Archive for: April, 2016

Finding out what your IC is interested in funding.

Apr 05 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

In a comment Brain said:

Yup, NIMH is (in)famous for this. Some topics just are not considered “mental health” and if that is what you want to study your are SOL with them. I have not figured out who picks the in and out topics. However, I have lucked my way in to working on “in” topics and this can get you funded with what would appear to be unfundable score.

Actually, its usually NIH staff who picks the topics, often in consultation with Important People in the Field.

But! Finding this out is not too difficult. Every IC publishes statements about interests. They usually have multiple statements in multiple places.

So to pick a small, and obscure IC: National Institute of Dental & Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). There is a reason I'm picking NIDCR, which I will make clear to you. Promise.

Here is the overall statement of the NIDCR mission. If one searches for "mission" and the name of the IC, one can almost always find something.

The mission of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) is to improve dental, oral, and craniofacial health through research, research training, and the dissemination of health information.  We accomplish our mission by:
  • Performing and supporting basic, translational, and clinical research;
  • Conducting and funding research training and career development programs to ensure an adequate number of talented, well-prepared, and diverse investigators;
  • Coordinating and assisting relevant research and research-related activities among all sectors of the research community;
  • Promoting the timely transfer of knowledge gained from research and its implications for health to the public, health professionals, researchers, and policy-makers.

Admittedly, this is kind of vague, if you are asking "do they fund what I do?". In fact, this could be the mission of any IC as it has little that is specific to this Institute. So go further.

Here is the link to their Strategic Plan. Note the strategic plan is 2014-2019. Thus, if one is looking in 2016, one might also wish to look for updates. The specific goals are also kind of vague, but now include the words "dental" "oral" and "craniofacial health". For example:

GOAL 1: Support the best science to improve dental, oral, and craniofacial health.

Luckily each goal has a link to a number of objectives. If you follow the first one, there are a couple of objectives that are still rather vague:

Objective 1.1: Enable basic research to advance knowledge of dental, oral, and craniofacial health.

This may do little for you, but the 6-8 paragraphs that follow this statement are a veritable gold mine, nay platinum mine, of information. To wit,  there are lots of specific words, including:

  • salivary gland research
  • the role and formation of viral reservoirs in oral cells and tissues,
  • fundamental oropharyngeal cancer research
  • basic mechanisms of cell biology such as growth and development, differentiation, stem-cell function, and regeneration

Further, on the NIDCR grants and funding page is a link for "Funding Opportunity Announcements" with a link to "by topic". This is a list of 21 subsidiary links, including "health disparities", "small business" "career development" "AIDS" and "training". Lots of good stuff. When you follow any of these links, you arrive at a page of PARs, and, importantly, a PO person with the responsibility for those particular PA's.

This is important, and part of my point here (if you've read this far). Say you work on viral replication and can't get funded at infectious diseases. Does your virus show up in the mouth? Have you searched to see if anyone thinks your virus, your viral mechanism, your whatever is relevant in the mouth? You may not have thought of that, but, if it does, can you envision a particular set of experiments, that at the bench, in the system you know, will tell you something that people who care about this virus in the mouth will want to know? Do you work on the cellular basis of pain, and are getting little love from NINDS? One of those 21 links is Orofacial Pain, Temporomandibular Joint Disorder & Neurobiology.

The reason I picked NIDCR is because most of my loyal readers have probably not given one whiff of a thought about dental research. In fact, most probably get a clenching feeling in their gut when the word "dental" shows up. Yet, one does not have to be a dentist, or working in a dental school, to do work that is of interest to NIDCR.

If you look at funding levels and paylines in this valuable table, you can see that success rate at NIDCR is 21.5% as compared to NCI which is 14.1% or 24.8% at NIGMS. Here is an NIH link to even more data where funding rates are broken down by mechanism. Looking by mechanism is maybe even more important if you are doing a training mechanism to discover what and who a particular IC funds.

Of course there is a cost to doing this. If your virus is mainly a respiratory virus, and rare in the mouth, the PO will know it. You need to do enough work to make sure your project is viable and of interest. It will take time to make this transition. Time in thinking and time in reading and time in writing.

There is an important caveat to all this. If you go at this research with a "they would be lucky to have me and my project" you will not get funded. Funding is still competitive at NIDCR. You cannot just go through your proposal and everywhere it says "lung" change it to "mouth". You need to read and learn the interests of a new IC. You need to think about transitioning your project. And you must talk to the PO at the IC and make sure they are interested in you. They might not be. You may have to do more transitioning.

A final word to the my-work-is-perfect-the-way-it-is type. If you're funded, and you keep getting funded, ahf mir gezogt. One hears a lot of ranting and raving and railing about the unfairness of it all. The horribleness of BSDs who take all the monez. That they don't like me because I'm female, of color, physically challenged. These things may, and in some cases are quite likely true. You can decide to leave, and that's a hard, but honorable decision. If, however, you want to stay, and you want to play, and you are not getting funded with what you do right now, its time to think about an alternate NIH strategy. Here is one.


