonkey, but more out of passing interest that a need to learn.

So, over the last few days I have waded waist deep into the NIH swamp and holy shit is it murky. First off, the good news. NIH RePORTER is pretty fucking awesome. Having the direct link between the funded grant and the resulting publications is tremendously useful. On top of that, NIH provides the roster of its study sections! This allows an applicant to not only find a relevant section, but also see whether there is anyone on that section who might be sympathetic to their application. Maybe that helps and maybe it doesn't, but it's an interesting bit of transparency that you don't find in many other places.

BUT, as a new investigator with no NIH experience, trying to find the right program to apply to is a serious rabbit hole. First, wade through all the institutes and centers. Think you've found one that'll work? Might want to check again, because there are random programs stuck all over the place that might be relevant to the work you are proposing. I found a relevant program in the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, and I can assure you the closest I come to dental work is my annual visit to the tooth scraper. To make the process much more fun, none of the institute websites are set up the same (compare this to this). Don't impose website standards on MY institute, we do it the best way! It's like journals and their damn citation formatting.

Alright, so you found a program. You read to apply? Well, check which institutes take which grants as "unsolicited requests", because if you want to apply for an R21 (which some think you should not), R15 or R03, for instance, you can only send it in to certain institutes unless it is a response to a specific RFA. Is there any rhyme or reason to which take unsolicited proposals and which don't? Maybe, but I can't figure it out.

But here the best part! Even though you have to apply through an institute and a program within that institute, it is the study section that ranks your grant. Is there a study section for each program? Of course not! The study sections are decoupled from the institutes and programs. Therefore, even if you send in a proposal to a certain program, it may go to the study section to get ranked and then another program (possibly in another institute) may pick it up. So, do you target the institute, the study section or both? Can you make sure your proposal makes it to the right study section? How that works in terms of unsolicited proposals or specific RFAs, I have no clue.

Maybe the system is perfect and my complaints are based on my naive misunderstanding of how all this works. Since I didn't grow up in an NIH lab and have never worked on an NIH project, trying to learn the system from scratch has been a bit crazy. I'm sure I have misinterpreted some things here as well and I welcome corrections because I'm trying to work this all out. I may not be the sharpest tack around, but the labyrinth of NIH seems ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated from the perspective of an outsider. But maybe that's the point.

13 comments:

  1. Dude, you're supposed to go to the dentist twice a year.

    And when you find out how this shit works, let me know as I'm still confused myself.

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  2. Forget the small potatoes. Go for the R01. You can always request a study section, and in general such requests are accommodated. The choice of study section is the MOST important thing to which you need to pay attention. NIH RePorter lets you track awarded grants by study section. Figure out which ones review and fund proposals most similar to yours.

    Find a program officer or two, and talk to them pitching your idea and all your cool preliminary data. Once you have identified the relevant study sections, discuss this with your program officer. Then, when you are ready to write, research the kinds of science the study section members do. Remember, you are writing to the study section members, not some unspecified reviewers like in NSF proposals.

    Good luck

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  3. PLS- As indicated by Anon1, a good program officer will make all the difference, definitely make contact with him/her early in the process so you don't bark up the wrong tree. He/she often won't tell you what to do but can be very helpful with what not to do. Yes, the whole thing is completely confusing. If you can, find someone at your school who has gone through it because some funding is school/state specific. The hidden stuff is where there are a lot of gems like the R15. Smaller potatoes but MUCH higher chance of success.

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  4. Beaten to it, bu the PO can be your lifeline. Once you think you have a proposal and aims, call 'em up. 99% of the time they're more than happy to talk to you and give some advice.

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  5. Can't agree more with the advice on contacting the Program Officer. It is the MOST important thing you can do when ramping up for writing the NIH grant. Study section requests, especially when backed by the appropriate PO, are almost always honored.

