How NOT To Get a Basic Science Study Funded at NIH

A client of mine, Barry Braun, has co-authored a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek take on grantwriting:

In it, the authors explore ways in which one can ensure failure. Among their suggestions:

*Don’t explicitly state any goals, objectives, or hypotheses
*Use lots of acronyms
*Don’t give sample sizes or statistical tests
*Make sure that in your “broader impacts” statement you say that your research on frog metamorphosis will help cure cancer and/or help us understand the function of the human brain.

I particularly like this last one. Right now federal grants in general, and NIH grants in particular, are all about impact. So it’s a little tricky: If you are doing a basic science project, how do you make it relevant to the National Institutes of HEALTH without your claim sounding like a stretch? Remember, Francis Collins famously said in an interview after he was appointed NIH Director: “We’re not the National Institutes of Basic Sciences, we’re the National Institutes of Health.”

It is unwise to submit a basic science research grant to the NIH without indicating any relevance to the health of American Citizens. Always know an agency’s Mission Statement before you write:

“NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.”

I had a client who was having trouble getting funding to do a fate-mapping study in the brain of a model organism. On his R01 competing renewal, he tried for the first time to discuss the relevance of his work to a highly-prevalent tumor that occurs in that brain region in humans. (The tumors happen to be completely benign. But I digress.) He got his competing renewal funded on the first try. Was it because he made his work relevant to human health? One could never say with certainty. But health relevance represented a major strategy shift in his grantsmanship, after which he did wind up getting a hefty chunk of change to do the fate-mapping study.

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