Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Consigning a proposal . . .

to the tender hands of the National Institutes of Health.

So here's how it works. Congress broadly allocates money to the Institutes and Centers, perhaps with some additional guidance as to priorities and processes. It's considered unseemly for Congress to specifically earmark NIH funding or get into micromanaging it too much, but it does occasionally happen. Fortunately that's a minor issue so far but it is a legitimate complaint that the diseases with better organized and more effective constituencies get disproportionate funding. Since much of my work concerns HIV, and that's one of the winners, I suppose I shouldn't complain.

The Director organizes broad strategic planning. The Institutes and Centers all have national advisory boards consisting of both scientists and lay representatives of interested constituencies, and of course they have professional staff. The advisory boards are influential and the general public can comment on their activities but you'll have to decide for yourself how democratic the process of allocating funding really is since only highly committed and engaged people take the initiative to participate. In any event, the result of interaction between the bureaucracy and the public representatives is the issuance of various kinds of solicitations for proposals.

These are categorized according to multiple dimensions. Program Announcements are ongoing solicitations that can remain open for years and generally have quarterly submission deadlines. They define a broad area of interest. The one I just applied to is called Understanding and Promoting Health Literacy, and multiple institutes and centers participate. When you apply, you tell them which one you think will be the best fit to consider your proposal. Some Program Announcements are more narrowly focused and pertain to one or a few I/Cs. In any event these are considered "investigator initiated" research and you get to define the research questions and the study design within the general area of interest.

Requests for Applications are one-time solicitations for investigators to do more narrowly defined research that the I/C is interested in.

Then there are various "funding mechanisms": R01s are large scale investigator-initiated studies based on fully developed preliminary work intended to get definitive answers to questions. Clinical trials are a typical example, but they can also include laboratory research or large-scale epidemiological studies. R-21s are "Exploratory/Developmental" projects intended to prepare for an R01. That's my proposal. There are also R-34s which are kind of like R-21s but for training interventions; research program and research center grants which support building major institutional components around an entire area of research; and various kinds of training and career development awards, infrastructure awards, and odds and ends. These all have their own budgetary limits and other restrictions.

If you want to try for NIH funding, you have to understand all of this jargon and the ins and outs of what they are looking for. If any readers are truly interested -- and I'm not saying you ought to be -- the basic 4-1-1 is here.

Next I'll get to the peer review process and funding criteria, and hopefully the discussion will actually get interesting. But remember, once again -- this is your money, and it's being spent, in theory, to solve problems that might really matter to you. So wonky as all this may be, you might want to know about it.

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