The Complete Writing Guide to NIH Behavioral Science Grants provides simple and clear explanations into the reasons that some grants get funded, and a step-by-step guide to writing those grants. This volume is edited by Lawrence M. Scheier, President of LARS Research Institute, Inc., and an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at Washington Univeristy, and William L. Dewey, a Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the School of Medicine and former Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Below, Scheier was kind enough to answer some questions for us. Be sure to check back next Monday for part two of this interview.
OUPblog: What is the purpose of the National Institute of Health?
Lawrence M. Scheier: The National Institutes of Health, often called the nation’s premiere medical research agency, is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the primary Federal agency for servicing and conducting medical research. The NIH is composed of 27 Institutes and Centers, providing leadership and financial support in each of the 50 states. It employs over 18,000 people with headquarters located in Bethesda, Maryland. A nice historical piece that details the origin of the NIH can be found here. The NIH serves as stimulus to medical research and health care to improve the quality of our lives, extend life expectancy, and learn more about how the human body works, including tremendous discoveries in genetics, vaccinations, detection and treatment of diseases, bioterrorism, immune system regulation and function, cancer studies and rapid response to disease outbreaks like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Based on the most current budget information, NIH funded over 28 billion dollars in medical research, supporting 50,000 competitive grants awarded to more than 325,000 scientists encompassing 3,000 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions. The full range of the NIH scientific enterprise is worldwide with international collaborations addressing emerging public health needs that go far beyond the US borders.
OUPblog: Who qualifies for grants?
Scheier: Many grant announcements specifically list what types of business enterprises or research groups qualify to receive federal support through NIH. There is a section in each Program Announcement or Research Funding Announcement titled “Eligible Institutions/Organizations” that lists qualifying institutions. In their most recent announcement for Stimulus funding (Recovery Act Limited Competition: NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research [RC1]), the NIH listed the following in the RFA under Section III Eligibility Information
• Public/State Controlled Institutions of Higher Education
• Private Institutions of Higher Education
• Hispanic-serving Institutions
• Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
• Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities (TCCUs)
• Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Serving Institutions
• Nonprofits with 501(c)(3) IRS Status
• Nonprofits without 501(c)(3) IRS Status
• Small businesses
• For-Profit Organizations
• State Governments
• Indian/Native American Tribal Governments (Federally Recognized)
• Indian/Native American Tribally Designated Organizations
• County Governments
• City or Township Governments
• Special District Governments
• Independent School Districts
• Public Housing Authorities/Indian Housing Authorities
• U.S Territory or Possession
• Indian/Native American Tribal Governments
• Regional Organizations
In this particular RFA, Foreign Institutions/Organizations were not permitted to apply. Whenever there are special eligibility qualifications, these are listed on the PA or RFA under “Eligibility Information” for institutions and there is also a section that designates eligibility for “individuals.” This latter section refers helps qualify whether the application is intended to stimulate submissions from new investigators or younger “junior” Ph.D.s or M.D.s that are trying for their first application. Some RFAs and PAs are specifically intended to stimulate research collaboratively and detail this by outlining Multiple P.I.s or specialized mechanisms to create collaborative centers. It is always important to read these sections carefully to make you’re your institution is qualified and that you as an individual are qualified.
OUP: What are the elements of a successful NIH grant application?
Scheier: This is a trick or “tricky” question. First the question asks “What are the elements …” where the word “elements” is used in the plural case and refers to more than one element. If you think about this for a minute, we generally use the word element when we agree that something is complex and can be broken down into its constituent parts. If we think of a grant as a complex writing tool (or product), then sure, there are certainly “elements” of a grant. The trick part is that when you look at a grant, it is a single cohesive document (made up of parts, mind you) that expresses a position about science or education. In the book we reinforce the need for a grant to be unified, written in a coherent and practical manner and always striving for synthesis. So the trick part of this question is to find the grant’s “elements” while at the same time preaching “synthesis.”
