Increase your likelihood of success when applying for grants

In this column I want to explore applying for National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding. First, I am happy to report that NIH funding for departments within the Morsani College of Medicine (excluding the Health Informatics Institute) increased 10 percent for FY 2018 compared to the previous year. And from the looks of the success rates for current faculty and our recent recruits, we will continue to realize an increase next year.

Despite an NIH budget that is too low for the U.S. pool of research talent, now appears to be a good time to apply for NIH grants, as the overall success rate is ~20 percent. However, it is critical to follow the directions for the grant. More on this later in this column. Back to success rates, depicted in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1 shows the success rates by medical school departments, where the NIH collectively received at least 750 grant applications. Departments of Neurosciences and Genetics have the greatest success rates, consistent with the NIH emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease as well as genome-based studies. There are some impressive success rates in other medical school departments with fewer total applications, such as ophthalmology (23.5 percent), dermatology (16.7 percent) and otolaryngology (11.7 percent).

Table 2 shows the success rates for applications sent to the indicated NIH institutions, where success rates were at least ~20 percent. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke is at 17.7 percent, but received one of the largest number of grants of all the Institutes (4,211). The National Institute on Aging is also funding much of the research for age-related dementias with a 26.6 percent success rate. Of note, some institutions remain at a low success rate, such as the National Cancer Institute (11.7 percent).  Success rate is defined by the NIH in a special way that is not altogether intuitive. The NIH uses terms called “award rate” and “funding rate”. See for these definitions.

The R01 grant remains the cornerstone of research grants at virtually all medical schools, so I want to briefly discuss pitfalls that will take applications out of contention. Each reviewer must score the applications in five areas: Significance, Investigator(s), Innovation, Approach, and Environment. There are also some special sections, such as those requiring information on the use of animals and human research, and authentication of key biological and/or chemical resources. All five scored parts of the application must be addressed in a manner that is clear to the reviewer (so that he or she does not have to search for them). Throughout the body of the grant, or the other pages such as the biosketch, you must pay attention to all five areas. It is tempting to just write your 12 pages of research and assume it is obvious that the research is significant, innovative, and utilizes a great approach. My preference is to include a section for each of these, so that they can be readily found. For innovation, I create a table so that the reviewer has this clearly summarized. Here is an example:

  1. How the proposal improves scientific knowledge and is innovative: Throughout this proposal the gaps in our knowledge are presented, their relevance to B2AR function in asthma defined, and any innovative aspects of the Aim (the idea itself or the method devised) are indicated. These are summarized in Table 3.

In my opinion, a “Potential Problems and Alternative Approaches” section for each Aim is critical. This is a good place to self-critique your approach, indicating that you are aware of possible problems and have a plan to use other methods if necessary. If you don’t write it, the reviewer will bring it up and you will be set back.

In the environment section include as much information relevant to the project as possible. This includes not only equipment in your lab, but cores and common equipment or resources, and a description of the academic environment. The Office of Research has several examples from successful applications that we can share with investigators. The environment section is separate from the 12 pages, so use it fully. I have even included several references from our lab to show how a specific instrument was used.

The “Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources” section is also separate from the 12 pages, and the NIH is quite specific about what content should be there. See The Office of Research also has examples of this section that may be useful for those submitting applications.

Finally, please note that as Jan. 25, 2019, the instructions for applications will replace the term “scientific premise” with “the rigor of the prior research”. This latter phrase is defined as “Describe the strengths and weaknesses in the rigor of the prior research (both published and unpublished) that serves as the key support for the proposed project.” This should be within the 12-page limit, and is part of the Significance and Approach section (see

Good luck for the upcoming year, and as always our doors are open for consultation on any of these issues. We also provide professional grant writing assistance and external mock study section reviews.

Stephen Liggett, MD
Associate Vice President for Research, USF Health
Vice Dean for Research, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine
Professor of Medicine, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology

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