Emphasize Innovation and Impact
NIH grants are awarded to investigators who are doing innovative, impactful work. “You have to propose to study something that’s significant, and you have to persuade the reviewers that this is a significant problem,” Dr. Grandis said. Although earwax is a common problem, “it’s hard to convince a reviewer that it’s a significant public health problem,” she said.
Explore This IssueMarch 2020
And explanations are key. “Grant applicants tend to assume that the reviewers are all experts in the area they’re writing in, and that’s not the case,” Dr. O’Malley said. The reviewers may understand head and neck cancer, for instance, but have little understanding of gene therapy and its possible relevance to head and neck cancer. Or they may know a lot about genomics but little about current head and neck cancer treatments.
The NIH wants to see data along with your research, so you have to figure out how to get money and data before you can actually write an R01 grant. —Bert W. O’Malley Jr., MD
“The more direct and simplified your grant, the better,” Dr. O’Malley said. Emphasize the potential clinical impact.
You can increase your chances of obtaining funding by positioning yourself as the best possible person to study your proposed research question. “Early on, people challenged me because I was a clinician. Why was I the best person to study cancer biology? I’ve always had to make sure that I ask questions that uniquely tap into my capacity to connect to the patient or translate my findings back to the clinic,” Dr. Grandis said.
Most of her grant applications to date have included the study of biospecimens. “Access to high quality patient tissues is not trivial, and a basic scientist can’t necessarily obtain these specimens,” Dr. Grandis said. As a surgeon, however, she has the opportunity to develop and steward a tissue bank, and use those tissue samples to advance the understanding of head and neck cancer.
Target the Right Study Section
The NIH is composed of 27 institutes and centers, or ICs. Grants are awarded through ICs, so researchers interested in obtaining funding would do well to identify ICs related to their work. You’ll also want to learn more about the composition of the study section that may be reviewing your grant.
“Picking where to send your grant is a bit of an art, because you can request that it goes to a particular study section,” Dr. Bleier said. To identify the best study section for your research, work with a NIH program officer. The program officer can discuss your grant with you and help you target an appropriate study section.
“If you don’t have anybody in your study section who understands ENT or your clinical problem, you’re going to have a much harder time getting funding,” Dr. Bleier said. That said, there aren’t many reviewers who specialize in rhinosinusitis, for instance; study sections that review sinusitis-related proposals may include immunologists instead.
Spend some time learning who is part of the study section. “The goal is not to call them and ask them to lobby for you; it’s to understand their expertise,” Dr. O’Malley said. “If you understand their expertise, you can better write and explain yourself to that audience.”