Applying for NIH funding, Part 1

The saga begins.

Many people complain about grant applications, but just how bad are they? I’m about to find out.

This summer I am applying for my first NIH grant, an F31 fellowship1. The F31 is one of the smallest NIH grants, intended to support a single PhD student. Still, the application process shares many similarities with larger grants. I think it will be interesting to document my experience so that people can learn what it’s like for a novice grant writer.

F31 applications are evaluated 3 times per year, with the next deadline being August 8. At the beginning of June, I decided to apply for the summer deadline. The first step was to determine if I was applying to the normal F31, or the F31 Diversity fellowship, which is a special fellowship for “underrepresented minorities” (i.e., Asians and Whites need not apply). Since I’m not “underrepresented”, I am applying for the normal F31.

Next I had to decide which NIH Institute2 I wanted to apply to. I had a look through the call for applications and the various institute websites, and I decided that the NICHD was the best fit for my proposed research.

At this point I had to contact the Genetics Department’s Grants and Financial Administrator, who oversees grant applications for our lab. However, it turned out that I actually needed to work with the Chemistry Department’s administrator, since I am technically a Chemistry PhD student (it’s a long story). After a delay of a few days, I had a Zoom meeting with her. She told me that I’ll need to:

  • Choose at least 3 professors (besides my advisor) for recommendation letters

  • Make an account on the NIH eRA Commons website

  • Read the 139 pages of application instructions and get started writing

  • Send her my application materials by August 1, since she’ll need to fill out additional paperwork before sending the application to my university’s central office, who will then complete even more paperwork before finally sending it to the NIH to meet the August 8 deadline.

Choosing my recommenders was pretty easy, but I still haven’t figured out how to make an eRA Commons account. I think my department needs to set it up for me.3 Anyway, I got started reading the instructions.

The F31 Instructions

The good news is the 139-page document covers multiple types of applications, so the F31 instructions aren’t 139 pages. The bad news is that I need to pay careful attention to which parts are for the F31 and which aren’t. Anyway, it looks like I need to submit:

  • Form F.200 - SF 424 (R&R), a general form about the type of grant requested and applicant information. Instructions for this form are on pages 18–30.

  • Cover Letter for Form F.200 (1 page). Instructions are on pages 31–32.

  • Form F.220, “Other Project Information”. Basically this is to list anything that may require additional review. For example, research:

    • on humans or vertebrate animals,

    • on biohazards or potentially dangerous substances,

    • with potential environmental impact, or

    • with foreign collaborators

    This form also includes a 30-line project summary/abstract attachment, a list of bibliographic references, and a separate attachment describing the facilities and equipment used for the research. Instructions are on pages 33–42.

  • Form F.230, “Project/Performance Site Location(s)”. This form is very similar to the attachment to F.220, but goes into more detail on the site location. Instructions are on pages 43–47.

  • Form F.240, “R&R Senior/Key Person Profile (Expanded)”. Biographical information about the people involved. This will involve submitting Biosketches for me and my advisor. A Biosketch is basically a CV, except in a format that’s standardized by the NIH. It includes:

    • Name, title, eRA Commons username

    • Educational history

    • Personal statement

    • List of positions and honors

    • Description of five “Contributions to Science”

    • Research Support (basically, a list of previous grants)

    • Scholastic performance (basically, a list of courses and grades)

    There is a 5-page limit on each Biosketch, so I’ll need to prioritize what I write about. Instructions for this form are on pages 48–59.

  • Form F.430, “PHS Fellowship Supplemental Form”. This is the big one, where I’ll actually write about my proposed research. Instructions are on pages 60–83. It includes:

    • Applicant’s Background and Goals. 6 pages total, including:

      • Doctoral Dissertation and Research Experience

      • Training Goals and Objectives

      • Activities Planned Under this Award

    • Specific Aims (1 page). Basically, what are the goals of my research and why are they important?

    • Research Strategy (6 pages, not including references). What’s my plan for my research? This will address both the “Significance” and the “Approach”. I can also include the preliminary data I have from my experiments so far.

    • Respective Contributions (1 page). Basically, who is doing what.

    • Selection of sponsor and institution (1 page). Why did I choose the university and advisor that I have?

