Lessons Learned from a Successful NIH Center Grant

I was hired recently by administrators at a medical center that landed a prestigious $20 million, 5-year NIH Center Grant (P30). They wisely created a Board of Directors (by their own initiative—they were not obliged to do so by the NIH.) The researchers at the medical center had completed their first year of the grant and the Board was meeting for the first time to evaluate the researchers’ progress. I was hired to write a summary report of the one-day meeting, notably to capture the comments and recommendations of the Board.

The research group made my job easy. They had had a very successful first year and the Board was clearly pleased with their progress. When the grant commenced they had “hit the ground running,” so to speak. What helped make them so successful?

One thing that stood out for me was the staggering level of institutional support in the years prior to applying for the grant. The medical center spent millions in seed money establishing the programs that went on to become the core elements of the center grant. This medical school was part of a state system, and the university system also had spent a substantial amount of money priming the research pump. This seed money launched research programs that helped the medical center go on to successfully land state money, SBIR/STTR funding, and company matches.

In addition, the medical center played to its strengths. The institutional money was not spread out thinly across many researchers. Instead, they targeted the few most promising groups with the money. This approach no doubt led to the impressive number of publications and R01 and R21 grants that were landed by these groups prior to applying for the center grant.

The take-home message seems obvious, whether we are talking about individual investigators are large groups: Research thrives when there is significant institutional support. I would go further and even say that research cannot be expected to succeed without significant institutional support. While this message seems obvious, I rarely see the level of institutional support that helped this medical center land a center grant and have such a successful first year. When I talk with administrators, I hear a lot about how the university or medical center is hoping to generate revenue from the indirects on the federal grants their researchers land. I rarely hear them talk about how they plan to invest up front to optimize the success of these grant proposals.

Clearly federal funding is the most desirable outcome for researchers and universities. But in order to compete successfully at that level, groups must stair-step up to federal grants with state and local funding and corporate and foundation money. But it all starts with institutional support, and I don’t mean $20-30K start-up funds, but real, significant, six-digit support. You can’t expect even the best research groups to succeed without first priming the grant pump internally.