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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.

Getting a Grant for Innovative Research

Do you have highly innovative ideas you would like to get funded?

Because it's often difficult to convince reviewers to accept highly innovative research, this document gives you advice to help you succeed, whether you are thinking of applying for an investigator-initiated R01 or one of NIH's innovation RFAs.

Table of Contents

Innovation took Apple's Steve Jobs a long way, but could it have gotten him an NIH grant?

Perhaps, but it probably would have been difficult—the reason we usually advise you against going too far afield.

Because it's not easy to succeed with groundbreaking, high-risk, high-impact research, you need sound advice.

Note: on this page, we differentiate between opportunities that do not specifically seek innovation ("standard R01") and those that do ("initiative for innovation" or "innovation initiative").

Focus on Reviewers

Let’s start by noting that your reviewers are the most important audience for your application, so you can’t ignore their perspective.

When choosing a topic for a standard R01 application, don’t start with an innovative idea they are unlikely to appreciate.

Instead, propose work they will view as important, which is critical for your success (we tell you more about that subject below in “Getting Your Reviewers Onboard”).

At this point, you are regarding your application as your means to getting funded, your primary objective. While you can’t conduct research without funding, what about that innovative idea?

What Is a Grant?

The answer to that question holds the key. As an assistance mechanism, a grant gives you funds to launch your research. But a grant is not a prescription that needs to be followed precisely throughout its entire life.

Unlike a contract that spells out definite requirements in detail, a grant gives you leeway to follow new leads as they arise—to be the “scientist in the sandbox.”

While completing your aims is a good way to show productivity for your next application, your research can also include work that follows new, innovative leads, especially if they hold promise to contribute new knowledge to your field.

Getting to Innovation

Think of your aims as the core of your research from which new leads may follow.

Once you secure funding, you will begin to work on your proposed aims, knowing that you can take your research in new directions as long as your project stays within the scope of its peer-reviewed aims.

If you do have to expand the scope, you can talk to your program officer about the possibility of applying for a revision, or you may want to consider applying for a new grant.

Talk with your grants management specialist and program officer for additional help.

Getting Your Reviewers Onboard

As with any object, beauty is in the eye of the beholder: first and foremost, your reviewers will need to share your perspective that the topic you chose for your standard R01 is vital to your field. They will also have to agree that you can successfully complete the research you propose.

The repercussions of not having the right reviewers are huge, e.g., they may not see the field as having other priorities (you chose the wrong project) or believe that the research you proposed is too innovative.

Thus, it's critical to make sure at the outset—before choosing a project—that NIH has a review committee that would embrace the direction in which you are planning to take the research you describe in your application.

We suggest that you not proceed before taking time to analyze the Center for Scientific Review's review committees and find one that would appreciate the work you are planning to propose.

Learning the perspectives of different review committees and their members is well worth your time first to guide you in choosing a project and later for writing the application. It’s much more efficient to do this before you pick a project than to learn you made the wrong choice after the review.

Building an Innovative Standard R01 Application

If reviewers think you're wandering too far outside of the box, your application probably won't score well since the likelihood of success will be perceived as low.

When writing your application, help reviewers see the value of your work by following the steps listed below.

A lack of details in the Approach section will likely have a negative impact on your overall impact score.

Make Your Approach Above Reproach

It goes without saying that your Research Strategy has to be airtight. That goes for all three sections: Significance, Innovation, and Approach.

Reviewers use the first two to assess your project's importance, so you may be tempted to brush over the third. Don't.

Make sure you use it to clearly address those who may be less familiar with your methods or other aspects of your innovative research. A lack of details in the Approach section will likely have a negative impact on your overall impact score, so don't skimp on this part.

Provide more details in the Approach section if you are combining disciplines or applying a new technology for which the review panel appears not to have expertise.

Help ensure that everyone "gets it" by communicating to a broad audience.

Address All Your Reviewers

When writing your application, it's critical to address all members of your review group: experts and non-experts in your field.

