If you're reading this blog, chances are you are likely aware of the NIH. It happens to be the biggest single funding source for biomedical research in the U.S. and has a 2010 budget of nearly $31 Billion. If you do biomed science in the U.S., NIH is kinda a big deal.
For those of us who do more "basic" science (meaning stuff that doesn't directly cure cancer), sending a proposal to the NIH is something people talk about, but rarely do. Afterall, I'm not interested in what my work can do for people because little of what I do is directly relevant to the NIH mission. At the same time, I would be stupid to ignore a potential funding source and so, at the behest of some colleagues, I've been poking around to figure out if I can identify a mechanism for NIH support. My plan all along had been to try and get an NSF grant or two under the belt and then see what I could do about sending something to NIH, but plans have changed. If often read the NIH-related posts at DrugMonkey, but more out of passing interest that a need to learn.
So, over the last few days I have waded waist deep into the NIH swamp and holy shit is it murky. First off, the good news. NIH RePORTER is pretty fucking awesome. Having the direct link between the funded grant and the resulting publications is tremendously useful. On top of that, NIH provides the roster of its study sections! This allows an applicant to not only find a relevant section, but also see whether there is anyone on that section who might be sympathetic to their application. Maybe that helps and maybe it doesn't, but it's an interesting bit of transparency that you don't find in many other places.
BUT, as a new investigator with no NIH experience, trying to find the right program to apply to is a serious rabbit hole. First, wade through all the institutes and centers. Think you've found one that'll work? Might want to check again, because there are random programs stuck all over the place that might be relevant to the work you are proposing. I found a relevant program in the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, and I can assure you the closest I come to dental work is my annual visit to the tooth scraper. To make the process much more fun, none of the institute websites are set up the same (compare this to this). Don't impose website standards on MY institute, we do it the best way! It's like journals and their damn citation formatting.
Alright, so you found a program. You read to apply? Well, check which institutes take which grants as "unsolicited requests", because if you want to apply for an R21 (which some think you should not), R15 or R03, for instance, you can only send it in to certain institutes unless it is a response to a specific RFA. Is there any rhyme or reason to which take unsolicited proposals and which don't? Maybe, but I can't figure it out.
But here the best part! Even though you have to apply through an institute and a program within that institute, it is the study section that ranks your grant. Is there a study section for each program? Of course not! The study sections are decoupled from the institutes and programs. Therefore, even if you send in a proposal to a certain program, it may go to the study section to get ranked and then another program (possibly in another institute) may pick it up. So, do you target the institute, the study section or both? Can you make sure your proposal makes it to the right study section? How that works in terms of unsolicited proposals or specific RFAs, I have no clue.
Maybe the system is perfect and my complaints are based on my naive misunderstanding of how all this works. Since I didn't grow up in an NIH lab and have never worked on an NIH project, trying to learn the system from scratch has been a bit crazy. I'm sure I have misinterpreted some things here as well and I welcome corrections because I'm trying to work this all out. I may not be the sharpest tack around, but the labyrinth of NIH seems ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated from the perspective of an outsider. But maybe that's the point.