Navigating NIH Grant Applications

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Written by Clinton Parks
Edited and Submitted by Drew Simenson, NRMN

While it's not news that underrepresented minorities struggle to reach parity in STEM fields, it was a 2011 Science paper, first authored by Donna Ginther, professor of Economics at Kansas University, that exposed a disparity between underrepresented minorities and whites seeking National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Research Project Grants, or R01s.

Although applications with strong priority scores were "equally likely to be funded regardless of race," according to "Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards," biases were otherwise found to be disturbingly pervasive. Overall, Asian applicants were four percentage points less likely and black applicants were 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH funding than whites. And "after controlling for the applicant's educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics," black applicants were 10 percentage points less likely than whites to receive funding.

This disparity was not limited to R01 grants. Data released in 2015 by the NIH showed that from 1985 to 2013 underrepresented minority applicants remained less likely to receive funding than whites whether overall acceptances rose or fell in any given year.

No one's sure why that is, according to Michael Sesma, the NIH's Chief of the Postdoctoral Training Branch in the Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity. Another problem, he notes, is the unexpectedly low number of applications and resubmissions NIH receives from underrepresented minorities.


Correcting these issues are just some of the reasons why NIH funded the creation of the National Research Mentoring Network. "Writing a grant application is something that's taught, not something you figure out," according to Richard McGee, Associate Dean for Professional Development at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and an NRMN founder.

Connecting with the NIH

Rick McGee, Associate Dean and Professor at Northwestern University

Part of helping a grant applicant is identifying where she is in probing the scientific question, McGee says. The easiest way to know what grant is best for you is to contact an NIH officer, like Sesma, whose job is to aid applicants.

A scientist with a definite research question likely would apply for an R01 grant, while someoneÿstill developing her research idea and hypothesis may be better suited for an R21 grant, which is designed to "encourage exploratory/developmental research by providing support for the early and conceptual stages of project development," according to the NIH website.

Contacting an NIH grant officer early into and often throughout the grant writing process isÿimportant, Sesma says. Failing to contact NIH grant officers is one of the most common mistakes he sees from applicants.

While NIH's annual budget of $32 billion a year is significant, there's never enough to fund all theÿworthy applications. According to Sesma, "Good work doesn't always get funded because there's so much competition." Yet he and his cohorts try their best to keep the process as open and transparent as possible.

Cohort Support

NRMN has established coaching groups to teach postdocs and early career researchers how to write grants. There are options for those working on grants now and those who expect to be working on a grant within the next year. If accepted, you meet with peers and coaches in person and online for three months to a year depending on the program. NRMN chooses coaches who are "successful professional scientists with a deep and authoritative knowledge of their field, and whoÿdemonstrate high-level mentoring skills." At the end of the program the researcher receives a mock review of her draft proposal.

The cohort process takes advantage of group dynamics that have been found to help students throughout various stages of academic training, McGee says. Peers push one another to succeed, Sesma says.

Mentor from Another Mater

Michael Sesma, PhD

Utilizing NRMN as an external source of mentoring is also useful for those whose PIs may have apparent professional deficiencies, such as problems winning NIH grants. Such applicants have been found to have a harder time securing NIH applications, according to Sesma. "That's why it's important to have a network like NRMN," he says.
NRMN is looking to provide help here by making the biomedical research communityÿmore aware of this problem. Sesma says the consortium is working to train mentors to be aware of and to combat their own implicit biases, which affects women as well as minorities.

The National Research Mentoring Network was established through funding by the National Institutes of Health as a cooperative grant held at five Core institutions: Boston College, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, The University of Minnesota, The University of North Texas Health Science Center, and Morehouse School of Medicine. Learn more about the NRMN Cores by visiting the description page for Our NRMN Team.

To learn more about how NRMN is helping scientists of all backgrounds enhance their skills in preparing and submitting grant proposals to the NIH, visit our site's section about the NRMN Coaching Groups for Grant Proposal Writing.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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