My initial response to the question then is to look carefully at the review process for the required “elements” of a grant. In this respect, an investigator is always hard pressed to make sure these required “elements” comport with the reviewer’s mindset. So we can turn to the reviewer’s criteria to find the required elements. In addition, an investigator must make sure the grant meets with the requirements of the PA or RFA. If the funding announcement is special, like the recent Challenge Grants, the investigator must be careful to read the requirements and make sure the actual writing and sections of the grant comport with the RFA (or Program Announcement). The RFA or PA will have different “elements” that need to be satisfied. Finally, an investigator has to make sure that no matter how well written, or how superb the science, an application must also directly attend to the mission and goals of the parent Institute or Center. This final “element” is critical and in some cases the sole reason that funding is so hard to get. The investigator must keep their finger on the pulse of science at their respective funding source.
From this brief overview, you can see that the question is tricky because there are so many ways to configure the “elements” of a grant and then say which are critical to a “successful NIH grant application?” If we look at things from the reviewer’s mindset there are a few critical elements they are evaluating as they read a grant. Reviewers receive instructions that help guide them during review. There are generally four basic “required” review criteria (for most grants), and these are: “Significance,” “Approach,” “Investigator,” and “Environment.” Each area is usually spelled out in the RFA and PA in terms of basic criteria so all reviewers are usually on the same page. So for instance, if the discussion during a grant review is about “Approach” reviewers are usually talking about methods, assessment, design, sampling, data collection, administration of a treatment and so forth. When the reviewers are hotly engaged in a discussion about the Environment they are probing whether the applicant’s institution is supportive and can really offer the type of instruction, physical space, mentorship and so forth that may be outlined in the grant. The grant may not contain sufficient funds to fully compensate an individual and the applicant has to find alternative funds to keep their position even if the grant is awarded. Stating this at times and in a positive manner, can convince reviewers the applicant has sufficient “resources.” So in this case, an important “element” of a Fellowship application (F31 or F32) would include reference to alternative support and training mechanisms.
In addition to the four stated review criteria, there is another essential element of a grant that falls under “Additional Review Criteria” and that is “Protections for Human Subjects (and this element also extends to Invertebrate Animals but any grant that uses secondary data analysis or does not involve human subjects review, would not have this requirement). A grant can be the most well written product a review team examines, but if it is missing this critical “element” the heavy gavel can come down and a low score result (the committee would express a “concern” with the application). Many times a young investigator does not pay sufficient attention to human subjects concerns, IRB review or data safety and monitoring plans and even with good science, an application suffers during review. Here again, an important “element” of a grant is to think about the myriad of ways a grant can be “examined” during review and suffer is some aspect of the application is not addressed.
If an investigator covers all these sections adequately, reviewers then have a sound base from which to judge the scientific merit of an application. Then, the elements are all in place and the reviewer takes a step back to see the “whole” or synthesize the science and determine if the grant is one of the better ones he or she has read. In our book we carefully review each of the major review criteria, but there are also other “elements” of a successful grant that we cover. These refer to the writing style, formatting, and overall grammatical structure, the synthesis, presentation and the manner in which an investigator hammers home the core issues of a grant, which we call the “science.” We cover this in the book in several chapters but nowhere more poignantly than Chapter 3 (A brief guide to the essentials of grant writing). Consider if an application is not scored or receives a very low (poor) score and is subsequently revised and resubmitted. We cover this procedure (revision and resubmission) in great detail in Chapter 18 of the book. I point you toward this chapter in particular because it is essential that an investigator consider the most important “element” of a successful revision is whether he/she has addressed the comments of previous reviews. If you submit a revised grant, which is more than likely if you are a new grant writer and you have to produce multiple submissions to get your “First” grant, then you have to consider the content of your revision. It is essential to realize that if a reviewer feels “slighted” and that their comments were not taken to heart, this can spell the death knell for a grant during review. In this case, the most successful “element” of a grant is the detail provided in the Introduction (response to reviewers from previous review). An Introduction can either be three pages or one page, depending on the grant mechanism. Usually an R01 revision is allowed three pages, while an R03 small grant mechanism is allowed one page. Either way, the Introduction is where the applicant shapes the response to the reviewer and provides an overview of how the application has changed. So in this brief example, a Revision has to include several elements, one of which is an overview of how the grant has changed to incorporate the reviewer comments.