Even though you perused the rosters and requested a study section, there's no guarantee the people you want to scrutinize your application will actually do so. Study section members rotate off, CSR can add ad hoc members, and people may miss a meeting.

To get your points across to all your reviewers in limited space, write in the style of a Scientific American article by using a conversational tone that excites readers into valuing your proposal as highly significant.

Also, help ensure that everyone "gets it" by communicating to a broad audience. Here are two examples.

  • Let's say you propose to create a mouse model to investigate potential therapies for a disease. If non-experts don't know that there isn’t a small animal model for this disease, they won’t grasp why your work is innovative.
  • Another scenario: one reviewer might be familiar with mouse models but not the disease, and vice versa.
Tell your reviewers exactly what you plan to accomplish.

Make Your Intentions Clear

Reviewers need to understand your intentions as well.

Going back to our example, while your long-term goal might be to develop a drug using your mouse model, you have to delineate your short-term objectives.

Are you the trailblazer trying to create the model or someone trying to take that model to the next step where it can be used reliably for testing compounds? Tell your reviewers exactly what you plan to accomplish.

If That Shoe Doesn't Fit, Try Another Shoe: Innovation Initiatives

If incorporating innovation into a standard R01 application doesn't or didn't work for you, consider this alternative: respond to an initiative, e.g., an RFA, that specifically seeks bold, high-risk, high-impact research.

The pros of taking this approach may appeal to you, but be aware of the cons as well.

Assess the Advantages

You may make better headway applying for an innovation initiative, given the following:

  • You may be able to take more risk if none of the applications are expected to have preliminary data.
  • Applications responding to an initiative are reviewed together, so expectations for level of risk and content will be the same for all.
  • Review panels will include expertise based on the topics of submitted applications, so you’re not in a position of having to fit a square peg (your application) into a round hole (a standing study section).

If you want to go this route, consider NIH Common Fund opportunities for scientists who propose highly innovative approaches to major challenges in biomedical research.

Consider Crucial Caveats

An innovation initiative may work for you in the short-term but what about in the long-run? That's where caveats come in.

Assuming you get funded, look down the road to when your grant is over. What are your next steps? You could renew, but that's not an option with innovation initiatives. You could try for a standard R01, but that might not be easy.

The outlook, post-initiative, is not rosy. But don't take our word for it. Here's what two investigators—both funded through the NIH Director's New Innovator Award—have to say.

"It’s not been easy to compete for standard R01s (where, in my opinion, risk taking does not fare well). Other restrictions: we will no longer be considered new investigators and will not have the opportunity to renew our grants, like a typical R01."—Sanjay K Jain, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health

"Since many new innovator programs are high-risk, high-impact, often involve interdisciplinary aspects, and lack sufficient preliminary data for all aims, transition from new innovator program to a regular R01 may still be difficult mainly due to lack of interdisciplinary expertise and different degree of risk tolerance by most regular R01 study sections."—Xilin Zhao, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

Find some aspect of your highly innovative work that is more conventional and use that for a standard R01 application.

Combination Is an Option

Given the caveats above, what's a person to do?

Your best bet might be to apply for both a standard R01 and an innovation initiative.

Your choice depends on the source of your innovation. If it hinges on showing feasibility for a new animal model, consider applying for a standard R01 to further develop the model since you’ll have proof-of-concept and preliminary data.

However, if the innovation stems from combining disciplines in areas that don’t fit traditional study sections, your application may have a tough time succeeding in peer review. Multidisciplinary research presents a challenge to the peer review system because you don’t typically find all the expertise needed to review the application in one group.

If possible, find some aspect of your highly innovative work that is more conventional and use that for a standard R01 application. That way you'll be conducting more mainstream research that may lead to publications and may fare better with peer reviewers.

Bottom line: you need to have your bread and butter—research with a higher probability of success (i.e., less risky)—so you can apply for a standard R01. At the same time, you can pursue highly innovative work that entails more risk by applying for an initiative that targets innovation.

Related Links

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

Table of Contents for the Strategy

We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email deaweb@niaid.nih.gov.

Last Updated January 23, 2012

Last Reviewed December 07, 2011