Benjamin Bleier, MD, was a resident when he received his first grant, an American Rhinologic Society (ARS) Resident Research Grant. That grant allowed him to investigate the use of laser tissue welding to repair spinal fluid leaks and laid the foundation for his future research into mucosal permeability, the pathophysiology of chronic rhinosinusitis, and endoscopic surgical techniques to bypass the blood-brain barrier.
Explore This IssueSeptember 2020
Dr. Bleier built a career atop his initial and subsequent grants: Today, he’s the Claire and John Bertucci Chair in Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery and director of otolaryngology translational research at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston. He’s also the chair of the ARS research and grants committee.
Like most serious researchers, Dr. Bleier has received significant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which invests more than $32 billion annually in research. Competition for NIH grants is intense, and most grant applications aren’t approved. However, there are many other options for research funding, including private foundations, professional organizations, and federal agencies and departments.
Would-be researchers should focus on building a solid foundation for what will eventually become a “cathedral of work,” Dr. Bleier said. “That’s why these alternative grant sources are so important: They build the foundation for you to get the bigger grants. No one will fund a bigger grant if you don’t already have lots of pilot data and publications to demonstrate the feasibility and importance of your work.”
Early career academics should consider their research goals and needs during contract negotiations, Dr. Bleier said. “You want to not only negotiate time and space—meaning time away from your clinical duties and a physical lab—but also a certain amount of funding for supplies and assistance,” he said. “That’s an important first step.”
Faculty members should also investigate funding options through their institution. The American Cancer Society (ACS), for instance, offers Institutional Research Grants, block grants averaging $120,000 per year for three years, as “seed money” for project initiation by promising junior investigators. If your university has received an ACS Institutional Research Grant, you may be able to apply for funding—assuming your proposed research project is related to cancer.
Local philanthropic support is another alternative. Clinicians frequently work with grateful patients and families. Some of these people may have the means and desire to support innovative research projects.
Asking for financial support may feel awkward. “I used to feel that it was an interruption of the therapeutic relationship,” Dr. Bleier said. “But over time, you realize that there are people who want to donate to research because it brings them satisfaction. You’re actually providing people who would be donating anyway an avenue to do just that. It’s a relationship-building process. The goal isn’t to ask for a blank check, but to engage the patient in what you’re doing.” (Physicians should never accept money directly from patients. Your institution’s development office has staff on hand to facilitate relationships with donors.)
Compared to other funding sources, philanthropy is relatively quick and easy. You don’t have to write a grant; you simply need to talk about your work. Additionally, local philanthropists may be willing to support outside-of-the-box research that’s unlikely to secure funding from other sources.
The key to receiving a grant from a private foundation is to find one whose goals mirror yours. “All foundations and institutes have a mission, and you as a scientist have your own mission. You’re looking for a match,” said Thanos Tzounopoulos, PhD, director of the Pittsburgh Hearing Research Center and an endowed professor and vice chair of research in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Tzounopoulos, whose research interests include the pathophysiology of hearing loss and tinnitus as well as the development of effective medications to treat both, has received funding from the American Tinnitus Association (ATA) and the Hearing Health Foundation, two organizations that devote significant funds to tinnitus- and hearing loss-related research.
“Finding a cure for tinnitus is ATA’s priority,” according to their website, and the organization has allocated over $6 million to tinnitus research since 1980. Similarly, the Hearing Health Foundation’s mission is “to prevent and cure hearing loss and tinnitus through groundbreaking research and to promote hearing health.” In his grant applications, Dr. Tzounopoulos highlighted how his research could pave the way for a cure. Initial funding from the ATA more than a decade ago supported Dr. Tzounopouplos as he built his research career.
The ACS offers a variety of grants that may be of interest to otolaryngologists, particularly those studying head and neck cancer. “We fund research across the cancer continuum, from basic science to clinical work, including screening, diagnosis, treatment, and palliative care. We also encourage health equity-focused and health policy-focused applications,” said Elvan (Ellie) Daniels, MD, MPH, senior scientific director of cancer prevention and control research at the ACS.
Most ACS grants are aimed at early career investigators, though there is some support available for mid-career researchers; the Clinician Scientist Development Grant is specifically designed to help practicing clinicians develop research skills. In addition to funding, the award includes research mentoring and training. “The grant is intended for clinicians who come in with good research questions but might not have a research background,” Dr. Daniels said.
According to Dr. Bleier, the odds of getting a foundation-based grant are generally better than the odds of getting a large federally funded grant. Additionally, the grant application process is typically less involved.
“The grants themselves don’t take as much time to write, and the turnaround time is faster,” Dr. Bleier said. Foundation grants generally don’t provide as much financial support as federal grants, but the ease of application, quick turnaround times, and good odds make foundation grants an important source of funding.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology’s Centralized Otolaryngology Research Efforts (CORE) program has invested more than $12 million in otolaryngology research projects since 1985. The program is a collaboration of the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (AAO-HNSF), the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS), the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), the American Head and Neck Society (AHNS), the American Neurotology Society (ANS), the American Rhinologic Society (ARS), the American Society of Pediatric Otolaryngology (ASPO), and the Association of Migraine Disorders (AMD). The collaborative effort is intended to decrease fragmentation and overlap of grant opportunities and advance otolaryngology as a whole.
CORE grant applications are reviewed by three subcommittees: otology, head and neck surgery, and general otolaryngology. There were approximately 25 different grants available in 2020, ranging in size from $5,000 to $150,000.
“These tend to be smaller grants, but they’re still quite competitive,” Dr. Bleier said. Importantly, applying for CORE or foundation-based grants allows investigators to build their grant-writing skills. “You learn how to put your thoughts together, and that’s really critical if you want to progress to larger grants,” he said.
Letters of intent for the 2021 CORE grant cycle are due Dec. 15, 2020; full grant applications must be submitted by Jan. 15, 2021.
Over time, you realize that there are people who want to donate to research because it brings them satisfaction. You’re actually providing people who would be donating anyway an avenue to do just that. It’s a relationship-building process. —Benjamin Bleier, MD
Federal Agencies and Departments
The NIH isn’t the only federal agency offering grant money. Dr. Tzounopoulos has had good luck with both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Defense (DoD).
The NSF typically funds basic (versus clinical) research. Dr. Tzounopoulos received an NSF grant to study the role of zinc in the auditory system. His research is helping delineate how zinc affects sound perception. Previously, the NSF has also awarded $15 million to help scientists crack the olfactory code, and is currently supporting research into the microbiome, which may play a role in the development of chronic rhinosinusitis.
All foundations and institutes have a mission, and you as a scientist have your own mission. You’re looking for a match. —Thanos Tzounopoulos, PhD
The DoD is interested in research that may ultimately lead to treatments for hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. “The No. 1 and No. 2 service-related disabilities are tinnitus and hearing loss,” Dr. Tzounopoulos said. He has received DoD funding to investigate novel synaptic and intrinsic mechanisms in hearing; the DoD also supported additional research to translate those findings into the development of a drug that may help relieve hearing loss and tinnitus.
Multiple funding opportunities exist. Clinician scientists who are pursuing research support need to devote time to researching possible sources of financial support. “Know what’s out there and, in your grant applications, highlight how your research will fill a gap and add to the existing science in an impactful way,” said Dr. Daniels, of the ACS. “Do your due diligence.”
Jennifer Fink is a freelance medical writer based in Wisconsin.