If your career goal is to perform biomedical research, then you should read this article. Here, I’ll try to help you navigate the grant application and review process and hopefully guide you to a successful submission. I will address only applications to the National Institutes of Health, because, frankly, this is what I know. There are many more funding agencies, but the NIH is where the bulk of the money is.
The NIH has a complex organizational structure (http://www.nih.gov/icd) made up of institutes or divisions with their own research interests. When the application is submitted, it is first reviewed by the Center for Scientific Review; based on the content of the abstract, a program officer at the CSR assigns the grant to an Integrated Review Group (a study section) and an institute or center. If you want your application to be assigned to a specific institute or study section, make sure the first or last sentences of the abstract have keywords aligned with those research interests. There may be some overlap between study sections, and you are allowed to request a study section in the cover letter.
About two to three months after submission, the Scientific Review Groups evaluate the scientific merit of the grant. After another two to three months, an advisory council or board recommends the grant for approval. After approval, the institute staff prepares a funding plan for the director, the institute allocates the funds and the grantee begins conducting his or her research. (See figure.)
Writing a cover letter to request a study section
Your cover letter should include the following: application title, institute request (it’s best to choose three, but you need to prioritize ), IRG request (get advice from your program officer on this), and any other special requests. Information on institute requests can be found at www.nih.gov/icd and on study sections at www.csr.nih.gov/Roster_proto/sectionl.asp.
Having your application assigned to the right study section ensures that the appropriate people review your application. The NIH generally honors requests for study sections. It is important to frame your request in positive terms. Mentioning that a study section has several people interested in your area and qualified to judge your work is essential. While gathering the information to make an informed request takes work, many investigators feel it’s worth it. Research the interests of each study section to see where your application would fit best, and look at review rosters to see who is on the committees. Remember that it is not easy to tell who will review the application, because many applications are now reviewed by fluid ad-hoc, special-emphasis panels.
The NIH has three grant cycles that may vary depending on the type of grant. It is important to observe the deadlines. If your grant is submitted after the deadline, it may not be reviewed until the next review cycle. Find grant deadline information at www.nih.gov/grants/funding/submissionschedule.htm.