Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Friendly advice for your first NIH grant application

I've just submitted my first National Institutes of Health grant application (or rather administrators at my collaborator's university have submitted an application that I wrote most of). In preparing to write it, I read a lot of online advice ranging from the general 'how to write an NIH grant' to the specific 'the clause-structure I use while writing my cover letter for maximizing the chances that it will be sent to my preferred review committee.' People who regularly apply for NIH money refer to NIH funded research as an industry, and like any industry, there is a lot to know to compete successfully. NIH pays or invites some people to write advice on 'good grantsmanship' and many others, for a variety of reasons (perhaps on their blogs) write advice essays. Most of this advice starts with a paragraph or two along the lines of, "I've been conducting NIH funded research since 1982, and am currently involved in seven NIH funded projects, four as PI (Primary Investigator). I've served on 12 review panels and helped to amend the rules on permissible administrative expenditures on research grants in 2002 and again in 2006." And so on. The message is, "I am an expert on NIH funding applications and therefore qualified to advise you." While these people certainly are qualified and anyone planning to apply should read as much of their advice as bearable, there are two points I would like to make about this that they may not have considered. The first is that the way they write their advice, including the way they lay out their qualifications, reads very much like an NIH application. It makes me wonder if becoming expert in these applications makes it hard to write a love letter that isn't in the form of a funding application."Specific Aim 2: Produce a rapid natural release of endorphins, aiding current pleasure, speeding forgetfulness of discomfort and fomenting pair-bonding."

Second, and more seriously, I have the impression that none of these people nor the people writing the instruction books or the FAQs on the NIH websites have any memory of what it is like to not already know how to apply for NIH funding. The instruction book is full of rules that are explained not in terms of what you have to do, but in terms of how what you have to do is different than what it was before the changes to regulation #SF5326BB777. They use all sorts of words that are normal English words but don't mean what they normally mean, without explaining, because however NIH usually uses a word is its normal meaning to them. (This, by the way, is very close to the technical definition of jargon).

So I'd like to offer a few pieces of advice to people considering applying for their first NIH grant. I am not an expert, have never served on (or been invited to serve on) a review panel and may or may not ever have any NIH funding, but when I was a kid my dad worked just a few blocks from NIH headquarters, and I once spilled an incredibly powerful neurotoxin on myself inside an NIH laboratory. Before I start, consider this unrelated photo (of a 2.5 inch long weevil I once found in my hair) that helps to break up the text:

Notice that its sharp mouth parts are at the end of its huge nose. Cool huh?

Okay, here goes:

1. Before doing anything else, ask yourself if you can spare the two or three hundred working hours your first NIH application is likely to take you. If you can't, don't. Subsequent applications may take an order of magnitude less time, but this is going to be a slog.

2. Before doing anything second else, find colleagues who know all about applying for NIH grants and buy them beer, chocolate, whatever it takes. Wash their cars, baby-sit their kids, fix their refrigerators, do their laundry. This will save you so much time. If you are very lucky your department/institute/whatever may even have someone whose job includes guiding you through the process. If so, flowers and a gift-certificate to a nearby spa are in order. If you can by any means obtain copies of past successful grants to use as Rosetta Stones in figuring out what the instructions mean, then you have some chance of retaining your sanity.

3. Next, find out who is your SO (Signing Officer, an administrator officially authorized to sign legal documents on behalf of your organization). You don't submit the grant, the SO does. She also has to do various other registration tasks, meaning that they need to know that you will apply several weeks before you actually do. If you just found out that the deadline is in three weeks, relax. There will be another deadline some months in the future, and by then you may have found some other way to fund your work. The SO will need all the forms you are to prepare at least a week before the official due date, as there are a whole bunch of other forms they have to fill out seperately.

4. Don't panic. Download the 264 page instruction book (a.k.a. "SF424 (R&R)
Application Guide for NIH and Other PHS Agencies"). Here is a picture of a moorhen to help you not panic as you download:

Can you see how long its toes are? Fricken' long. Imagine soaking your extra-long toes in a nice summer pond.

5. Do not print out the instruction book. It is 264 pages. You will need to constantly jump from section to section to hunt down the clues and riddles needed to fill out each of the approximately 30 forms you will complete. Keep it digital so you can search for relevant terms.

6. Do print out this glossary of NIH terms. Then read it. Then read it again to see if you understand it any better. Keep in mind that while necessary, this glossary is wildly incomplete, because NIH people can't guess what terms non-NIH people won't understand. Also keep in mind that when they use a term to define itself, they mean well.

7. The National Institutes of Health are called "Institutes" because they have quite a few different topic-specific Institutes, plus a bunch of Centers and several Divisions. You are supposed to know which of these is most likely to be interested in funding your work, contact the appropriate PO (program officer) and pitch it to them before then writing in your cover letter than you contacted that PO and she encouraged you to apply to that Institute, Center or Division. There are very detailed guidelines you should follow in writing to that PO. You are supposed to already know which PO within the appropriate branch is the appropriate PO. The only way I found of finding this out was to spend countless hours on the NIH web pages learning about the structure of NIH, then countless more hours reading those pages before making a wild (and wrong) guess. Luckily the person I wrote to (who wasn't even at the Institute I thought she was at) directed me to another person, who told me that I was heading the wrong way. Eventually I made a decision.

8. Go through the instruction book and make a list of all the forms and attachments you will need. Depending on the specifics, there could be anywhere from 15 to infinity of them. On your list, make notes as to the purpose of each form and what is an attachment to which extension to which sub-form. Also note which parts you have to do and which parts the SO has to do, and then confirm this with the SO. Then look at these pieces in the pile of example applications you've gathered.

9. Don't plan any vacations for before the due date. Plan a vacation for after the due date.

10. You may notice that I have not yet mentioned anything about science. At least once a week, think about the scientific goal of your application. It is very easy to lose track of the fact that there is some reason you are putting yourself through this.


A said...

Very timely...I will be preparing my first NIH application for the summer soon, and now know to keep myself armed with nature sounds and images of tranquil pools to keep from defenestrating my computer through the fourth floor window.

Grant said...

I couldn't agree more with the advice to not take a vacation until after the due date. Recently I was left holding the bag on a proposal where every collaborator from 4 different institutions went on vacation during the same week, right before the proposal was due. If it is important enough, the beach can wait an extra week! This is all great advice.