Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Transitioning to NIH applications

I've always worked for people that were NSF/DOD funded and as a result I'm much more familiar with structuring research to satisfy those agencies and writing those types of proposals. I've had actually had very reasonable success at NSF, compared to real and published funding rates, even though each rejection feels like a dagger into my heart. I say real and published because if you look on the NSF site, they often claim about 15-20% funding rates, but this includes supplements, which are for tiny amounts and aren't peer reviewed. Panels I've sat on are routinely in the 5-10% funding range. My stats are 3 for 10 not including supplements, and 5 out of 12 with supplements, which is actually quite good so far if you look at it from that perspective. This also means that I've pretty much used up the charity of NSF. You can't run a decent sized (~6) research group on NSF funding alone, which is what I want to do.

DOD requires building relationships with program managers, which is something I'm working on, but no success there yet, partly because my research is evolving toward medical applications. I've put in a few DOD proposals for open calls, but there you don't get a score so there is no way to tell if you are close or not.

For NIH however, I'm 0 for 4, although I have yet to submit to a standard R01. I've done R21, RFAs, and special things like the "new innovator." I've yet to even get a proposal scored. My NIH funded colleagues aren't sharing their proposals and most of them hide behind the fact that they haven't received new funding since the change from 25 to 12 pages, which happened in early 2010, right before I started my TT position. This is part of the issue of not being at a top place. I've read a few books about NIH writing and looked at the examples on the NIH websites, but I still don't have a great feel for putting together great NIH proposals. Where NSF also helps is that they really try to get new PIs in on panels so you get exposed to a boat-load of proposals, which helps give you a feel for good vs. bad and panels. NIH has a mechanism for bringing in new faculty, but it is at the SRO's discretion and even though I've been actively trying to get on panels, I've yet to get invited. Any advice for how to break into this game? One of my biggest issues is that I'm having trouble drawing the line between what fits as an aim vs. what should be broken off into a separate proposal. My group works on a number of related by separate things. Can each aim attack a problem from a different point of view? Should that be three separate proposals? From the engineering side, you get the added challenge that you are never considered an expert regarding a specific disease or biological system. So when I proposal a set of experiments, based on our unique technology, that would give new insight or help doctors, I always feel like the M.D. and bio Ph.D. people just say what does this engineer know about our niche field, how can he possibly contribute to something we've spent our entire careers studying. Suggestions/help would really be appreciated. I need to start going after R01s and don't want to look like a fool doing it.


  1. Comradde PhysioProffeAugust 13, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    Send me an e-mail, and I'm happy to send you some of my successful R01s.

  2. Comradde PhysioProffeAugust 13, 2014 at 4:55 PM

  3. I know you read DM, so I am going to recommend Potnia Theron. She had a few really nice posts on this -- as I understand, an aim is of the scope of about 2 papers.
    And really important

  4. "an aim is of the scope of about 2 papers"

    This is totally wrong. The scope of an NIH-style specific aim depends on many factors, and cannot be boiled down to a generalizable number of papers.

  5. CPP, I didn't make it up, that's what Potnia says in paragraph 3 of
    this post :

    "Aims should be general enough to require a project (1-2 papers per aim), but specific enough that they are a project."

    I live in NSF/DOE/AFOSR land and freely admit I have no clue about NIH. A typical single-PI 3-year proposal for NSF has 3-5 tasks, which I presume are akin to specific aims at NIH; each task is about 1-3 papers. DOE satisfactory productivity metric is $100k/paper, where the paper is a society-level paper. Obviously a Nature or Science paper is considerably more expensive.

  6. Doesn't matter who asserted it: it's totally wrong. Maybe it's correct in the specific circumstances that Potnia is familiar with, but it is a dangerously false generalization.

  7. Ok, give him a more accurate description of the scope of an aim.

  8. I'll preface by saying I haven't successfully gotten NIH funding. But, I've learned a lot about the process in the past year or so from people well-funded investigators as I've tried to prepare my own proposals. Maybe some of the points will be helpful.

    For Specific Aims, I look at them as self-contained projects that, when combined, all support a single goal (read: the title of the proposal). I agree that it's probably not great to quantify them in terms of number of papers, but I generally think that there should be publishable outcomes from each Aim, insomuch as novel results will warrant publications. In other words, one Aim shouldn't be "I'm going to repeat this thing someone else already did to make sure I can do it too". For an R01 particularly, it's a big grant and therefore each Aim should be important in its own right. The problem I deal with a lot is making sure the aims are not dependent on each other. This gets tricky when trying to build toward a common goal. I've been approaching it by allowing them to be related, but explicitly explaining how alternative approaches could be used even if an early aim doesn't go as planned.

    For the "what the hell does this guy know" problem, you can try to dazzle with your knowledge and references, but I really think the only way to solve it is to have significant publications in the field or (better yet) to submit with senior colleague support. In other words, find a collaborator who's credentials will not be questioned to (1) talk you up and support you in a letter of collab and (2) add to/edit your proposal. I wrote a proposal that I was really happy with, but when I had senior colleagues familiar with the biology read it, they pointed things out that I never would have thought of. Some things we engineers take for granted turn out to be huge issues. For example, a portion of my project involved using isolated genetic material, which I proposed to get from tissue using commercial isolation kits. But a geneticist tore it up because I assumed I'd be getting pure, unsheared material out the other end, and as a biologist, he didn't buy it. As an engineer, I find that my thinking ends up assuming too perfect a picture for biomedical scientists (who will be reviewing the proposal). At the very least, have somebody experienced read it over and give some feedback. You can cold-call people and they are usually happy to help if they have the time.

    For the example proposals, what I do is go onto Reporter and look up projects that are related enough to what I'm doing to be helpful to me, but far enough away so that I'm not viewed as direct competition. Then I just write to them to ask if it would be possible to get a pdf of their scientific component to see an example of a successful proposal. I always aim for projects that are at least a few years old because nobody's going to give out their brand new work to a stranger. I always make it clear that if they don't feel comfortable, no problem, but that I will keep it in utmost confidence. I haven't been turned down yet. Some people are just pricks- maybe those are the colleagues you've been asking so far.

  9. Is your proposal going to the right study section? Have you looked at the people who were on your study section and would understand what you are trying to say.

    I had an NIH proposal that went to the wrong study section. It was ripped apart for no reason. The same proposal when read by senior colleagues (same field as me but different sub field) expert in that particular area found no such criticism.

  10. We'll see if it ends up in the right place. I'm targeting a device section, where I will have to convince them that a device is needed for getting a better understanding of the health problem.