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Public Service Announcement: Parent FOAs re-issued

Apr 01 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Amongst other recent changes in forms, etc:

NIH has re-issued the Parent R01, R03 and R21 Funding Opportunity Announcements (PA-16-160, PA-16-162, and PA-16-161, respectively).   The expiration dates of the prior FOA’s are earlier than originally stated.  Be sure you use the correct FOA if you are planning a submission for the June due date or beyond.


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Follow up on F/K submissions

Apr 01 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Newbie PI asked:

I'm a little confused by this. Why are you putting so much effort into contacting a PO? I never contacted a PO before submitting my (funded) K grant. Once you submit it they have to assign it SOMEWHERE. Isn't it really the study section that matters?

Firstly, congrats on getting the K-award! And of course, its possible to get funded without talking to NIH staff. But, I (ahem try to...) always do this. I think its a good idea.

So some clarification on the question:

To my knowledge, most  NRSA's (F/K) are reviewed inhouse by IC study sections. There are some CSR study sections  for fellowships. I know little about these, as the IC's with which I do business, and the trainees I have had, have always gone through IC specific SS. If this is confusing to you (and it is, a bit, to me) then it is doubly important to talk to staff before you spend a huge amount of time developing a proposal (like we did).

From the PA page for training awards for NRSA F32 awards:

 Special Note: Because of the differences in individual Institute and Center (IC) program requirements for this FOA, prospective applicants are strongly encouraged to consult the Table of IC-Specific Information, Requirements and Staff Contacts, to make sure that their application is responsive to the requirements of one of the participating NIH ICs. 

The link in that text, takes you to the specific instructions for the parent F32 (PA-14-149), which includes the following, for example for NCI:

NCI-Specific Information:

NCI requires a clear cancer focus in the research training and gives funding priority to applications for which the primary sponsor has cancer-related R01 (or equivalent) research funding. For the F32, R01-equivalent research funding includes peer-reviewed research grants with a minimum of 3 years in duration and $150,000 in annual direct costs. Grants under a no-cost extension do not qualify.

Specific information for applicants interested in studies related to a goal of building effective therapeutic approaches for KRAS-driven tumors can be found in NOT-CA-15-012.

Additional NCI-specific information/requirements can be found at:

If you keep going down this rabbit hole, you get the following at the CSR page:

Contact NIH Staff

We strongly recommend that you contact the NIH prior to submitting an application.

  • Identify the NIH IC that supports research in your area, then check the IC’s Web site to determine whether your idea matches any of the IC's high-priority research areas and obtain specific information related to the IC’s FOAs and specific research priorities. Note: Some ICs publish cleared concepts well before the FOAs are published. Not all concepts become FOAs, this is one reason NIH encourages you to contact a program official as soon as possible.
  • Contact a program official at the appropriate IC by phone or e-mail to clarify any questions you may have, such as whether your proposed research project falls within the scope of an existing funding opportunity announcement.  The PO is the NIH official responsible for the programmatic, scientific and/or technical aspects of a grant.  NIH grants management staff can provide advice on business and administrative issues.

See Contacting NIH Staff to learn more about how and when to contact staff during the application and award process.  


From another institute: the NINDS page for F30s:

 Peer review will be done by the NST-2 NINDS review group. ..... Applicants are encouraged to contact the NINDS Training Office before preparing an application, as NINDS will consider only those applications that are designed to support the training and development of scientists with interests relevant to the mission of NINDS.

Almost all the IC's have wording to this effect on their pages.


Bottom line: if you are confused or unsure the following steps help:

  1. Figure out the IC who has goals that at least align somewhat with your proposal.
  2. Read the RFA for the parent grant (see link above) and follow the links for your IC.
  3. Find the staff person and send them an email asking to talk with them. Sometimes the answer and sometimes they don't. Keep trying.


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NIH frustrations

Apr 01 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a great postdoc. He decided that he would like to write an F/K award to branch off on his own project. Perhaps I pushed (a little) to get him to think about this. But he is doing it right. He has a project. It relies on the techniques he learned in my lab, but its a different disease entity, and it will require him to learn some new other things that is well outside my realm. He's got a secondary mentor (for the those other things) and they've just hired a new faculty at almost-MRU who will be a great third mentor. When we went to the major clinical meetings for Our Stuff, he sat down and talked with the two other PI's near this new area. I know both of these (much younger than me, well, but 80% of the world is, now) folks, and have reviewed their grants. He had Serious Science talks with both, as well as more Informal Sharing of Victuals with them. I sat in on some, but not others.

What can I say? He is Doing It Right. The project is good. We spent a month hashing over the Specific Aims. He started collecting some preliminary data. I should point out, he's got some first-authored papers from my R01 (which has paid his salary up till now). He's given a bunch of talks over 2 years at various meetings. He can genuinely claim to have, if not completely mastered, at least demonstrated skill, ability & knowledge of what he would need to make the F/K go.  He wrote to NIH staff about this. And... that's where today's story starts.

