Not that Kind of Grant: Tales of Early Career Investigator Grants
As a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, my mentors wrote National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Terrible Disease Foundation grants. That was it. Imagine my surprise when I started as a new principal investigator (PI), and I was inundated with grants of which I had never heard, some of which had money dedicated to early stage investigators (ESI). What are these grants? And where do they come from? Here is a semi-comprehensive list of the grants in the US that I have seen, mostly with a focus on the ESI/young investigator/new PI category. As always these days, n=me, and this is my experience with grants up to now.
The basics: ESI status as described by the NIH is a PI “who has completed their terminal research degree or end of post-graduate clinical training, whichever date is later, within the past 10 years and who has not previously competed successfully as a PI for a substantial NIH independent research award”. Career development awards, small pilot grants, and instrumentation grants are excluded from this list. Foundations and other government agencies, like the Department of Defense (DOD), can modify this definition. Some do not make exceptions for time spent in clinical training, others choose to limit the eligibility window to time in faculty position rather than time after PhD and/or MD, while others define their young investigators by how much money they have been granted for their independent research programs.
Grant types: Grants come from different places, including your institution, foundations, non-NIH federal agencies and of course, the NIH. Here are the different types of awards, with examples, that have arrived in my Inbox since I started.
Internal grants: Your institution will have pots of pilot money available for new projects. These tend to be smaller, one year awards, designed to generate preliminary data for R01-level grants. These are a great way to get some pilot funding for early studies and build on your track record for funding success. Some of these funds come from large center grants (Clinical and Translational Science Awards [CTSA] Program, American Cancer Society (ACS), Cancer Center Support Grants [CCSGs] for NCI-designated Cancer Centers [P30]) or program projects that have pilot programs built into the grant (Program Project Grants [P01], Specialized Grants [P50]). Applying for these pilot funds is a great way to build relationships with these centers and programs. Other funds can come from the institution, philanthropy, or the state. These applications are shorter to write, do not require much preliminary data, and the outcomes are announced much faster than external awards. If you are fortunate to have a career development award, you may not be eligible for some of these internal grants as a ESI. I have applied for one pilot grant, and while unsuccessful, it was reviewed fairly, quickly, and the provided feedback was incorporated into a subsequent application.
Foundation grants: Foundation grants have smaller grants for pilot studies but also R01-level funding awards for ESIs. There are the disease specific foundations (American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, March of Dimes, American Diabetes Association, etc.) and more general biomedical research foundations (Searle, Pew, Mallinckrodt, Beckman, etc.). Some of these require nomination by your institution, so you first submit a letter of intent to your institution and write the grant if you are the institutional nominee. These general biomedical awards are highly competitive, and a member of my mentoring committee fondly refers to them as beauty pageant awards. Whether or not my application will be pretty enough will be determined in the spring. I am also preparing an application for Terrible Disease of Interest Foundation for the fall, for which I am much more optimistic.
Non-NIH government grants: The DOD, Department of Energy (DOE), and Veterans Affairs (VA) all have ESI grants for which you can apply, if you or your research satisfy the criteria. These are a great alternative to NIH funding and can be a better fit for your research. For example, the DOD CDMRP focuses on disease research that will drive improved outcomes for servicepeople, so their interest in basic science is more limited. Moreover, the DOD has very specific areas of interest, so if you focus on a specific disease in their research portfolio, these grants may be a good fit for your developing research program. I have written one of these grants already and am revising it for this year’s submission.
NIH: Of course, the biggest player in the room is the NIH, with various grant types. As an ESI, I have been contemplating the R01, R21, MIRA, and DP2 grants. You are probably most familiar with R01s, which serve as the standard funding mechanism for most laboratories. These are five-year grants and require preliminary data. They do, however, have an ESI bump, where good ESI grant applications outside of the funding range will be considered for funding. What this looks like in practice varies by institute, but a general summary can be found here. Conversely, the R21s are shorter, pilot style grants that require less preliminary data. However, these grants are competitive, are not offered in all institutes, and do not offer the ESI bump. MIRA and DP2 grants a very different beasts, having completely different writing styles and scopes work. These are more “big picture” grants, focused on the general research plan of the investigator rather than specific aims. The MIRA (Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award for Early Stage Investigators, R35) is offered through NIGMS and is focused on research in the scope of the institute. My research does not fall under the purview of NIGMS, but I think it is a phenomenal grant for new PIs working in pure basic science. The DP2, also known as the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, is focused on highly innovative science and has no preliminary data requirements. The DP2 focuses only on the applicant and there are no co-investigators or collaborators to include. It is a really interesting grant mechanism. Whether they think I am an interesting applicant remains to be determined. Finally, R15 and R03 grants have restrictions based on institutional funding and institute of interest, respectively, but these are also great grants for ESIs.
How to learn about these grants: The internal grant applications requests will come from your institution. For foundations, your institution is likely to have a Foundation Relations office that will send out requests for applications for foundations and societies, often times from places of which you have never heard. Reach out to this Office, meet some of the staff, and get on the email list. You can also sign up for emails with funding announcements from non-NIH agencies like DOD’s CDMRP. Finally, the NIH has a weekly email of all funding notices for which you can register.
I hope you have enjoyed this primer on ESI grants and are gleefully planning your application schedule. In my next post, I will describe my selection process for deciding which grant applications to write. For now, I have to finish outlining this DP2. Stay tuned for more tales!
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org