If we take a step back and consider this notion of “elements” from a reviewer perspective, then the most significant element is synthesis (we also call this “organization” in the book), whether the grant is written clearly and coherently, and whether the applicant spells things out so the reviewers does not have to dig deeply to find the major points. If we think of “elements” from the funding agency perspective, then the single most important thing is whether the grant fits the overall mission and goals of the Institute or Center and whether the applicant spells out these components. Regardless of how well a grant fares during review, it still must pass muster during the Advisory Council Review. This is where a handful of experts and senior scientists address whether the grant fits with the overall mission of the Institute or Center and specifically whether the grant addresses pressing research and public health concerns at that time.
OUPblog: What is the most misunderstood aspect of NIH grant writing?
Scheier: Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of NIH grant writing is how easy it can really be, and how fun. Remember, the challenge of grant writing is tied inextricably to your professional aspirations. If you are a clinician who practices and sees patients all day, then you are not honing your grant writing skills regularly. If you jump into grant writing to expand your professional horizons, then sure, getting a low priority score can be disconcerting and even dissuade you from pursuing grant writing activities. On the other hand, if you are a research scientist in some laboratory and you know full well that your survival rests with your success in grant writing, then developing effective grant writing skills is a “sin qua non” of your profession. Even though you may not have acquired the best set of skills in graduate school (where your focus was on your terminal degree), you have at your fingertips the most comprehensive training guides to help you write grants. These come in the form of books, like the one we edited, government assistance accessible through the web, manuals, and work experience. All told, these ingredients and training resources should position you to be more competitive as you write your first grant. So, the message here is to make grant writing not a task, but rather a part of your professional growth. So when you get your first grant, it is rewarding and fulfilling. In the end, you want grant writing to be positive and reinforcing, not depicted as drudgery. Many groups have parties after they write grants (whether the grant is successful down the road during review is not important, just that the group finalized an important task). Other groups build their relationships around collective and collaborative writing and use grants as opportunities to cement their relations. Some grant organizations bring on board consultants that help them shape the grants and these opportunities expand the group’s potential, thus opening new collaborations and pushing scientific horizons. If we look at grant writing with a stronger professional flair, then we see it can be fun, rewarding and challenging in the same context.
OUPblog: What is the biggest secret to grant writing you’ve discovered?
Scheier: In a nutshell, “Preparation.” Once I bumped into a colleague that had an illustrious career, very successful grant writer, heavily published, and a really smart guy, with vision backed by hard work. He said to me, “You know people want to get Center grants and funded for multiple years, but they spend so little time on the one thing that will help them get funded, the grants they write.” I took this to heart and decided to spend much more time on each grant, making sure they were polished and accurate, both historically and from a scientific point of view. I would submit each and every grant thinking it was my best piece of work and not take it personal if the grant was not received well by reviewers, but rather take to heart the comments made by reviewers. In fact, I would use their critiques as a means to improve my own thinking and writing. Then grants became a challenge rather than an obstacle and I grew as a person, submitting better grants and helping others to write better grants. My funding percentage increased and I found myself more helpful to other groups that used my grant writing skills to improve their lot as well. So the secret you will learn from any grant writer is preparation and using your time to make the grant a really solid work. In many cases, ideas developed for grants mature into themes used for chapters or even an entire prospectus for books. So you have to see the “work” that goes into a grant as part of your overall scientific development.
Check back next week for part two of this interview.