Obtaining Medical Research Grants

November 1, 1999
Jamie Reiter, PhD

Volume 16, Issue 11

The fiscal year (FY) 1999 budget for National Institutes of Health funding totals more than $15 billion. This figure reflects an increase of 15% over the FY 1998 budget and is $320 million less than President Clinton's requested budget for FY 2000 (Varmus, 1999). The Foundation Center reports the funding from U.S. grant-making foundations in 1998 as $15.4 billion from independent foundations, $2.37 billion from corporate foundations and $1.48 billion from community foundations (Foundation Center, 1999). Additional funds are available from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has a $3.95 billion budget request for FY 2000, up almost 6% from FY 1999 (NSF, 1999). With all of this available funding, how can medical clinicians and researchers increase their chances of obtaining a medical grant?

The fiscal year (FY) 1999 budget for National Institutes of Health funding totals more than $15 billion. This figure reflects an increase of 15% over the FY 1998 budget and is $320 million less than President Clinton's requested budget for FY 2000 (Varmus, 1999). The Foundation Center reports the funding from U.S. grant-making foundations in 1998 as $15.4 billion from independent foundations, $2.37 billion from corporate foundations and $1.48 billion from community foundations (Foundation Center, 1999). Additional funds are available from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has a $3.95 billion budget request for FY 2000, up almost 6% from FY 1999 (NSF, 1999). With all of this available funding, how can medical clinicians and researchers increase their chances of obtaining a medical grant?

"Be persistent," offers Francine M. Benes, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and director of the Laboratory for Structural Neuroscience at McLean Hospital in Boston. Benes has served as a grant reviewer for the National Institute of Mental Health and has been very successful at obtaining funding from NIH. This sound advice pertains not only to the application process but also to locating funding sources. The most common avenue for grant funding is the NIH, but researchers should keep in mind that other government agencies, corporations and private foundations can provide generous support for research grants.

NIH Statistics, Emphasis

The NIH comprises 25 institutes and centers, each focusing on a separate research area. Their Web site www.nih.gov provides extensive resources for researchers regarding funding opportunities, guidelines, applications, funding statistics and other useful information.

The unprecedented increase of more than $1 billion in medical research for FY 1999 reflects the NIH's desire for research emphasizing two primary fields: genetics and neuroscience. The NIH also emphasizes the use of advanced instrumentation and computers, strategies for prevention against disease and development of therapeutics (NIH, 1998). For FY 2000, the NIH plans to continue many of the research activities supported in FY 1999 but will organize them into four research themes: exploiting genomics; engaging other disciplines in medical research; reinvigorating clinical research; and eliminating health disparities associated with race, gender, socioeconomic status, personal behaviors and environmental factors (NIH, 1999a).

The NIH institutes that may be of particular interest to clinicians treating behavioral and neurologic disorders are the National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the NIMH. Of these, the NINDS has the most funds appropriated for both FY 1999 and FY 2000, followed closely by the NIMH (NIH, 1999b). The total amount of funding for FY 1999 and FY 2000 (including AIDS distribution) allocated to the above-mentioned institutes is provided in Table 1.

Competition in each institute is fairly equal with respect to the percentage of applications funded, but the available funds per institute will vary. As an example, Table 2 presents the FY 1998 success rates for each of the six institutes listed above.

Applying for NIH Funding

The figures listed in Table 2 reflect the total amount awarded, regardless of mechanism (e.g., research, training, career awards). The Investigator Initiated Research Grant (RO1) is the mechanism with the highest number of applicants and the highest number of awards. The RO1 is open to applicants at any point during their research careers, as long as they have completed their training. In the NIMH, for example, 1,031 out of 1,618 applicants submitted RO1 proposals, with a success rate of 29.7% (NIH, 1999c).

Applicants may submit either an unsolicited proposal such as an RO1, or they may respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Application (RFA). According to Grayson S. Norquist, M.D., M.S.P.H., director of the Division of Services and Intervention Research at the NIMH, money is set aside for both the RFA and RFP in a particular area of research; however, the RFP is more restrictive. Essentially, an RFP is a contract proposal to conduct a particular study, and an RFA is put forth to encourage research in a general area.

Different institutes may have different requirements for funding applicants, so it is important to understand these before applying. For example, the NIMH will not support applicants who are solely interested in training to provide mental health care services, those who are pursuing or have obtained a master's degree or lower, or those in private practice who wish to conduct research but are not affiliated with an institution such as a university, medical center or research center (NIH, 1999).

