Grant Writing in Academic Public Health – Applying to the National Institutes of Health

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This post offers advice on writing public health grants.

Grant Writing NIH

Justin B. Moore, PhD, FACSM

In previous posts, I’ve covered the basics of grant writing and the identification of a funder for your work. Once you have an idea and have identified a funder, it’s important to learn how it operates and how to apply for a grant. In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its process, with a focus on best practices for post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty. For anyone who is completely new to the NIH and the components of its applications, I would suggest reviewing the information here before proceeding.

The NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world. As such, it is the number one target on the radar for scientists seeking funding for their health-related research, which has upsides and downsides. For example, the NIH has extensive guidance on the grant writing and submission process (here is a good place to start), and most universities and other grant-seeking organizations have guidance to get you started. As a new fellow or faculty member, the first place to visit when you start the grant writing process should be your research office. The downside is that the success rates of investigators applying to the NIH tend to be relatively low, depending on the funding mechanism (more on those below). A new applicant is in competition against others who may come from more prestigious institutions (which have excellent resources) or who may have a lot more experience and a track record of funding. However, both of these challenges can be overcome with the proper strategy and hard work.

Choosing a Mechanism

The NIH is made up of 27 institutes and centers. Of these, 24 make grant awards. The NIH solicits applications through Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs). The FOA will outline the purpose of the announcement and give guidance on the type of projects that are of interest to the participating institute of the NIH. Of note, only a subset of the 24 institutes will participate in any particular FOA. The NIH uses activity codes (eg, R01, R21) to categorize the types of initiatives it will support. Each activity code (also referred to as mechanisms) has specific guidelines related to total cost and length of the award. Importantly, not all institutes utilize all mechanisms. More importantly, some mechanisms favor more junior investigators. For example, early-stage investigators (within 10 years of terminal degree) get priority treatment on R01s from the NIH, and K-series grants are specifically targeted to early career individuals.

Regardless, the best strategy is to find an FOA that is a good fit for your idea, choose the mechanism that is most appropriate for the stage of the research you’re proposing, and then identify a participating institute that has a research priority that is in alignment (priorities can be found on the institutes’ website, NHLBI for example). Once you have an FOA, mechanism, and institute in mind, you should reach out to the program officer.

Program Officer

The program officer (PO) at NIH is responsible for the programmatic and scientific aspects of a grant. The PO typically manages a portfolio of funded grants within his/her institute. The PO is highly knowledgeable about the types of grants that his/her institute is interested in funding and will often sit in on the peer review of applications to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of a proposal. Establishing a relationship with the PO early can be extremely useful. For example, a conversation with the PO can help you avoid submitting an application that will not be responsive to the FOA (for example), or one that is duplicative with others recently funded (you can also search NIH RePORTER for that information). It’s best to have at least a good draft of your specific aims page that you can share on request before reaching out via email.

Tips for Success

Once you know which mechanism and FOA that you’re applying to, it’s time to start writing. But before you do that, make contact with your grants officer at your institution to get in his/her queue. Many schools have very busy grants offices, so it’s good to give them a heads up that you’ll be submitting for the upcoming deadline. Once your grants team is alerted, it’s time to write the grant. Here are some suggestions for the grant writing process:

  • Start early. A successful grant application is going to take months to write, especially if you are starting from scratch. I would suggest giving yourself four months from specific aims page to internal routing date to craft the application. You’ll hear suggestions for longer and stories of amazingly fast submissions, but four months should give you the time you need without too much time to get bogged down in the minutia.
  • Build an experienced team from the beginning. Your team is one of the five scorable components of the grant, along with Significance, Innovation, Approach, and Environment. A strong team, much like a strong Environment, won’t get you funded, but a weak team/environment will pull your score up away from funding consideration. Ideally, you want comprehensive content and methodological expertise on your team. If you don’t have them locally, you can find colleagues at other institutions who can serve as co-investigators (an active role) or consultants (as needed).
  • Borrow all you can. The actual grant application is a lot more than the seven to 13 pages that include the “science” of the application. It also includes things like the budget, budget justification, biosketches, environment, and equipment sections. Experienced investigators and grants offices often have a battle-tested version of these or templates to get you started. Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues if they have materials you can use. A good environment section that is already written can save you hours better spent crafting the science of the application. Related, see if your institution can help with things like budgeting or building biosketches. Delegate what you can.
  • Stay organized from the beginning. Regardless of what your system is, you need a system to keep all the parts and pieces in place. A grant application can have 30+ components that you need to submit, so you’ll want a way to keep track of what is completed, where it can be found, and who is responsible for it. Spreadsheets and shared folders can be useful in this regard.
  • Share drafts regularly. A good team will read your materials on a regular basis and provide feedback. Don’t be afraid to let them. A big mistake young investigators make is thinking that their drafts have to be perfect before sharing them with colleagues. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. Share early drafts with your team and get their guidance.
  • Employ mock peer review. Once you have a solid draft of the specific aims and research strategy, consider getting experts who aren’t on the grant to review the materials. Many grant offices can arrange this for you using internal or external experts at no cost to you. If your university doesn’t have this service, consider calling on friends to help. Having two or three new sets of eyes review the application can uncover problems while there is still time to fix them.
  • Use a technical editor. Your writing skills may be very strong, but you’re also very close to your grant baby. As such, you can see things the way you mean them to be and not the way they are. As such, I strongly suggest having a technical editor review the penultimate draft of the specific aims and research strategy before submission. Many universities offer these services, but even if yours doesn’t, it can be worth the money to hire an external editor.
  • Be ready to revise and resubmit. The odds are that you’ll have to resubmit your application at least once. Anticipate the critiques if you can and start addressing them while waiting on the reviews. For example, can you collect pilot data that will help you support your application? Can you get some papers published that will show collaboration between team members and build the evidence base? The worst thing you can do is submit the application and put the project on the back burner for six months.

Ultimately, the best strategy for improving your chance at success is writing, submitting, revising, and resubmitting. Only by doing will you learn effective strategies that fit your individual style. Grant writing is a skill like anything else; you’ll only get better at it by doing it and getting feedback on your work. Good luck!

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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