Funding, Grantsmanship, and the Transition to Research Independence
Posted May 17, 2021
The ability to write grants and secure funding is a critical component of one’s success in biomedical research. Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) receives more than $32 billion a year in federal funds to invest in biomedical research, most of this funding goes to established, senior researchers. However, NIH Director Francis S. Collins is dedicated to investing in young scientists as well. Scientists can apply for funding at all stages of their careers via fellowships, training grants, and career transition awards. Strong grant writing skills are essential to complete a competitive application.. On March 8, 2021, the Academy’s Science Alliance hosted a grant writing webinar focused on career transition awards for those branching out to independence. Dr. Jaime Rubin described the numerous award opportunities for early-stage investigators and best practices for effective grant writing. Following her detailed presentation, junior faculty who recently received these transition awards discussed their pathways to independence and gave tips for writing successful applications.
- The NIH, as well as other federal and non-federal funding agencies, provide many opportunities for early-stage career investigators to receive academic support.
- Successful grant applications are well-written and detailed with evidence of a strong candidate, compelling research project, and supportive mentorship.
- Submitting a competitive application requires adequate time and planning to compile the necessary components and develop a concrete understanding of the grant requirements and review criteria.
- Previous award recipients recommend starting a draft of the application early and asking mentors who have served on grant review committees to review relevant sections of the application.
Funding Opportunities and Strategies for Successful Grant Submission
The webinar began with Dr. Jaime Rubin providing an overview of funding agencies and different types of awards available to junior investigators. Rubin, Vice Chair for Investigator Development in the Department of Medicine at Columbia University, noted that while the NIH has many disease-focused Institutes with funding opportunities, many other federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, also provide research funding. Additionally, scientists can apply for non-federal funding through private foundations and societies such as the American Heart Association, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the American Cancer Society.
However, Rubin focused on awards available through the NIH. Different funding opportunities are available based on a scientist’s career stage. Training Grants (T), Fellowships (F), and Career Development Grants (K) can support graduate students, postdoctoral candidates and junior faculty. The Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) is designed to help postdoctoral researchers transition to independent principal investigators (PI). Once in an independent faculty position, investigators are funded by the Research Project Grant Program (R) to provide renewable multi-year funding for independent research. “The funding mechanisms are very different from each other. They have different missions,” said Rubin.
The K99/R00 provides 1-2 years of mentored support as a postdoc or other mentored investigator (K99 component). Following this period, the grant recipient must obtain a faculty position, many times at a different university, to use the additional three years of funding as an independent investigator. There is no citizenship requirement for this grant, but you must have had no more than four years of research experience since completing your doctoral degree to be eligible. “The K99 is really growing in number and is a much larger portion of the K portfolio from when it started out,” Rubin noted. These awards are becoming more common with more grants awarded. In 2019, the K99 had a success rate of about 30% at NHLBI.
Many other transition awards are available for early-stage investigators. Junior investigators can utilize individual career development awards, which can eventually lead to R01 research grants. Those on clinically and non-clinically trained pathways have specific grant options tailored to their educational backgrounds. Rubin explained the differences between many of the K and R grant options. For example, K01 awards vary based on the NIH Institute and provide funding in various research disciplines. Small R03 awards can be used to support pilot projects. R01s are large grants that fund both the PI and laboratory personnel salaries. They also cover the costs of supplies, animals, patients, core facilities, and travel to national meetings. These are multi-year grants that can be renewed many times.
Rubin shared success rates across the different Institutes and the number of grants funded each year. She also mentioned specialized award programs such as cooperative agreements (U), contracts, administrative supplements, instrumentation grants, and clinical and translational science awards (CTSA). Many institutions also have training programs (T) that have a defined number of slots for pre- and postdoctoral candidates (T32), or provide short-term support for students participating in a short-term research program (T35).
Investigators should use NIH’s website to look for Institute-specific program announcements (PA), which describe funding opportunities in a specific research discipline, and Notices of Special Interest (NOSI). Requests for Applications (RFA) have already set aside money to fund a certain number of awards. Rubin emphasized that it is important to network and speak to colleagues who may know of potential funding sources.
