Association for Behavior Analysis International

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Volume 28 | 2005 | Number 2


Getting Grants from the National Institutes of Health

Howard Rachlin, Ph.D., SUNY at Stonybrook


I must start with a few caveats. Although I have had good success in getting research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I'm not sure whether the rules and principles that I've developed for myself over the years apply to anyone else; I am especially leery about whether they apply to younger researchers. I applied (successfully) for my first grant (from the National Science Foundation) even before I was out of graduate school and since then my research has been continuously funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and (from about 1985) by NIH. What I know best, therefore, is how to keep a grant rather than how to get one in the first place. Nevertheless, I have been on grant committees (both NSF and NIH) on and off for many years, so I do have some advice to offer even to new applicants.



Keep in mind that all this hard work of writing you're doing will be read by only three or four people, each of whom will be overwhelmed with other proposals. Your job is to keep those three or four people interested, even entertained. The names of panel members are public information. You should find out who they are and try to guess which one will be most likely to review your application (your prior collaborators and colleagues from your university cannot be reviewers and will have to leave the room when your proposal is being discussed) and write with him or her in mind. Not that your guess will be correct, but this will help focus your thinking. You should spend as much effort in polishing your prose style as you would if this were your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.


Reviewers will certainly want to see details of proposed experiments. Nevertheless, and I can't stress this too strongly, do not violate the space or type size or margin limitations. Do not make the application look like you are trying to cram as much as you possibly can into it. Your figures should be big and clear enough to be easily read. Use diagrams wherever possible to illustrate procedures. Leave an extra space between paragraphs. Use plenty of headings and keep them in logical order. Don't assume that the reviewers are familiar with your work (even if you know that they are). Explain everything. Don't worry about repeating some complex idea or procedure. It's much better to repeat yourself than to force the reader to turn back 10 or 20 pages to discover what you're talking about.


Never praise your own research. Don't tell them how interesting some result is - but make them interested. Never denigrate the research of anyone else. If your research is clearly relevant to practical NIH concerns (autism, say) there's no need to keep telling them how relevant it is. However, if your research is highly abstract or theoretical (like mine) you've got to present a convincing path to its application. This has become more and more important in recent years. If you can't do this you're better off applying to NSF. (In the good old days you could apply to both simultaneously; I switched to NIH when NSF rejected a reapplication and NIH gave the very same application a high score.)


Very frequently, applications are rejected on the first try or the second (you have three swings of the bat on a given application). When this happens (I don't say "if" since it will eventually happen to everyone) you must assume that it's your fault. The reviewers are always right. If two reviews are contradictory in their suggestions you've got to find a (Hegelian) resolution between them that takes both into account. There's a strong tendency for reviewers to dig in their heels in a second submission unless their concerns are a) admitted to be valid, b) specifically addressed, and c) effectively answered.


In general, do not try to hide any weaknesses in your application. You don't want to make the application a game of find the flaw. Reviewers come to be pretty good at this. It is much better to address weaknesses. It might be possible, in fact, to make weaknesses into strengths by suggesting that they were inevitable given the limited time you have been working on the problem (i.e., your prior experiments were essentially pilot or control experiments for this very proposal) and that the further research you're proposing will clear it all up.


Applying for the First Time

As unfair as it may seem, you can't even get a first grant without a proven record of publication. This could be your thesis work or postdoc work or work supported by a university. A record of publication in highly selective journals, preferably as first author, in the very area of the application, is necessary (but not sufficient) for funding. If this happens not to be the case, to have any chance at all, you've got to address the issue and somehow explain it. If you can't do this then you might try to get some seed money from your university before applying.



Unless you're absolutely sure that you have a great new idea that will definitely appeal to the committee, stick to the topic that got you your grant in the first place. Don't even change the title. The watchword is continuation. You want to continue doing what you were doing before. There should be a seamless web between the research you've already done (in the progress report) and the research you intend to do. A good idea is to back up a little and actually put some of your work in progress into the proposed research section - although if you have any interesting unpublished data they should definitely go into the progress report, perhaps as pilot experiments. I know what Sidman says about pilot experiments. Nevertheless, some experiments don't stand by themselves but are just the first phase in a sequence and need further elaboration in a second phase for them to make sense. (The grant proposal should be written as if you are at that moment on the very cusp between these two phases.)



I'm not in favor of collaborative grant proposals or big projects with tons of investigators - just more things for reviewers to find fault with. I prefer working with a few graduate students in a small laboratory. Nevertheless, I have sometimes added consultants in areas where I am weak. For instance someone like me will need statistical help in experiments of complex design or the help of a clinician in applied experiments.


My own preference is to have one grant for all of my research. My laboratory uses both human and nonhuman subjects in a wide variety of experimental settings. A single NIH grant supports them all. That way, my proposal holds nothing back; it contains all the ideas I think are good. At an early point, in the background section, I explain how human and nonhuman experiments each reinforce the meaningfulness of the other. I tell them (in truth) that my graduate students are required to be active in both human and nonhuman research. I present both past and proposed experiments by topic rather than by species of subject. This sort of division I have found makes sense both to me and to the reviewers. But of course many highly successful researchers do things differently.




Modifed by Eddie Soh