    I disagree, however, in your assertion that "basic" science isn't funded by NIH. I do basic science and all of my funding has come from the NIH. You don't have to propose to cure cancer, just make the connection between what you do and a "potential" advance in knowledge that "might" impact human health/disease. That covers almost all of biology!

    good luck!

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  6. What everyone else said. NIH can't be navigated by reading things on the web. Go to workshops - they have them periodically - and call human beings on the phone. They will often chat with you and tell you all kinds of things. Make a long list of your questions and don't be shy about asking them.

    Also, consider volunteering to serve on a study section to get an idea of how the process works.

    Find out if there are mock study sections in your neighborhood - postdoc associations and grad programs do these sometimes, I'm sure they'd let you join in if you wanted the practice. Or you could organize that kind of workshop yourself and invite speakers from NIH. That's basically what postdocs have been doing lately. I don't see why junior faculty couldn't do the same - even those who grew up in NIH labs can use all the help and practice.

    Good luck. NIH is a nightmare, but I'm not sure if it's better or worse than NSF, on balance. Pretty sure it is more money, though.

    Finally, don't be discouraged if you get a bad score the first time - everyone has to resubmit at least once (that's pretty much standard now). Don't be surprised if you submit the identical grant twice and get opposite reactions - I've seen people get triaged on first submission and a top score on the second submission after only very minor changes. It's a bit arbitrary, so don't take it personally.

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  7. Alright, alright. I realize that a PO can be a big help - there's no difference there from NSF, nor in the general grant functions. I'll contact the relevant PO once I get the targeting sorted.

    My point is that there doesn't appear to be a more convoluted way to present a series of funding opportunities than the model NIH currently employs.

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  8. FY 09 Annual Budget for research in Biological Sciences at NSF is $675 million.

    FY 09 Annual Budget for NIH is $30 billion, with nearly $16 billion for research grants and $3 billion for research centers. (PhD comic has a great graph on this).

    Funding rates are much higher at NIH as well.

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  9. This is brilliant. Now I don't have to write a post on this topic!

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  10. My point is that there doesn't appear to be a more convoluted way to present a series of funding opportunities than the model NIH currently employs.

    Dude, don't you get it? THIS is part of the hazing process! If it was easy everyone would be doing it >:)

    Weed out the weak of spirit by developing the most convoluted system imaginable, and then front it with a web1.0 nightmare of epic and soul crushing proportions.

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  11. All this frustration is just the NIH jumping you into the gang. Make a run at the R01, especially if you still have your ESI designation, you'd be crazy not to. And you are lucky, they dropped R01's from 25 pages down to 12.

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  12. NIH can't be navigated by reading things on the web.

    well, in point of fact people do seem to manage to get grants even with seemingly a great deal of ignorance about how the NIH "works". However, anything you can do to give yourself an edge is a GoodThing. Calling Program is on the list.

    consider volunteering to serve on a study section

    For the most part study sections seek to use reviewers who have funding similar to the grant mechs under review. And at present to sharply minimize assistant professors. So this is probably not realistic for one at PlS' stage.

    Find out if there are mock study sections in your neighborhood .. even those who grew up in NIH labs can use all the help and practice.

    Perhaps more on point for those junior faculty who are more used to thinking NSF, go and find the junior faculty at your institute that are in NIH land and talk to them. Even if they are in very different departments from your own.

    especially if you still have your ESI designation

    Great point. Early Stage Investigator is a new concept which expires 10 years after terminal degree. So working on getting a NSF award first and then "trying" the NIH can put you right out of the ESI category (which is hard to make these days anyway, but still...)

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  13. I've talked to a couple of NIHers here and elsewhere and plan to have a couple of people look over my proposal to ensure that it fits what is "typical" of NIH. Every agency has their unwritten standards and my proposals are currently tuned to NSF.

    I also plan on talking to the PO once I settle which proposal I'm sending. I need to hear back about a pending proposal before I know whether I'll be resubmitting it. Should be soon.

    I am well within the range for ESI designation, so hopefully that helps in some way.

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