She then covered a step-by-step outline of the NIH grant review process. There are three cycles of grants reviewed each year, with renewals and resubmissions submitted at a different time from new applications. Initially, once a research application is submitted, it goes to the Center for Scientific Review (CSR). Depending on the grant type, some are reviewed at the CSR, and others are reviewed at the specific Institutes. A grant is assigned and reviewed by a study section or panel of experts in the relevant field. Grants are then reviewed again when the Council meets to ensure the grant aligns with the Institute’s funding priorities. Rubin emphasized how critical it is that a grant be sent to the correct study section and urged applicants to complete an optional form requesting their grants be sent to a specific study section at the time of submission. Applicants will receive comments from reviewers and will need to address any points of weakness in a revised application. NIH uses a scoring system of 1-9, with grants receiving scores in the 1-3 range having a better chance of getting funded. Reviewers provide an overall impact score for each of the five main NIH review criteria: significance, investigators, innovation, approach, and environment.
The NIH is currently focused on enhancing diversity and inclusivity in the biomedical workforce through funding opportunities for individuals from underrepresented groups. Additionally, the NIH has prioritized helping young investigators secure funding early in their career trajectory. This is likely due to the recent increase in the age at which investigators receive their first grants. Despite many scientific breakthroughs occurring during an investigator’s younger years, a greater percentage of funded investigators are over age 65 than those 36 and younger. Rubin noted that the pay-line is different for early-stage investigators (ESI)—those who have not previously been awarded a significant NIH independent research award and within 10 years of their Ph.D. or the end of their residency—so it is important to note yourself in this way on the application.
Rubin gave suggestions for how to complete the best application possible. For example, start the writing process early, create a calendar of deadlines for the different components, and review the application instructions carefully. Asking colleagues and peers to see their previously successful applications and reviewer comments may also be helpful. The application involves information from the PI as well as letters of recommendation from faculty and letters of support from core facility directors and collaborators, so it is important to create a checklist and gather all these components early. “Avoid the 3D’s—Day of Deadline Drama!” said Rubin. Write clearly and concisely. The small details make all the difference.
Panel Discussion: Tips for Transition to Research Independence
Following her presentation, previous award winners joined Rubin to discuss their pathways to research independence. Lale Ozcan, an assistant professor at Columbia University, obtained a Career Development Award from the American Heart Association. Her mentor, who has served on many grant study sections, was extremely supportive in helping her secure funding and find an independent faculty job. Ozcan provided helpful tips for acquiring initial lab funding and how to negotiate a startup package. “When you are applying for faculty jobs, you should negotiate the startup funds, lab and office space, and teaching time,” said Ozcan. She recommended starting a successful R01 6-9 months before the deadline when you have enough preliminary data. However, she warned early investigators against being overly ambitious about what they can accomplish. Gabrielle Fredman, an assistant professor at Albany Medical College, completed her PhD at Boston University, followed by two postdocs. She wrote a K99/R00 while at Columbia and then transferred her remaining three years of support to a new institution. While Fredman was focused on obtaining larger R01 grants, she admitted that applying to a smaller grant opened her up to a new community and direction of study, and helped her secure her second R01.
Both Ozcan and Fredman, who worked with Jaime Rubin on their applications, attributed their grant success to her help, particularly with the career development component. They reiterated the importance of planning ahead, reading the instructions, and talking with those who have previously received grants. Having 2-3 well-funded PIs read your initial R01 submissions may be beneficial. Although some mentors may be more involved in their mentee’s transition to independence than others, they must take the time to discuss the scientific goals and research plan. Explaining in the application how your mentor is going to help you transition to independence shows that you have a supportive mentor, and you are not going at this on your own. While it is expected that you may use some preliminary data from a previous lab or postdoc, you must demonstrate that you are now independent from your mentor and that the ideas are your own.
“In the personal statement, be personal” said Fredman. “Use specifics [about] what conferences you will attend, what courses you will take, and what resources you will use.” The New York Academy of Sciences is a great resource for scientific conferences and professional development, but don’t overdo it with too many goals. Although certain strategies and tips have been beneficial for applicants, there is no one recipe for an early investigator’s success.