NIH Grantwriting Circles of Hell


T.S. Eliot says that “April is the cruellest month”, but if you work on NIH grant applications for a living, April’s got nothing on May. For those of us whose professional lives largely revolve around the NIH grant cycles, May is the month leading up to all those dreaded deadlines in June. Forget Eliot, this feels more like Dante’s Inferno:

First Circle: LIMBO. This is where the guiltless damned reside. Sounds about right. It is when a client sends you a dreadful first draft of their Research Strategy and you read and re-read it, and think, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

Second Circle: LUST. Where your appetite sways your reason, and you are consumed with fantasies of eight- and nine-figure grant awards.

Third Circle: GLUTTONY. You are at your computer at 2am. For the ten thousandth time this month, you do a global find-and-replace to change “data is” to “data are”.  With red-rimmed eyes, you decide to crack open your fifteenth bag of peanut M&Ms. Large bags of potato chips wait nearby.

Fourth Circle: GREED. When you lose your ability to understand why any other person’s grant applications should ever be funded.

Fifth Circle: ANGER. May is not the month to spend time looking at funding statistics on the NIH Reporter website.

Sixth Circle: HERESY. You start to believe that other federal funding agencies, such as Department of Defense or NSF, are evil or satanic because you believe their funding levels are better than those at NIH. You generally find yourself in this circle of hell after a conversation with a grantwriting colleague who has recently landing a DoD or NSF grant.

Seventh Circle: VIOLENCE.

Outer Ring: You fantasize about sabotaging the grants.gov portal.

Middle Ring: You fantasize about being transformed into a gnarled thorny bush and being fed upon by Harpies, because anything would be better than spending one more minute creatively formatting to meet a page limit.

Outer Ring: You shake your fist at God and rue the day you ever applied to a biomedical research graduate program.

Eighth Circle: FRAUD. You tell your client their R01 will not be competitive with so little preliminary data. They miraculously return two weeks later with seven more figures. You say nothing.

Ninth Circle: TREACHERY. You recall the client who first talked you into trying your hand at grantwriting and remember how he recommended you to all his research colleagues. At the time you were grateful for his having launched this lucrative segment of your business portfolio, but you now recognize it for the act of treachery that it truly was. You recall the day he kissed you on the cheek at a department-wide meeting in front of the faculty, and kick yourself for having missed the symbolism.

The Centre of Hell: SATAN. Satan is portrayed by Dante as ignorant and full of hate—i.e., a Study Section. He has three faces: one represents basic science, one clinical science, and one translational science. He is waist-deep in applications, entrapped and weeping tears from his six eyes as he shouts, “You have given poor consideration to alternative hypotheses! You have not run the appropriate controls! Your ideas are not innovative! Your diffuse study design has dampened our enthusiasm for your project! You did not cite me in your references!” The icy winds of bureaucracy ensure his continued imprisonment in the Pooks Hill Marriot. Each of his mouths chews on an unscored grantee, as he rakes his hideous claws over the applications, reducing them to shreds. And just when you cannot stand one more moment…

You reach COB June 5. And your phone starts ringing for help on the Cycle III apps…

Are The Funding Rates For NIH Grants As Bad As Everyone Says They Are?

It’s early January, which means we are in the thick of the Cycle I NIH grants. The #1 question we get asked by clients has to do with the percentage of grants getting funded. Lots of myths float around about funding lines. We can’t figure out where our clients come up with some of the draconian facts and figures we hear. So how bad is the funding situation at NIH, really?

The answer lies in my new favorite website:  The NIH RePORT Website (http://report.nih.gov/index.aspx). It is a vast improvement over its predecessor, the CRISP system. You can’t believe how much great information resides on this site: strategic plans, budget and spending, fact sheets, tutorials, annual reports, funded organizations, funding by category, info on trainees, and on and on. This website ought to come with a warning label. Surfing it can eat up hours of your time.

Those who write NIH proposals will be familiar with the searchable database of funded research—simply enter your search terms (or any other pertinent information) and it promptly hands you a spreadsheet of all NIH-funded projects on that topic. You can see who is funded, their proposal title, funded organization, grant mechanism, dollar amount, and NIH funding institute. Click further and you get the abstract, project narrative, performance sites, PI contact info, start and end dates, etc. It is completely absorbing. Sort of like Facebook for science geeks.

But I digress. We were talking about funding lines. On the homepage there is an icon euphemistically called “success rates.” There you will find a spreadsheet in which NIH has kindly given us funding rates. Broken down by Institute and grant mechanism, they list number of applications reviewed, number of applications awarded, success rate (%) of reviewed applications, and total funding. So here, without further ado, are the funding percentages for the major R-series grants for some of the larger institutes for FY10:

INSTITUTE R01 R03 R21
NCI 19.39% 12.85% 11.12%
NHLBI 20.77% 0 14.18%
NIDCR 21.93% 27.66% 13.64%
NIDDK 27.02% 50.00% 13.98%
NINDS 24.00% 17.32% 15.10%
NIAID 21.04% 18.88% 21.09%
NICHD 17.32% 15.61% 10.14%
NIA 16.82% 7.51% 7.94%
NIAMS 23.60% 18.49% 15.65%
NHGRI 34.78% 22.73% 22.67%
NIBIB 20.35% 9.46% 11.85%
NIMH 25.17% 17.33% 16.39%
NIEHS 24.21% 25.46% 22.12%
NIDA 20.19% 20.00% 17.17%
NIAAA 22.33% 43.86% 25.26%

NOTE: Success rates are defined as the percentage of reviewed grant applications that receive funding. They are computed on a fiscal year basis and include applications that are peer reviewed and either scored or unscored by an Initial Review Group. Success rates are determined by dividing the number of competing applications funded by the sum of the total number of competing applications reviewed and the number of funded carryovers1. Applications having one or more amendments in the same fiscal year are only counted once.

Now before you start barraging me with emails, I will add the caveats—these numbers include all R01s at any given institute, and the funding lines are better for Early Stage Investigators than for other applicants but the scores are all averaged together here. Also the funding lines are different for each type of R01 within an Institute. And these numbers are for FY10 (October 1, 2009-September 30, 2010), which may bear no relation to the FY11 budget for each of these programs.

Regardless, these numbers are far better than the ones typically quoted to us by clients. If you still feel daunted by these funding rates, try to remember: If you don’t apply, your odds of funding are zero.

It pays to spend some time on the RePORT website. It can yield valuable information as you strategize about how to structure your research interests to fit the current funding trends. But be careful: If you start spending too much time on this website, your family and friends may be prompted to stage an intervention.