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Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding. Link to Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding.Link to Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.Link to Part 3. Write Your Application.Link to Part 4. Submit Your Application.Link to Part 5. Assignment and Review.Link to Part 6. If Not Funded.Link to Part 7. Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Choose the Grant   ·   Strategy to Design a ProjectNext page in Strategy.

Choose Approach and Find FOAs

On this page, you will learn the difference between investigator-initiated and targeted research.

You will see how those approaches affect your project choice and how they correspond to NIH funding opportunity announcements.

Follow all instructions described in the FOA; you may have additional or different requirements if you're not applying for an investigator-initiated application.

If your investigator-initiated R01 application falls within our mission, it will be assigned to us, and we will fund the application if its overall impact score is within our R01 payline.

No matter which approach you use, make sure you qualify for independent support in your area of research by reading Ready for Independent Support? in Part 1.

Table of Contents

Just the Facts

(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)

Investigator-Initiated Versus Targeted Research

A main advantage of investigator-initiated research is it helps you stay in your area of expertise.

NIH gives you two basic ways to approach picking a research project.

  1. You can simply pick a project in any area you choose and submit an application for what is called investigator-initiated (or unsolicited) research.
  2. You can respond to an NIAID initiative that solicits research in a predefined high-priority area. In this case—called solicited (or targeted) research—you choose the project but not the research area.

1. Investigator-initiated. This approach comes in two flavors.

A. You design a project in any area of science the Institute supports.

  • It must fit our mission.
  • A main advantage of this approach is it helps you stay in your area of expertise.
  • You apply through an NIH Parent Program Announcement (PA).

B. You apply through an institute-specific PA, which solicits research in a broadly defined area. Your project must be in the area of science described in the funding opportunity announcement (FOA)—read more in the section below FOAs Explained.

For all investigator-initiated research, we fund applications using Institute paylines, though we fund some applications beyond the payline as well. (We discuss that topic in How NIAID Makes Funding Decisions in Part 7.)

Illustration of the bullets in this section of text.Our graphic illustrates how the science areas range from narrow to broad for the different approaches. It also shows that most of the applications researchers submit—and most of the research NIAID funds—is investigator-initiated.

2. Targeted research.

For targeted research, institutes issue requests for applications (RFA) to solicit grant applications in narrowly defined scientific areas.

RFAs enable us to stimulate research in high-priority topics. To qualify, your project must be in the area of science described in the FOA.

Here are key attributes of RFAs.

  • RFAs have their own set-aside money; that is, part of NIAID's budget is allocated to funding applications responding to RFAs.
  • Your competition depends on the number of people who apply and the amount of money we have set aside for the RFA.
  • For each RFA, the Institute sets limits on the amount of funds available and anticipated number of awards.
  • RFAs usually have a single receipt date.
  • Applications responding to RFAs are checked for responsiveness before peer review.

In making funding decisions, program staff examine a list of applications in overall impact score order, from best (numerically lowest) to worst (numerically highest). These scores are usually not converted to a percentile since they are primarily reviewed in just one special emphasis panel for a single receipt date.

We fund RFAs mostly in overall impact score order until we deplete the money set aside for the RFA (we do not set a payline for RFAs). We say "mostly" because we may, with justification, skip over some applications to fund others that better meet a priority or programmatic need.

We also issue contract solicitations. Read more about contract funding at Why You May Want to Consider a Contract.

FOAs Explained

For each FOA, NIH publishes announcements with additional information and instructions in the NIH Guide.

For any application you submit to NIH, you will apply through a FOA.

All federal grant funding agencies use FOAs to announce their funding opportunities. For NIH, FOAs are either PAs or RFAs and have two important parts.

First, FOAs are the notices in that include your instructions in the SF 424 Application Guide and the forms you will fill out.

Since NIH has its own requirements as well, part of the FOA is also the NIH Guide announcement that gives you additional information that's important to read.

Here's where to find FOAs. Read the Guide announcement to see if NIAID participates.

NIH opportunities—announced in the Guide


Solicited research—Requests for Applications

NIAID opportunities—announced in the Guide and on our NIAID Funding Opportunities List


Solicited research—RFAs on the NIAID Funding Opportunities List

Program Announcements

As we noted above, both parent and institute-specific program announcements support investigator-initiated research.

A parent program announcement FOA is simply a vehicle for you to submit an investigator-initiated application for a given activity code. For example, you can apply for an R01 in any topic within the NIH mission using the R01 Parent Program Announcement FOA.

In contrast, institute-specific announcements reflect institute initiatives, each with their own requirements.

Because applications are investigator-initiated, you apply using NIH's Standard Due Dates for Competing Applications.

Usually, applications are reviewed in NIH's Center for Scientific Review; some are reviewed by institute scientific review groups. You can find the review location in the FOA.

Requests for Applications

To find NIAID's RFAs, go to our NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

  • Follow all instructions described in the FOA.
  • RFAs have a single receipt date.
  • For the vast majority, applications are reviewed in institutes—read the FOA for the location.

Our Advice

(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts.)

Choosing an Approach

The big advantage of an investigator-initiated application is that it keeps you in your area of expertise.