Although institutes such as the NIH do not allow applicants to simultaneously submit multiple applications for the same research project, it may be possible for researchers to apply for both government and private grants. Funding from the National Science Foundation is typically sought by nonmedical scientists, but there are NSF funds allocated for the health field. The Sience Foundation's division of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research www.nsf.gov/sbe/sber supports research in areas such as cognitive and psychological capacities of humans; biological factors related to human behavior; and decision-making, interaction and human behavior. One emphasis of the overall NSF FY 2000 budget is biocomplexity in the environment, with funding for this area totaling approximately $700 million. This discipline includes research regarding interdependencies between living organisms and their environments (NSF, 1999).

Another resource, the Foundation Center www.fdncenter.org, is an independent nonprofit information clearinghouse established in 1956. The foundation center collects, organizes and disseminates information about foundations, corporate giving and related subjects. It is an excellent resource for those seeking funding in the private and corporate sectors. One of the more useful tools at the Foundation Center's Web site is the keyword index www.fdncenter.org/search.html to help researchers search for foundations in their field. For example, a search for the term aging will return a list of foundations supporting research in aging: private (e.g., Dana Foundation), corporate (e.g., pharmaceutical companies), public (e.g., American Foundation for Aging Research) and community. This word search will also provide descriptions of each foundation's goals and links to their Web sites. The Foundation Center also provides information regarding the top funding organizations by assets and the total available from each sector.

Steps to a Better Proposal

According to Benes, the most important piece of advice to anyone writing a grant proposal is: "have a clear focus on research that is timely and of topical interest to your field." David H. Barlow, Ph.D., professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, who has also served as a reviewer, concurs. He suggests that applicants "choose topics that really interest them instead of chasing money." NIMH's Norquist strongly encourages applicants to contact program staff at the agency to which they plan to submit a grant proposal regarding research topics before doing so. He also recommends that prospective grantees inquire at various agencies to see what type of research has already been funded, to avoid submitting a proposal that may be redundant.

The study design and presentation can be just as important as the topic itself. Benes suggests that the study be designed with a clear hypothesis so the work will yield interpretable data. She cautions that applicants should avoid loading too much information into their proposal, as it may render the proposal very difficult to read. Benes added that the "best and most beautiful proposals" are those that include state-of-the-art research, elegant methodology, a clear and appropriate hypothesis, and are easy to read.

It is also important for grant writers to get as much input as possible from seasoned colleagues once their proposal is in presentable form. Norquist suggested that in some cases, it may be worthwhile for new researchers to team up on a project with seasoned investigators at an established university.

Both Benes and Barlow suggest that, once a proposal has been submitted and reviewed, applicants be thick-skinned and not take criticisms personally. NIH proposals are peer-reviewed and assigned a score based on criteria such as significance, approach, innovation, background of the investigator and environment (Cuca, 1997). Studies that are not funded may be resubmitted, but applicants should take reviewers' comments into consideration when rewriting their proposals. Benes reminds colleagues that the "criticisms should be taken seriously, and that the reviewers are really trying to do a good job."

Where To Get Help

Many funding sources, such as those highlighted here, have guidelines for writing and submitting grant proposals. The guidelines are available at their respective Web sites. Those from government agencies such as the NIH and NSF may also be available through university resources or by contacting the agencies directly. In addition, many agencies offer grant-writing workshops. It is also possible to request copies of funded NIH proposals, which can serve as a reference point for beginning grant writers.

Other NIH Web sites that may be useful for grant seekers include the Electronic Research Administration Commons, a virtual meeting place where grantee organizations, grantees and the public can exchange information regarding research, available at www.commons.dcrt.nih.gov; the Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects database (also called CRISP), which provides information pertaining to funded NIH projects, located at www.commons.dcrt.nih.gov/crisp/; the NIH Office of Extramural Research home page, which provides information regarding grants administration, policies and procedures at www.grants.nih.gov/ grants/oer.html and the Center for Scientific Review home page www.csr. nih.gov. This site is a valuable source for obtaining information on grant application and receipt, assignment, and review policies and procedures.

The Foundation Center's Web site also provides extensive resources for applicants seeking grant-writing assistance. Among their many services, they offer online training for beginning grant writers (although experienced grant writers may also benefit). This includes an orientation to grant seeking, a guide to funding research and a proposal writing course. In addition, the Web site provides an online librarian, answers to frequently asked questions, common grant application forms, information regarding what funders look for in a grantee, types of support available, RFP bulletin, seminars, workshops and, as mentioned earlier, links to funding agencies.

(To contact cited agencies by phone, call the NIH Office of Extramural Research at (301)435-0714; the NSF at (703)306-1234 (NSF); or the Foundation Center at (800) 424-9836-Ed.)

References:

References


1.

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www.nih.gov

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2.

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3.

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4.

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