"The role of the National Institutes of Health [NIH] is to give away $20 billion a year for research." So says Donna Dean, the senior adviser to NIH's acting director who hosted a grants seminar, "Working on Preparing a Competitive Grant Proposal," at the annual Howard Hughes Medical Institute's fellows' meeting on 25-27 September in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
But it is your role as an applicant, Dean says, to understand how the NIH dispenses these dollars-- before you dash off your application. Like her seminar title suggests, winning a share of those research dollars is a competitive process. And although the quality of your research plan is crucial to your project's success, there are a number of non-research-related, practical things you can do to make sure your application stays on track and, in so doing, improve your chances of getting it funded.
Getting It There
Dean recommends you "get a receipted delivery" when sending your application to the NIH. It sounds obvious, but this step creates a "chain of custody" that proves your grant package was submitted to the NIH at the appropriate time. Sometimes applicants do miss the last courier and decide to drive their applications in so they are not late. "We see cars with Maryland plates, Virginia plates, North Carolina plates ... even [cars] from New Jersey" pulling into the visitor's parking lot, says Dean.
Next Day Delivery. The loading bay begins to fill up with grant application packages.
But by and large, the vast majority of applications arrive at a loading dock behind NIH's Center for Scientific Review  (CSR) in Bethesda, Maryland, right on time. "I used to look out my office window and see thousands and thousands and thousands of applications arriving. It was a very sobering activity," says Dean, who, early on, was "totally terrified" about processing the deluge of documents. A team of workers unpacks applications and assigns computer inspection numbers to each one so there is "a record of the application." The applications--and their copies--are bundled together and stacked into a jam-packed room.
The NIH Grants Process Is Interactive
From this point on, NIH officials take turns "shepherding" your application through the complexities of the NIH peer-review process, says Dean. There is a referral officer who decides where it should be reviewed; a scientific review administrator who chairs the study section; and a program officer who represents the institute that may fund the project. And although "one would hope that [officials] are all perfect people ... no one is perfect, not even us or you," she states. So it is imperative to make sure you actively interact with NIH, says Dean. You should find out who at NIH is responsible for your application and at what point in the grant process that person presides over your application.
Can you spot yours? Thousands of grant application bundles wait to be reviewed.
Finding a Home
The first person to handle your application once it's had an inspection number slapped onto it is one of CSR's many referral officers, who decides which study section should review the project and which institute might want to fund the project. "One way to help NIH [officials] make those decisions is to choose the title of your application correctly. Make it a succinct, clear, and very brief expression that describes your research," suggests Dean.
How to Find Your Ideal Study Section and Funding Institute
Follow these links to track down your most ideal review groups:
But how do you find out who's doing what? "How do you know which institute might be most interested in funding your project, and how do you know which study section might be most appropriate?" asks Dean. Finding the answers to these questions helps you tailor your application (and its title), but it does involve doing a little fieldwork. First of all, "identify at least one of the institutes at the NIH closest to your area of research interest." Likewise, select two or three study sections you feel best represent the expertise needed to review your application.
Many of your mentors probably have been reviewers and have sat in on study section panels, says Dean. Speak with them about the process, but be sure to speak with many colleagues and peers, so you don't receive biased accounts of the review mechanism. In addition, keep in mind that the review process can change over time. "Even I am a little bit out of date on some of the guidelines," admits Dean.
Once you have a good sense of which review group and institute you believe should handle your application, write a cover letter indicating your choices. The letter should convey all relevant communications you've had with interested NIH officers, as well as any concerns you have about who may review your application. Use the cover letter to highlight possible conflicts of interest. "It's much better to address this up front in a cover letter in a very level-headed way, rather than bringing up possible conflicts later on," advises Dean.
Mock Cover Letter
To: The Center for Scientific Review, NIH
13th October, 2000
To Whom It May Concern:
Enclosed is the grant application for my research project, "Protein Signaling Mutations in Cardiological Disease." It covers the following investigative research areas: cell signaling and protein expression.
I have looked at study sections from your Web site and it seems to me that X, Y, and Z would be most appropriate to review my application. And as it pertains to development of the cardiovascular system, would you consider assigning it to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute?
Finally, I'd like to request that no one from Dr. Competitor's research group be involved in the review of my project. Our two laboratories have worked for many years on closely related projects, but we have continually differed in our interpretations of the data from our respective experiments.
Thank you for your consideration,
Dr. Grant Seeker.
Amending Your Application
Four to 6 weeks after submission, and after assignments and decisions have been made by the referral officers, applicants receive a notification letter informing them of the impending review. It is important to check this letter carefully, because "sometimes we make mistakes ... and so do you," divulges Dean. At this point in the process, your application falls under the jurisdiction of a scientific review administrator who controls the study section review. "You might also want to find out what your assigned study section's policy is with regard to receiving additional information," says Dean. Two years ago, for example, it was standard procedure for study sections to accept one to two pages of succinct additional information before meeting to discuss applications, she reveals.
Grant Criteria and Guidelines
"I'm Only Human"
Regardless of what supplementary materials they may receive, NIH study sections do not operate by a simple "thumbs up, thumbs down" rating system, says Dean. "The review is a human system. Scientists are trained to be objective, but as people, they still have a general tendency to be subjective. Make sure you do all you can to minimize any mistakes" that might crop up. Keep in mind that the study section wants to know why your application is unique: To them, your application is just one of 100. So it is crucial to familiarize yourself with the criteria NIH reviewers use to assess applications before you write up your plan.
To Fund or Not to Fund
After your application has been reviewed and given a score, it is handed over to the program director from the institute interested in funding this round of applications. An institutional advisory council decides which projects best fit its institute's mission and goals, and then it slices its budget to fund the successful applications.
If you do not get funded, do not get upset. Put the reviewer's comments aside for a day or two and then calmly respond to the criticisms. Often, the research is sound, but there are "conceptual gaps" that fail to put the project into proper context. Dean suggests you think about your research in a different light: Think about how you can differentiate your own research from the work of others. Sit in on seminars and read papers outside of your immediate field to stimulate new ideas. Just remember that "the context of your research has at some point got to be relevant to health," says Dean. "After all, we are the National Institutes of Health, not the National Institutes of Science."
But once again, Dean humanizes what is often perceived to be a pitiless, crushing federal review machine. "The biggest mistake applicants can make is being afraid to get in touch with the NIH," she reveals. Become familiar with the NIH Web site, find out which study sections should review your application, and heed Dean's words. You may be only one funding cycle away from a slice of the $20 billion dollar pie!