Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants.


Megan Columbus: From the Office of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health. I’m Megan Columbus, and welcome again to All About Grants. Today we will be starting a new series of episodes related to preparing your application. In our first episode, we’ll be discussing what you can do to best prepare yourself to submit your application. To talk about this with me today is Dr. Suzanne Fisher, the Director of Receipt and Referral at the NIH Center for Scientific Review. With a background in biochemical genetics, Suzanne began her NIH career as a Scientific Review Officer and has been directing the Division of Receipt and Referral since 1996. Suzanne is uniquely qualified to be able to tell investigators and fellows what they can do to be prepared even before the funding opportunity announcement to which they want to apply. Suzanne, you want to talk to us a little bit about that?

Suzanne Fisher:  There are lots of reasons for people to be ready and one is, though NIH tries to give investigators as much time as we can, occasionally FOAs are available only for about two months from when they are first published in the Guide to when the applications are due. So whatever you can do to be ready so you can really concentrate on the science part at that point can only help.

Megan Columbus:  I know one of the first things that you’ve told me over and over again is that investigators really need to seek out their institutional officials—that Office of Sponsored Research or whatever it’s called in your institution early. Why is that?

Suzanne Fisher:  There are a couple of reasons. NIH has its deadlines, but they will have deadlines that are ahead of the NIH because they have aspects they need to look at. So you need to know about their internal deadlines. They will also have policies and rules about what kinds of applications people with different positions in the institution have to have in order to submit. So to submit a research grant you may have to have a certain level of appointment. To submit a fellowship, obviously, the situation would be different. So you need to know the local rules both for what kinds of applications they’ll submit. Because investigators don’t realize it, but they don’t submit the applications to NIH. Their institutions do on their behalf. So you need to know their rules and their deadlines to make sure you’re ready. 

Megan Columbus:  Sometimes those deadlines can be two weeks in advance of the NIH submission due date, and so that is a very important point.

Suzanne Fisher:  That is and they’re putting that into effect for a number of things. They need to review things. They are going to focus more on the administrative aspects and the budget aspects, but they also know that you need to build a little bit of extra time in case you need to have error corrections. When you submit your application electronically, one of the advantages is that our system checks to make sure that if you have certain errors you may be able to correct them. But you have to have time before the deadline in order to be able to take advantage of that, so they’re trying to help you by building some time for that.

Megan Columbus:  Well, in many Offices of Sponsored Research, they actually do support the grant writing process in all kinds of ways, taking a lot of the burden off of those investigators. 

Suzanne Fisher:  I just did an outreach at an institution that had an extensive Science Writer Editorial Office, and they were more than willing to work with people in writing the applications, and you may really have a lot help at your institution, but you have to find out where it is and how you use it. 

Megan Columbus:  So I know you just mentioned applying electronically. In order to apply electronically to NIH, even though the application comes from the institution, the investigator must also have an eRA Commons account. The eRA Commons being the electronic systems that NIH use to communicate about your grant application with the applicants. You want to tell us a little bit?

Suzanne Fisher:  Right, and as you know about 97% of our applications are coming in electronically, but you need a Commons account for paper applications as well, so you have to have a Commons account. An individual has one Commons account for their lifetime, but then it can be affiliated with different institutions as you go through your career, and you can even be affiliated with more than one institution at a time. If you haven’t established a Commons account at all, then you want to start with that. And your institution will help you with that, and help you get your Commons ID. And you own your Commons account, so you are responsible for all the information and data in there and making sure it is correct and up-to-date. Make sure your phone number is correct, your email. NIH is going to be using this to get in touch with you if we need to.

Megan Columbus:  Well there’s some information in their Commons account that is especially important especially for new investigators.

Suzanne Fisher:  Right, NIH calculates your new investigators status by your grant submission history, and your grant application submission history, and your grant awards. But then we also determine if you are early stage investigator eligible by the information you’ve put in your Commons profile—when you have gotten your terminal degree, when your residency ended. The system works far, far better if you have your new investigators status and your early stage investigators status straight before you submit any applications. Occasionally, people find because they have moved or they forgot, they actually have two Commons accounts, and then your information may be scattered between the two and you’re going to have to work with NIH to consolidate that so that all your information is in one place. 

Megan Columbus:  You can just call the eRA help desk to do that.

Suzanne Fisher:  Right.

Megan Columbus:  Our application guide is very dense. Might it be worth a read before you actually even find a funding opportunity announcement to apply for? 

Suzanne Fisher:  I think it would be a good idea to look through it or to look through some of the information on the Web to have some idea of what the basic structure is of an application. Investigators think a lot about the research strategy and the specific aims, which is where you cover the science in great detail. But there are lots of other parts, and those are going to take time to work on and to write—your biographical sketch, the resources and environment, the literature cited. If appropriate, you are going to write about the involvement of human subjects and vertebrate animals. And so you need to have an idea of just how many different pieces go into a grant application, so that when you sit down to respond to a particular funding opportunity announcement you have a good idea of what’s involved. Now your biographical sketch, you obviously can have a lot of that there, again keep it up to date. You have a new publication, make sure on your master list. But now we’re asking people to personalize their biographical sketch for every application and include a personal statement and you may want to pick and choose which publications you highlight. But you should have sort of a basic one that you then modify for each application either as you apply or maybe you are asked to be part of someone else’s application. You also want to be ready. You don’t want to hold them up if they have asked you to join their grant application. 

