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Summary of NIH Regional Seminar - San Diego, 2015

This week I attended a seminar that was hosted by the National Institutes of Health. They held a variety of workshops on topics relating to how to get funded, how to manage grants, how the review process works. Below are my notes. I cannot guarantee that I represented their comments accurately. Enjoy!

Plenary address:

  • Technically, grant awards are given to the institution rather than the scientist.
  • Inflation-adjusted funding rates have declined in the past few years, while the number of applications is increasing considerable.
  • 52.0% of NIH funds go toward basic research
  • 34.6% of NIH funds go toward applied research (clinical)
  • 2.6% goes to training
  • Recent policy change: you can revise an A1 submission (a second version of a previous submission) and submit it as an A0 submission. Previously this was not allowed. However, it is not technically a revision, so you can't include a rebuttal to comments you received last time (though you can incorporate changes that reflect your response).
  • Recent policy change: There is a new Biosketch format that allows you to describe your scientific contributions and how your expertise fits into the project.
  • NIH has a greater interest in greater rigor and transparency in research to enhance reproducibility. They are trying to raise awareness and are working on policy changes to motivate scientists to improve in these areas. Information coming soon. Grant applications submitted in January 2016 or later will be required to following forthcoming guidelines on rigor and transparency. Four areas of clarification:
    • Scientific premise
    • Rigorous experimental design
    • Consideration of relevant biological variables such as sex and age
    • Authentication of cell lines, etc.
  • Potential policy changes under consideration at NIH:
    • Funding research programs instead of individual projects
    • Find ways to decrease age at which people get their first R01 grant. Current average age is about 42.
    • At NIGMS, top 5% of fundees get 24% of the money. Top 20% of fundees have 50% of the money. They're trying to figure out how to address this disparity. They feel that having more funded people (perhaps with less per lab) is better than fewer having more. They have found diminishing returns on investment with larger lab sizes.
    • After an initial R01 award is given, your most challenging part will be to get your first competitive renewal. If you can get past that hurdle, you are much more likely to remain funded over the next 10-20 years. Implication: work really hard to show that you were productive with your first grant. You are much more likely to be funded on a competitive renewal than you would be on a second R01.

 
Navigating NIH Programs to Advance Your Career

  • An important first step is to identify institute/center(s) that best fit your research interests.
  • Make early contact with program officers.
  • Study successful grant applications.
  • Propose your best and most creative ideas.
  • Read the funding opportunity announcement carefully.
  • F31 grants are designed for PhD students who are ready to finish their PhD in the next 1-2 years.
  • Full time professional effort is determined by your institution. Most R grants require 75% commitment.
  • New and early-stage investigator: within 10 years of completing PhD and hasn't been awarded an R01 or another big grant. Usually gives you an increased payline and may prevent your grant period or dollar amount from being cut.
  • If you are seeking a competitive renewal, you should do it with 1-2 years left to go on your current grant. It's tricky because you want to make sure you can show that you have been productive on your current grant. But you want to give yourself enough time to get new funding before your current funding runs out (might take more than one submission).

 
Budgets

  • Start by writing an itemized budget, even if you are going to submit a modular budget. This will help you know how much it will really cost to do your research.
  • Don't budget less than you will really need. But also don't pad your budget too much or reviewer may raise red flags that you don't know what you actually need to be successful.
  • Modular budget limit is $250,000 average direct costs per year. This does not include Consortium F&A costs.
  • Your science should drive the budget justification more than anything.
  • Study section may recommend reductions in amount of budget and time that you will receive it.
  • Funding institute may reduce budget further and limit years of support.
  • Up to 90 days prior to the start of a competing award, it is possible to use "pre-award costs" if it is necessary to conduct the project and if it would be allowable under a potential award without prior approval. Greater than 90 days requires prior approval.
  • Always read the award of notice. Drawing down funds constitutes acceptances of terms. Look for any special terms and conditions.
  • It's OK to carry forward unspent funds for a good cause if justified / explained (progress report).

