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The NIH R01 for Canadians: advice for first-time applicants to the U.S. health funding giant

You could consider using a smaller CIHR Project grant as a ladder to generate the preliminary data for a big-budget NIH R01.

par LETITIA HENVILLE | 24 MAR 22

Question:

I’ve had good success with CIHR and am ready to apply for an R01 from NIH. How straightforward would it be for me to adapt my approach to a CIHR Project Grant and translate it into an R01 application? What advice do you have for NIH first-timers?

 

– Anonymous, Ophthalmology

Dr. Editor’s response:

Competing for the big American grants is no small thing. Something like one per cent of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants are awarded to institutions located outside of the U.S., and a smaller percentage of those end up at Canadian universities; the annual pool of funding available to health researchers in Canada through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is around 20 times larger than the amount of NIH money that ends up in Canadian-based research accounts each year.

Because of a reputed bias towards keeping NIH funding within the U.S., most grants officers at Canadian universities will advise that you work with a U.S.-based partner on your R01 – and I’m inclined to agree. The anecdata supports this recommendation: I chatted with a few of my colleagues who facilitate international grants for Canadian universities, and none of the people I spoke with could recall a successful R01 application that didn’t have a U.S.-based partner or co-PI. Going it alone, the perception seems to be, isn’t a wise strategic approach.

To learn more about the best practices for NIH R01 first-time applicants, I spoke with Sarah Dobson, who runs a research grant consulting agency that specializes in submissions to NIH. So, what are Sarah’s top tips for R01 newbies?

1. Write for two rounds of reviewers

 Sarah emphasizes a key difference between applying to CIHR and to the NIH. Unlike Project grants, R01 applications go through two stages of review: the first round focuses on scientific merit, and the second on the relevance of your work to an individual institute’s mission and priorities (see NIH Center for Scientific Review).

Your application first needs to be ranked highly by the scientific review group (aka study section) most relevant for your work – and for you, dear letter-writer, this may be a group like the Pathophysiology of Eye Disease Study Section, which is part of a broader NIH Review Branch. For your R01, as for any grant application, I recommend reviewing the description of the study section and looking at the names of the reviewers who have recently served on your target committee – for instance, you might look at the list of people who participated in the February 2022 scientific review. By Googling these reviewers and familiarizing yourself with their research interests, you’ll get a good sense of the range of expertise in your review panel, and how to pitch your work.

If you aren’t sure which scientific review group to choose for your application, then you could use the NIH matchmaker to find program officers who can help you make the best decision for your application. And while you can apply for a CIHR Project grant without more human contact than a registration form, with the NIH, it’s a good idea to contact a program officer before you apply – in fact, it’s a required step if your budget request is in excess of $500,000 in direct costs per year.

If you receive a sufficiently high score at the merit review stage, then your next reviewers will be representatives of the appropriate funding institute for your work – in your case, likely the National Eye Institute. These reviewers will be looking for alignment with their priorities, so you’ll want your application to align with their mission, strategic plan and areas of emphasis.

2. Articulate the 30,000-foot view

To help your application to make it through this two-step review process, Sarah recommends using the Specific Aims page to scope out, paint the big picture and describe how your work gives a new approach to a major problem – that is, you need to “articulate the 30,000-foot view.” Sarah told me:

When it comes to the Specific Aims page, I see a lot of researchers focusing too narrowly. Many researchers have this natural proclivity to dig into the details. If that’s your inclination, then fight against it: you have to trust that you’ll cover those details in the 12 pages of space you get later.

Sarah likes her clients to have a “conceptually solid” Specific Aims page before they write the rest of the application, to lend their work a clear and logical broad-to-specific structure. Knowing why your research matters – to other researchers and to Institute-based decision-makers – will better prepare you to craft a compelling R01 application.

3. Show your preliminary data

Scientific grant reviewers allocate higher scores to proposals that they believe are more likely to be successful. When assessing the feasibility of an application, they look for evidence that the proposed work reflects current research practice, involves appropriate and up-to-date methodologies, and builds on previous findings (Barlösius & Blem 2021; Luukkonen 2012).

In NIH R01s, this means describing the results you obtained in preliminary data, and drawing on those to demonstrate the feasibility of your planned work. Your preliminary data should support the scientific premise and feasibility of each aim, and you can point to these data in both the “significance” and the “research strategy” sections of your application. Not every CIHR Project application needs to draw on a pilot study, but NIH R01s, Sarah advises, always need preliminary data.

If you’ve had good success with CIHR, dear letter-writer, then you could consider using a smaller CIHR Project grant as a ladder to generate the preliminary data for a big-budget NIH R01. It’s a tough competition, but, with enough lead time to prepare your application (say, six months) and Sarah’s suggestions, you just might be able to catch the eye of the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research.

À PROPOS LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @shortishard.
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