Megan Columbus: You’ve mentioned to me in the past that people have run into trouble when they talk to somebody else who has been successful applying for an NIH grant in the past, but the rules have changed since that application was submitted.

Suzanne Fisher:  Right, I know other people at your institution, other scientists, are going to want to be helpful, and they’re going to give you advice. And you should listen, but you really need to check it. In the last two years, NIH has made more changes in their policies and practices then I have seen in my whole career here I think. Part of enhancing peer review is that we’ve made a lot of changes. For one thing, if someone tells you that your R01 application is 25 pages, that’s not right. We’ve reduced that. It is now 12 pages for the research strategy and a page for the specific aims. So you really need to verify things in the application guide. Again your Sponsored Researcher Office or Grants and Contracts or whatever they are called, they should be more up-to-date. You can get good advice from others but you really need to make sure that you’re going with the most current policy and practice. One thing that hasn’t changed, and that you need to be aware of, is the basic format requirements, so the font restrictions, the size of the letters, the number of characters per inch, the margins, and things like. That hasn’t changed in a long time. That applies to electronic and paper equally. You really want to pay attention to that because nothing annoys a reviewer more than trying to work through an application in teeny tiny font.

Megan Columbus:  One of the other things people might want to be doing is scanning the horizon to find out the kinds of opportunities that are coming down the pike. Do you want to talk about the different ways that they can be doing that? 

Suzanne Fisher:  Well, there are a couple of ways. The main way is to be familiar with the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts. If you go on the NIH website and just Google “NIH Guide,” you’ll get there. And there’s a handy listserv you can subscribe to, and every Friday afternoon you get an email that lists all the funding opportunity announcements and any policy notices and anything else that have been published in the last week. You can scan through them and probably a lot of them are not going to be of interest to you, but most weeks you may see something that you want to investigate a little further. If you go to scientific meetings, there are often outreach sessions presented by NIH staff. They’ll cover a lot of basic details. Depending on the meeting, if it’s of interest to just one or two institutes, it may be very specific to their programs. And, of course, each NIH institute has their own Web page, and they will highlight from the NIH Guide and things the opportunities that institute has as current, and that they are particularly interested in. So, if you know that you are in a certain area, you probably want to also keep track of the one or two institutes that are in that area of science to get a little more information about that, and they all try to be helpful and give you some useful tips and hints. 

Megan Columbus:  Well and the other thing to remember is that NIH is not the only Federal funder of biomedical sciences. And so going to will also allow you to scan all of the Federal agencies at once, but I’d encourage people to check both of those resources because even though all NIH announcements are posted on sometimes the search capabilities and things are a little bit different between that and the NIH Guide.

Suzanne Fisher:  But depending on what someone’s doing there may be opportunities at the National Science Foundation, at NASA, Department of Agriculture has grant programs. Many of the agencies have grant programs that may be applicable to some of our investigators. You have to be a little careful if there are rules about not submitting to the same place twice, again your Sponsored Research Office can help you. I know some institutions, the Sponsored Research Office makes an effort to scan a lot of opportunities and send out alerts to people. And that’s good, but scientists are pretty independent, so I figure most of them are going to want to look for themselves as well. 

Megan Columbus:  In order to learn more about the application process and how NIH works, we certainly have a plethora of resources on our websites. We have NIH Regional Seminars, which are seminars that takes you from nuts-to-bolts through the process. Individual institutes hold seminars, and there are workshops often times in conjunction with professional meetings. And so I’d encourage our listeners to look for some of those resources as they contemplate applying. Any last words from you Suzanne? 

Suzanne Fisher:  You know don’t work alone. If you have a question, all of our websites have an email address you can send to. All the funding opportunity announcements have, it’s almost at the very end of it, there are contact information about people to ask questions. So don’t just assume because you may assume something that is favorable to you. So if you’re not sure, it’s better again to check. It is always better to know what the real rules are in advance rather than going one way and then finding out at the last minute that that’s not quite the way it is. So check, be ready, and then send us your application.

Megan Columbus:  Well I always feel like we’re being a little bit repetitive on these podcasts, but the other thing to do is call the staff at the institute to whom you think you will be applying. So talk to the program staff there, find out some names. We, actually, are here to talk to you. With that. Thank you for joining us. For NIH and OER, this is Megan Columbus.

Announcer: For questions about eRA Commons accounts, contact the eRA help desk at 866-504-9552. NIH application guides can be found by visiting the OER website at and clicking on the “Forms & Deadlines” tab. That’s G-R-A-N-T-S dot N-I-H dot G-O-V.