    • Training in the responsible conduct of research (1 page). Basically, I just need to document that I’ve taken a course in research ethics.4

    • Sponsor and Co-Sponsor statements (6 pages). My advisor will (hopefully) write this section. It includes:

      • Research Support Available (a list of other grants that our lab has)

      • List of outcomes for previous PhDs and postdocs

      • The plan for my research training

      • Number of other PhD students currently in the lab

      • A recommendation letter about my qualifications

    • Description of Institutional Environment and Commitment to Training (2 pages). My department will write this section, describing why it’s a good place for my research.5

    • Diversity F31 only — Description of Candidate’s Contribution to Program Goals. This form is for the university to explain why the applicant would “promote diversity”. It’s interesting that they’re very particular about this form being submitted on the university’s letterhead and signed by an institutional official. Anyway, I can ignore this one.

    • More sections on use of vertebrate animals or biohazards. I can skip these.

    • Resource Sharing Plan. A 1-paragraph description of how I plan to share the data and materials I generate.

    • Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources (1 page). A description of how I plan to avoid wasting my time due to bad starting materials. (Apparently this is a common issue.)

    • Human Embryonic Stem Cells. If I’m using hESCs I’ll need to describe my plan. I’m using hiPSCs so I don’t need to do this.

    • Other data, including about degree sought, field of training, other support, and citizenship status.

    • Budget requested, including salary, “tuition and fees”6, and other supplementary funding

  • If I were doing research on human subjects, there would be many other forms required. Thankfully, I’m not.

  • Form F.600, “PHS Assignment Request Form”. This form is optional, but recommended. It is for requesting reviewers with a particular expertise. I could also request the exclusion of certain reviewers that might have conflicts of interest (although fortunately I don’t know any of these). Instructions are on pages 121–123.

Overall, there are 6 forms, and 37 pages of attachments. And this is for one of the smallest NIH grants. In contrast, my NSF fellowship application was a single 6-page form, plus a 3-page personal statement and a 2-page research proposal. Without an eRA Commons account, I can’t actually download the NIH forms. But I can still get started writing my research proposal, and that’s what I’ll do.

What do I get if I’m funded?

The award is for up to five years, with a stipend of $25,836 per year, plus $16,000 per year for “tuition” which the university will take. There’s an additional $4,200 per year for research expenses, and $1,000 per year for conference travel.

Since my current stipend is more than the NIH funding level, I won’t actually benefit financially from this, since my advisor will just reduce the amount he’s paying from existing funding. But I can ask my advisor to let me use some of the $30,036 per year that he would be saving to fund my research. scRNA-seq can get pretty pricey. (If any readers want to fund me, please let me know!)

This application will also give me experience in how to apply for NIH grants (which is not trivial). If I stay in academia this will be a useful skill.

A note on success rates

In recent years, the success rates for F31 fellowships are usually around 30%. Diversity F31 success rates are higher, but I couldn’t find any published statistics on exactly how much higher.

Although I think I can write a strong application, it’s more likely than not that it won’t be funded. That’s why I’m applying for the August deadline, so I can resubmit for the December deadline and still get NIH funding before my NSF funding ends.

Date: 2021-06-13

Days remaining: 49

Total time spent: ~8 hours,7 and I haven’t even started writing anything. This is going to be quite an undertaking . . .

1

I currently have an NSF fellowship, but this will expire next year. Applying for this, while challenging, was nowhere nearly as complicated as the F31 application seems.

2

For example, NIAID or NCI. Funnily enough, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (a.k.a. Tom Harkin’s Woo Department) also funds F31s.

3

The NIH website says I need to “Work with your eRA Commons Signing Official (SO) or Account Administrator (AA) to establish a new account.”

4

In my experience, such courses do little to prevent misconduct. People who weren’t going to commit misconduct won’t benefit from the training, and people who were will just ignore it. It’s basically just to remove the excuse, “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that.”

5

I’m a bit concerned about this section. Since my research lab is not actually in the Chemistry department, they may have a hard time with it.

6

The idea of PhD students paying tuition (despite taking no classes) is just another way for universities to skim off of grants.

7

(not counting other people’s time, or time blogging about it)