Most people would say that you have two ways to set about applying for a NIH grant, but we'll give you a third option that may be the best of all.

Here are the two official ways to approach an NIH application:

  1. Submit an investigator-initiated application.
  2. Respond to an initiative.

Investigator-Initiated: Draw On Your Strengths

As we said above, investigator-initiated means you create an application in any area of science NIH supports. Make sure you qualify for independent support the research area by reading Ready for Independent Support? in Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding

How does this work? Let's assume your science falls within the mission of NIAID. To apply for an investigator-initiated R01—a standard independent grant—you don't need to know our priorities, and you don't need to look for any special announcements from us.

You simply use the R01 parent program announcement to submit an application in a topic of your choice. If an application's topic falls within our mission, it will be assigned to us, and we will fund the application if its overall impact score is within the payline.

The big advantage of going this route is that it keeps you in your area of expertise. Staying grounded in what you know best is a critical ingredient of success, especially if you are a relatively new investigator with an unknown track record.

Also keep in mind these features of investigator-initiated applications:

  • Though you have the most latitude to generate your own ideas, you will have to convince peer reviewers that your topic can make an impact worthy of NIH's investment.
  • We fund applications by paylines, in contrast to some initiatives, which have set-aside funds. That feature may or may not work to your advantage—more on that subject below.

Initiatives—See if It's a Good Match

Also at play are two interrelated success factors unique to initiatives: your competition and the level of funds we set aside.

Now that you know about investigator-initiated applications, let's discuss points to consider for initiatives—RFAs and PAs.

When responding to an initiative, you are held to the requirements of the announcement and the research areas we have defined.

At the outset, ask yourself: "does my expertise match the announcement?" and be sure not to break the rule of staying in your area of expertise (for more on that topic, go to Pick a Research Project and Design a Project in Part 2).

To succeed, you'll also need an idea and execution that can make a high impact on the field in the context of the goals of the initiative.

Also at play are two interrelated success factors unique to initiatives: your competition and the level of funds set aside. All RFAs have set-aside funds as do some PAs. With a set-aside, NIAID funds applications largely by overall impact score, but also taking into account the programmatic importance of the research.

Thus, in addition to the other points noted above, your success will depend on:

  • The amount of money we have set aside.
  • The number and expertise of your competitors—you may be competing against world-class experts in the field.
  • Your expertise by comparison.

While more money means more grants, the more people who apply—and competition can be intense—the smaller the fraction that succeeds.

How do you assess your competition and the set-aside?

For the former, the program officer listed in the announcement can help. Call to get a sense of how much interest the initiative has generated as well as feedback on how well your research ideas meet the scope of the initiative.

Any set-asides are stated in the FOA. For PAs that do not have a set-aside, we fund applications by the payline for the activity code and possibly pay some beyond the payline.

One advantage to applying under an RFA is if your application is not funded you can submit the same project again as a new investigator-initiated application by applying for one of NIH's Parent Announcements or another program announcement that supports your activity code. Another option: change activity code and carry forward some or all of your project's aims.

For more information, read Option 3: Repurpose the Application in Part 6.

You may also want to go the initiative route if you're proposing highly innovative research. Learn more at Getting a Grant for Innovative Research.

One last point when writing your application: although initiatives are in high-priority scientific areas, you'll still need to describe the significance of the project, as you normally would.

Use Our Concepts List, Blend Approaches

While not all concepts become initiatives, they highlight NIAID's research interests and are good resources for investigator-initiated topics.

You don't need to wait for NIAID to publish an initiative to apply in a topic covered by a concept—the earliest planning stage of an initiative. Savvy investigators look at concepts closely to see whether their expertise lends itself to any of these emerging priorities.

We do not guarantee that a concept will ever become a published initiative. But whether it does or not makes no difference because concepts give you a sneak preview of research areas in which NIAID would like to receive applications, including for investigator-initiated research.

Glimpse future initiatives. We publish concepts online so you can get a head start.

  • You can get started writing an application for a future RFA or PA before we publish it.
  • Even if we don't publish an initiative, you can submit an investigator-initiated application in the area.

Use concepts for ideas. Along those lines, use our concepts simply to get ideas for topics for an investigator-initiated application.

  • This powerful strategy lets you both meet our priorities and stay in your area of expertise (assuming the areas align), boosting your chances of succeeding.
  • If the application misses the payline, it will have a better chance of getting an R56-Bridge or selective pay award than it would otherwise.

Do more sleuthing to find our priorities.

Talk to NIAID program officers. We may have other priorities that do not appear on our published lists—NIAID Funding Opportunities List and Concepts: Potential Opportunities—but are still programmatically important.

Sign Up for Alerts to Stay Ahead of the Pack

When we post new concepts, you can get the news right away, usually within a month of a Council meeting.

To receive notification of new concepts and initiatives, go to Subscribe to Email Alerts and select the appropriate interest category.

More Resources

Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Choose the Grant   ·   Strategy to Design a ProjectNext page in Strategy.

See the other sections of
Part 2. Pick and Design a Project

Table of Contents for the Strategy

We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email

Last Updated November 15, 2013

Last Reviewed November 15, 2013