 
Grant Writing Advice

  • Go to http://report.nih.gov and learn about what other grants have been funded in specific areas or at specific institutions, etc.
  • Talk to your program officer early. Have your elevator pitch ready. Be ready to talk about specific funding announcements. Be prepared for the conversation but also be open to mechanisms or focus areas that you may not have considered. Ask whether the PO will ready a "concept paper" (high-level summary of your application, about 2 pages). Preferably, send an email to send an appointment before the meeting rather than cold calling.
  • Find collaborators if you can.
  • The formula for grant success.
    • Strong idea + Strong science = Competitive application
  • Know the requirements for the grant. Make sure you are in line with those.
  • Know your audience. Test your writing on other people to see whether they understand what you are saying.
  • Be passionate and committed to what you are doing and the ideas that you describe. It will come out in your application.
  • Does your research address an important problem?
  • Is it feasible?
  • Does it expand on existing research?
  • Align your goals with the funding agency goals.
  • Make sure to review the literature thoroughly. A kiss of death can be if your application doesn't include broad enough or recent enough references.
  • Connect all the pieces together well. Logical flow through.
  • Emphasize how your prior work connects with this work.
  • Overall impact = How will your research lead to a fundamental change in the field?
  • Title, abstract, specific aims should all point to the main goals of your project. Also attach a cover letter that suggests which IC and review group would be most suitable to review your application (but don't list specific names of people who you want to review it because those people will not be reviewers).
  • Characteristics of strong applications
    • High public health impact
    • Strong rationale
    • Strong track record of the investigator
    • Focused
    • Considers what alternative perspectives might be
    • Expertise with the methodology you are proposing
  • Characteristics of weak applications
    • Weak impact
    • Significance is not obvious
    • Too ambitious (too much in one application)
    • Lack focus (unclear hypothesis)
    • Lacks appropriate expertise
    • Poor writing
    • Flawed approach
    • Lack of original ideas
  • Describe what the next steps will be. Where will this research lead?
  • Make an appointment with the program official after you get your review back. The PO was probably there when the application was reviewed. What do your reviews actually mean? If you think you might be in the gray zone for whether it gets funded, ask them about this.
  • If not funded:
    • You are in good comparny
    • Try again
    • Ask for feedback
  • In making revisions:
    • Respond constructively
    • Don't be argumentative
    • Don't be abrasive or sarcastic

 
NIH Peer Review Process

  • Don't consider yourself a failure if you don't get funded. Don't take it personally.
  • It's a professional responsibility to apply.
  • President Obama has insisted on the importance of the peer review process for maintaining scientific excellence and that taxpayers get the biggest bang for their buck.
  • Within two weeks after you have submitted an application, let the SRO know if it has not been assigned yet to a study section.
  • You can send post-submission materials at least 30 days before the review. Needs to demonstrate that the signing official agrees with it. Need to conform to format policy and page limit restrictions. Intended for you to indicate whether a manuscript has been accepted for publication (but don't send the actual publication).
  • After you submit an application, the SRO is your point of contact. Any questions related to review should be addressed to the SRO.
  • Overall Impact has become more important in recent years. How will your research move the field forward? If everything works as I propose, what will happen? How exciting is it?
  • Make sure to justify why you need to use human subjects.
  • Reviewers are not supposed to reveal to others anything about what was discussed during the review process. They are supposed to report to the SRO if this happens.
  • Applications are reviewed in "clusters." All the new investigators are discussed together. All the seasoned investigators are discussed together. All the R21s are discussed together. Same with R03. Only top 50%. If there is only 1 or 2 applications for a given category, they will most likely discuss it. A preliminary score is given by the reviewers before the meeting to determine which applications fall above the 50% level.
  • A favorable score does not guarantee funding!
  • Priority score = final score
  • Early Stage Investigators who collaborate with a non-ESI get reviewed with non-ESI.
  • The goal is to fund ESI at the same rate as LSI. So getting bonus points for being an ESI technically doesn't help you.