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May 24

No. 30: Rookie PI: When is the best time to apply for one's first grant?

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When is the best time to apply for one's first grant?

Reader Question: I have been told by my university that I need to apply for a grant to fund my research, but how do I know when I am ready to to do so? How much preliminary data do I need?

Expert Comments:

Some claim that you need to have already “done the work” before you can write a grant proposal. Others counsel submitting the preliminary research first. While the latter approach has been used successfully, it is quite problematic for a new faculty member, since they won’t have access to a lot of preliminary data.

My first successful R01 proposal as an independent investigator was one for which I already had one paper in the area as an independent scientist, and I had obtained some additional preliminary data subsequent to that. Having the publication in a high-profile journal added to my credibility.

Subsequently, I’ve had proposals funded without as much preliminary data, but I already had a track record in the field, which to some extent substituted for data.

From these experiences, I can boil it down to a fairly simple rule: Either you should have one or more publications worth of preliminary data, or you should have been working in the field long enough to establish a clear track record.

Most new investigators will be in the first category. If so, do you submit your proposal before having a publication, or do you wait until your article is accepted for a journal?

This will depend on your budgetary situation. But if you have the time, you should wait until acceptance of your first paper gives you the extra credibility of being an independent investigator. The new NIH rules allow only one resubmission of a proposal that fails to get funded the first time. Therefore you will want to maximize your chances of success the first time. Having an accepted paper helps.

If you are in a situation where you have budgetary pressures causing you to apply for funding before having a published paper, then you should tell a very strong story in the required sections on your background and training, along with what preliminary data you’ve already acquired.

I estimate that the typical timing on this will be 1.5 to two years from starting up an independent lab, though that will vary. Young investigators often think they can get going quickly (I did!), but just obtaining all the supplies and recruiting good personnel can take six months. Then it often takes six months to a year or more to produce worthwhile data. And for many journals, the publication cycle takes at least another six months after submission, review, revision, re-review, acceptance, and proofing.

It is important to keep this long timetable in mind in planning whether and when to apply for funding. If you are getting to within six to eight months of when funding will run out, you may have to go ahead and apply without a publication, as long as you have enough preliminary data that you’ll be submitting something soon.

For NIH proposals, the new format may assist young investigators. There is no longer an explicit “preliminary results” section into which senior investigators can put reams of data. Instead, the preliminaries are directly incorporated into the “Approach” section, along with the research you will be doing. I suggest that that you clearly state each aim, convey what you’ve already done to prove its feasibility, then present what you will do.

Bottom line: All investigators — rookies and veterans — must market their science and their capabilities very effectively in a grant proposal in order to get funding.

Comments by Morgan Giddings, PhD, associate professor of microbiology & immunology, biomedical engineering, and computer science at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. She also advises young scientists on maximizing their career, along with providing a free report on five tips to a successful science career on her blog at http://morganonscience.com.

This eAlert is brought to you as an informational training tool by the Principal Investigators Association, which is an independent organization. Neither the eAlert nor its contents have any connection with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nor are they endorsed by this agency. All views expressed are those personally held by the author and are not official government policies or opinions.

Comments (8)
When to apply for an R01
written by Newbie, May 24, 2010
Thank you, as junior faculty myself I have been puzzling over this question recently. I was given advice somewhat vague advice from a mentor to just go for it asap. Thank you for the clarity on what feels like a rather opaque process to those of us who haven't obtained that first R01 yet. It is nice to have some guidelines in terms of how to proceed.
New PhD
written by Ambitious, May 24, 2010
Love the advice. But I've also been told "off the record" that it's a good idea to get to know the Program Officer or similar official at the granting agency. This is fine for the "old guard" who probably have been meeting these folks at conventions, etc. But how does a neophyte break into this "circle" and get his/her name and face known as an enthusiastic entrant to the field?
Getting to know program officers and R-21
written by Kim Wallen, May 24, 2010
The advice given is appropriate for an R01, but young faculty need a foot in the door. That's the purpose of an R-21 which explicitly does not require preliminary data. It can provide significant fuding for two years and gives the new faculty a chance to prove themselves. Don't feel that an R01 is the only grant that counts as funding, the R-21 is a great door opener.

As for getting to know program officers, my advice is to do it. When one is considering an R-21 proposal contact program officers in different programs to see whether your ideas fit with that program. Program officers are a great resource to tailor your work to better fit the program interests in research. Remember that the success of the program officer is the quality of their portfolio. They have a vested interest in identifying the best talent who pursue projects that fit with the program. They want to talk to you and help shape your proposal to fit their program's goals. I have found in the last couple of years that there has been a sea change in NIH and program officers are more responsive than ever. They are a great resource for new faculty.
written by Newbie, May 24, 2010
I recently submitted an R-21 and the reviewers asked for preliminary data. I am now collecting pilot data for my submission of a pilot application. I was told not to believe that you don't need preliminary data for an R-21 by both the program officer and my colleagues.
written by Kim Wallen, May 24, 2010
This issue concerning R21s came up on a recent review panel I was on. Reviewing practices, unfortunately, change slowly. One reviewer requested preliminary data, but others pointed out that it was not required. The reviewer's score didn't change after this as pointed out, but the panel's scores differed substantially from that reviewer's score after the discussion.

I think reality is that if one is proposing something technically extremely difficult to achieve, then one will have to procide evidence that they can do that technical feat. I am disappointed to hear that program officers are counciling that pilot data are needed for pilot projects. That sort of defeats the purpose of the R21 mechanism. Locally, I have seen an R-21 funded without pilot data, but I have also seen others that have had pilot data.

What qualifies as pilot data does seem to be different in R21 applications. It is often any evidence that one can do what they claim to be able to do and not necessarily completed research findings.

written by Bill, May 24, 2010
I want to reiterate the importance of talking with POs on the phone before writing. They are an invaluable source of information. I am amazed as a reviewer how much stuff comes in that is simply not responsive to the program announcement (PA) -- if this comes from some hotshot senior guy than sometimes they get away with it but if not ...

In a recent successful submission that I did along with a new investigator (who is PI on it), we heard back informally that we were the only really responsive group and noted that the other groups were all headed by senior people.

In this context note that it will be important to at some point give up the dream of always doing whatever you want to (unless you're a galileo) and become more aware of what the institutes want (ie the PAs)
Thanks again.
written by Newbie, May 24, 2010
This has been quite helpful. My area is technology heavy and the reviewer wanted to see a pub or two published that used the specific method I had proposed for the study, so this may explain their response.
written by Another junior resercher, May 24, 2010
I too have heard of expectations for pilot work for R-21s. If not required, at least recommended to demonstrate some initial work related to the aims. However, we have the 6 pages limit - how do you write all the required elements with enough detail AND add a short summary of pilot work?

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