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1. Is NIH biased against new investigators?

2. Advice on getting an R01 at a small college.

Dear GrantDoctor,

I am an assistant prof at a major West Coast university and, like my colleagues, I have been actively seeking NIH support through R01 grants without much success. Based on the funding statistics from specific NIH institutes and conversations with study-section members, my colleagues and I have come to the conclusion that there is a bias against funding new investigators. There is a conflict of interest for each study section member: Because funding comes from the same source, every new investigator who is funded means less money available for the established investigators to compete for in their next grant submissions. Why doesn't NIH address this conflict-of-interest problem?

- DOW (Disgruntled Out West)


Dear DOW,

I don't think it's possible to prove definitively that bias does not exist, and certainly I'm not in a position to do so. But the evidence suggests that if there is a bias, it's in the other direction--and, in my opinion, that's a good thing.

Having known several scientists who serve on study sections, I know that they (the ones I know, anyway) take considerable pleasure in their mentorship role and are eager to see talented young people succeed.

And just in case that kind of personal commitment isn't enough, NIH has made a serious institutional commitment to bringing new investigators into the system. It's one of NIH's highest priorities. The same 1997 report that resulted in the discontinuation of the R29 (FIRST) program (see below) also recommended that NIH commit to assuring that the percentage of new investigators entering the system equals the percentage of old investigators exiting the system; that rate has hovered at about 10% for many years. (This number may be the source of the oft-cited but incorrect "10% success rate" for new NIH investigators.)

Belinda Seto, Deputy to NIH Extramural Research Head Wendy Baldwin, told the GrantDoctor:

Each institute and center (IC) at the NIH has developed strategies to support new investigators. For example, some ICs use "select pay mechanism" to fund applications from new investigators when these are at the cusp of the IC's pay line. The success rates for new investigators are very comparable to new applications from established investigators, about 20% ... NIH has instructed study-section members, when they review applications from new investigators (with a checkmark in the box for new investigators on the front page of Form 398) ... that their applications should not suffer as a consequence of a short track record. The NIH is firmly committed to supporting new investigators and wants to guard against them becoming disillusioned.

There are a number of alternative venues to getting NIH support, other than the R01 mechanism. There is the small grant program (R03), as well as the exploratory grant program (R21--see program guidelines). Finally, being a co-PI on a program project is a way of getting initial support and learning [about NIH grants].

So why is it so hard to get that first research grant? It goes without saying that the competition is extremely tough. But just as important is the fact that new investigators often have not taken the time to educate themselves in the fundamentals of the NIH grant-writing process. Grant writing is a serious endeavor and requires careful study. It has long been a core activity of most successful scientists, and you shouldn't expect to master it without careful study. Regardless of whether reviewers and study-section members are biased against new investigators, take their comments seriously and use them to improve your application.

If you have good ideas and a solid research plan, you just need to learn to make a more compelling case for yourself. Probably the best place to start is our NIH R01 Toolkit.

Best of luck,

--The GrantDoctor

Dear Readers,

Two weeks ago I answered a reader's question about funding opportunities to do biomedical research at small colleges. Cindy had accepted a job at such a college and was worried that she would not be able to maintain a serious, active research career.

I received a postdeadline response from Pam Baker of Bates College, one of only 13 investigators at the top 25 national small liberal arts colleges (as ranked by US News and World Report) who have active R01 grants. I had asked Baker for her perspective on small-college R01s. I found her experiences very interesting, and they offered an insider's perspective on winning the funding game. Dr. Baker writes:

Being half-time [Dr. Baker shares a position with another scientist. --GrantDoctor] initially was a help in terms of finding the time to keep the research going, but after I became a division chair, [the new responsibilities] seemed to eat up the time that I would have spent on other courses, so I don't think time was the critical factor. Time didn't seem to be an issue for the study section or program officer when I got my initial grant, which was an R29, a 5-year grant for people starting out.

NIH's criticism was the lack of "infrastructure," despite a long list of all the equipment here. What they meant by infrastructure was having other scientists to talk to, and they imagined that at a small college I wouldn't have any. I had letters of collaboration from someone at the Jackson Lab and from someone in Buffalo with whom I had published a lot of papers already. But what the program officer suggested I do for the resubmission was to get a letter from a scientist in Boston working in the same area saying he would be willing to be my "mentor," and to write into the grant travel money that I would go down and discuss my work with him from time to time. Luckily, I knew this guy and he was willing.

I don't think the R29 program exists anymore, which is too bad because it made a huge difference for me. It was a "small" grant, capped at $75,000 per year, if I remember right, but that was enough to hire a technician. And to me that is the key, having a technician to keep the lab going and provide continuity. Undergrads can become really good, but then they graduate and you start over. The mouse model we developed is quite reliable but has a steep learning curve, so a technician has been key. In terms of advice, I think the best advice is to get to know your program director.

For the record, Baker is correct when she writes that the R29 (FIRST) program, which was intended to improve new investigator success rates for subsequent NIH funding, was discontinued in 1997. This was because a study showed that the program was not succeeding in it's primary goal: increasing the number of new investigators entering NIH-funded biomedical science.

Be Well,

--The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!