Field of Science

What I learned at the NIH workshop

This morning's NIH workshop was very useful - I learned quite a bit, and it sure got me ready to start preparing for applying next fall. My plan is to redo the DNA uptake proposal I submitted to CIHR two years ago, and send versions of it to both CIHR and NIH. A new post-doc arrives in a couple of weeks to begin working on aspects of DNA uptake. I'll be just about done teaching by then (classes over), so he, I and the present post-doc (about to be Research Associate) will spend much of the summer getting the preliminary results these proposals need.

What I learned this morning: (I'm collating my scattered notes here so I won't forget them)

Sign up for the weekly NIH Announcements emails. Most of the contents are of no interest to me, but I'm a fast reader so I should be skimming them anyway.

Find a Program Officer and talk to him/her repeatedly about the science. NIH is full of very helpful people, who measure their success by whether or not your grant gets funded! (Not like CIHR.) So the first step in grant preparation is finding the program officer whose interests best match yours. I have the url for a listing of these people (no, it's just the list of Institutes; I guess I should start by calling NIAID - they handle infectious diseases). Anyway, I'll do this on Wednesday. I can also ask US colleagues who their program officer is. And when I go to US meetings I should look for the NIH people and talk to them about my plans. I'm going to the big microbiology meeting in May -- NIH should have a substantial presence there -- and to two meetings on evolution (evolution of sex and molecular evolution) in June (NIH people might be there too).

Use the cover letter to direct your proposal to the right people and places: Name the names of the NIH people who are on your side.

Relationships matter as much as good science. Again, this is all about getting to know a program officer.

Brag! This is hard for Canadians, but being modest is a big msitake here.

NIH is flush right now. Obama has given them $10 billion that must be spent by Sept 2010 (on top of their annual budget of about $30 billion). Most of this can't go outside the country, but some can, as subcontracts and foreign components of domestic grants. And it will take the pressure off of the main grant stream, so hopefully getting funded will be easier for at least the next several years.

Focus on the 'R01' grants: Don't bother applying for the little 'R03" grants ($50k/year for only two years). But it might be worth applying for an 'R21' grant ($275K over two years) - you don't need as much preliminary data as you do for the regular 5-year R01 grants because they're intended to let you generate the preliminary data.

Money is always tight, so having US collaborators is a bonus. I wouldn't be a co-investigator or sub-contractor on someone else's grant (this is our own work), but I should be able to line up a couple of solid American collaborators, or at least have letters of support from Americans who will provide help and advice if needed. But the need for this varies with the NIH program, so I need to talk to 'my program officer'.

Spell out up front why this foreign grant deserves funding. There are three criteria. 1. opportunities not available in the US. In my case, it's that nobody in the US wants to do this, and only I have the combination of evolutionary and molecular expertise to see why it's so important and to carry it through. (Of course this argument will depend on how much evolution is in the grant.) 2. Augmentation of existing US resources. Can I claim this? 3. Potential for improving the health of US taxpayers (it's their money). I can argue that understanding why and how bacteria take up DNA will give is therapeutic targets.

Commit at least 15% of your 'effort' to this project. 20% is probably better. But be prepared to back this claim up with evidence - don't claim to be putting 50% of your effort into each of several projects.

The Budget section of NIH proposals is complex: I was looking forward to the new 'modular' budgeting, where you just need to say how many $25K modules you want per year (up to $250K/year), but this doesn't apply to foreign grants.

Ask for some salary. Canadian faculty have 12-month salaries and we're not allowed to ask for any salary support from the Canadian agencies. But salary support is a standard item on NIH grants so we're not seen as very serious if we don't ask for any. The legalities of doing this are a bit uncertain - I asked my Department Head whether the money is allowed to travel from the UBC Finance account into my bank account; he's going to ask the Dean. Someone said we are allowed to get the equivalent of two months' salary - I don't know if this only applies to consulting fees and running a company on the side, or also to salary from outside grants and contracts.

Some 'indirect costs' can become direct on foreign grants. Foreign grants get only 8% as indirect costs to the institution, and these are intended to defray only the costs of administering the grant, not to cover the indirect costs of doing the research. So some expenses that in the US would be considered indirect costs to be provided by the institution (e.g. phone, office supplies, secretarial support) on foreign grants can be included in direct costs.

Ask for more money than you need: My previous NIH grant was awarded the full amount I had asked for, but now across-the-board cuts of 10% or even 20% are common. So budget in some extra. So I guess I should ask for 20% of my salary?

Don't be overambitious: Don't propose to accomplish an unreasonable amount of science. The reviewers won't think you're exceptional, just naive.

Plan for the long term: When planning your proposal, think beyond the 5-year term. What will you want to do next? How will what you are proposing now affect that? What are your long-term goals and how does each project take you closer?

Be very careful not to write anything that might turn a reviewer against you. Don't be disparaging or smart-assed. Check the membership of the study sections your proposal is likely to be sent to, and be sure to cite all their relevant work.

The font matters? One speaker recommended using Ariel 11 font. I'll have to email him to ask why.

Don't leave town right after your proposal is submitted: The NIH system scans each proposal for technical errors (wrong kinds of information in wrong boxes), and gives you only two days after submission to fix these.

It's fine to apply to both NIH and CIHR for the same project. If both succeed, NIH is happy for the aims to be readjusted and the project split up into two parts, one funded by each agency.

Starting in 2010, a rejected proposal will only be allowed one resubmission. NIH is trying to clear out the deadwood of the grants that just won't die.

Once the project is funded, the budget allocation is flexible. I used to think that NIH budgets were quite rigid, but if I later decide that I need to spend the money on something other than what was originally budgeted I can do so. If I'm changing key personnel (not just a tech or student) or if it would change the 'scope of the work' I need to get NIH approval, but that's usually just an email. However there's no allowance for currency fluctuations.


  1. It's a pity that you didn't post the postdoc position. I recently acquired my PhD but I'm following your blog since a long time.

    Perhaps next time...

  2. This is a great list: Bookmarked!
    Some comments:
    Starting in 2010, a rejected proposal will only be allowed one resubmission. NIH is trying to clear out the deadwood of the grants that just won't die.

    I believe amended applications are already gone for any new submissions, as of January 25, 2009: New NIH Policy on Resubmission (Amended) Applications.

    Sign up for the weekly NIH Announcements emails.
    These announcements are available either by email or by RSS, whichever fits your workflow better: NIH Guide

    Use the cover letter to direct your proposal to the right people and places:Name the names of the NIH people who are on your side.
    More info on this is available from CSR. As you imply, you can suggest NIH program staff, institutes, and review panels.

  3. But salary support is a standard item on NIH grants so we're not seen as very serious if we don't ask for any.

    Really? I had heard the opposite - that funding Canadians is more attractive to the NIH because more of the money goes directly into the research. I've helped a couple of local PIs submit a (successful) R21, and we explicitly stated in the budget justification that we were not requesting salary because it is covered by the host institute. Maybe we just got lucky ;)

  4. @Cath: I didn't ask for salary support on my previous NIH proposal either. I think the really big cost benefit of Canadian labs for NIH is that NIH pays only 8% in indirect costs, rather than the >50% most US institutions charge. This will be a much bigger slice of a grant's budget than salary support.


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