F&K awards are reviewed in the IC's. And the most obvious fit for the PD's proposal, let's call it NIOBRS (institute of obscure but relevant science), requests (as do others) that you talk with the PO for training prior to submitting. They want for you to send a copy of the SA's, the abstract, maybe a little something about yourself (always a good idea: I've studied bunny hoppy from perspective X, but now wish to branch into perspective Y). He did this and we didn't hear back.

He kept collecting the prelim data, which of course involving animals, had its share of set-backs and disasters. We thought the biggest problem we'd have were the problems in the data. But, alas, no.

Finally we got a very curt email from the (new to the position) PO at NIOBRS. Basically: we're not interested. You're not in our portfolio. This is debatable, and more on that below (which is my real frustration). The message simply said "I spoke with the PO in this sub-area of NIOBRS and she says that we do not study this any more". Note the "any more". After depression, frustration and gnashing of teeth, the PD and I sat down, identified 3 other IC's that might be appropriate. One longshot never answered. One (a big one - NINDS) said "oh, this isn't ours, this belongs to NIOBRS". Hahaha. The third, most appropriate where co-mentor is funded NIC-MF (National Institute of Co-Mentor Funding), still (2 weeks later & one reminder) has not answered. But the deadline (8 April) is out of reach, now.

We have discussed and re-assessed. We will try & reach the NIC-MF PO for next cycle. Co-M and I and PD will discuss turning it into a R21, because that might fly better at NIC-MF. The PD has ordered more animals and will try another go round of prelim data, hopefully enough for a paper (there's enough for an abstract right now). The first order of business is to take care of the PD.

But, but, but...

This has been brewing for a while. NIOBRS has been trying to shed my area for a few years now. Even the renewal of my current R01 (which belongs to NIOBRS) got assigned elsewhere, despite my requesting NIOBRS in the cover letter. But as I have been submitting significant numbers of proposals (and of course, getting them rejected) get NIOBRS as tertiary, if at all. There is an art, as well as a science, to working with the IC's at NIH. You need to be polite, but insistent. It matters. But there comes a point when no matter what you do, the PO has decided something else. In this case, bunny hopping is no longer in the portfolio at NIOBRS. In fact, no one seems to want it at all. Cancer and bunny hopping can go to NCI, aging bunny hopping, as long as it is part of the syndrome of frailty and aging, can go to NIA. Failure to thrive at bunny hopping in infants can go to NICHD. Neural control of bunny hopping to NINDS. etc. But none of those  institutes really want bunny hopping as part of their portfolio. I have heard "Why not send it to NIOBRS?" many times.

This brings up the question: is funding bunny hopping worthwhile? The use of "bunny hopping" suggests no,  and the ironic point that if it wasn't bunny hopping, it would be of interest. And, if no one wants it, maybe its just you Potnia and your PD that thinks its worth funding. But, what "bunny hopping" is standing in for here, is a genuine clinical problem.

Here are the things that are, in my view, politically working against bunny hopping. Firstly, MD's are not the first line of treatment. There are several "therapist" diseases/problems where the first line is physical therapists, occupational therapists, respiratory therapists, etc. Therapist fields, not surprisingly, are traditionally female fields. As is true of nursing, and even more recent occupations such as Physician Assistants, these callings are becoming more gender-diverse, and medical schools are nearly 50/50. But historically and leadership-wise, therapists are women. Problems treated by women are not things to which BSDs gravitate. And, not surprisingly funded at lower rates.

Secondly, NIOBRS did fund a lot of, in my view, very bad bunny-hopping research over the 90s through 2000's (not mine, of course, the very bad part). Large RCT's that found nothing for the "standard treatments", but with PI's so invested in the treatments that they couldn't say so. I still see this when I go to meetings and see statistical horrors presented, such as "we found no effect at all, but if we look at the cases where we did see some effect, there is significance...". NIOBRS funded the big dogs in bunny hopping and there wasn't much to show for it, so now, when funding gets tight, they have redefined their mission away from bunny hopping.

The burdens of history are myriad.

So what to do? I do not believe I am going to change NIH. I do not mean to dampen the spirits of all the young people who believe that they can change things from the inside and the outside. Nor do I belittle the Chris Reeves and Michael J. Fox's of this world, who work very hard to change the landscape of medical research. But I am not a famous movie star who will start a foundation to fund bunny hopping. I must work with the system that is.

I do believe that bunny hopping is important. I do believe that my work (and my PD, too) has important basic science and clinical implications. The advantage I do have is not that I am a BSD to whom NIH will listen, but that I am an old and wily scientist. I know how to place my work (spin? perhaps) in the context of things that IC's have said are important. Bunnies have trouble with blood flow and often have strokes whilst hopping: NHLBI here I come.


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