Understanding Agency Priorities

To be successful in obtaining a grant, it is essential to understand the funding priorities of an agency and its particular funding opportunities. As the funding environment is constantly changing, it is helpful to develop a plan for monitoring emerging research priorities and funding opportunities. This may include Web-based searches, setting up e-mail alert notifications of funding opportunities, following blogs and e-reports of funding agencies, and determining whether there are internal institutional activities for identifying and notifying researchers as to funding streams. Additionally, talking to colleagues at professional meetings regarding their funding sources and paying attention to the funding sources listed as part of the acknowledgment section of a published research article are helpful avenues for tracking possible funding outlets.

Each agency has a defined strategic mission and broad vision in terms of what it wants to impact and hence fund. For example, in the United States, the mission of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is to “improve quality, safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of health care,” whereas the many institutes and centers composing the NIH fund intervention research specific to diseases and conditions. The relatively new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) authorized by Congress as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 funds comparative clinical effectiveness research and research to develop methods in this area. Foundations also have key missions. For example, the mission of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is to improve the health and health care of all Americans.

For a grant proposal to be competitive, the proposed idea must match an agency’s mission and the intent of a particular funding opportunity. Additionally, a match must be made in terms of the level of funding offered by the funding mechanism and what is needed for the proposed idea. For example, novice researchers should start by submitting proposals that are commensurate with their level of experience and publication record in order to build and demonstrate a successful funding track record. Within the NIH, this might be an RO3 (Small Research Grant) or an R21 (Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant). In contrast, a seasoned intervention researcher may be able to seek funds through mechanisms that garner more funds and propose more complex design strategies (e.g., multisite, large efficacy trials) corresponding to their level of experience and track record. Again, within the NIH, this is typically an RO1 (Research Project Grant).

Agencies seek to fund proposals that will have significant impact on the health of the public. In addition to the strategic mission of an agency, it is important to align one’s work with key reports. Examples of such in the United States include the Institute of Medicine Reports (www.iom.edu/Reports.aspx), Healthy People 2010/2020 (www.healthypeople.gov/HP2020/), or the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research (http://nihroadmap.nih.gov/). Reports generated by international organizations such as the World Health Organization are also important to review and reference.

In searching for funding opportunities, it is wise to initially cast a wide net and examine a range of funding sources. This should include federal agencies as well as foundations, industry, donors, professional organizations, crowdsourcing, and pilot funding mechanisms through one’s own institution. There may be surprises by doing so. For example, in the United States, the Department of Defense has an interest in breast cancer research and dementia from traumatic brain injury, and, in recent years, has sought intervention development in these areas. Also, having a diversified funding portfolio such that funding support is not dependent upon a singular source can help assure continued funding successes over time. In addition, most research-intensive institutions offer internal competitive mechanisms to support pilot research efforts and the early developmental phases of an intervention through their Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) programs funded by the NIH, and these should always be pursued.

As a general rule, it is important to make contact with a program officer of any agency that may be of potential interest. Contact can be made at a professional association meeting as some program officers attend such conferences if their budgets permit. Alternately, more commonly, contact can be initiated by e-mail in which a project idea can be shared in the form of a brief abstract, a draft of an aims page or a short concept paper that outlines the key ideas for a grant proposal, and a request for a follow-up telephone call to review. Most program officers will agree to read a brief statement of the proposed effort prior to a telephone discussion. On a telephone call appointment, which may last from 15 minutes to 1 hour, the following information should be clearly articulated: name, institutional affiliation, statement of area of study and particular research aims, and well-framed questions. Such a call can help clarify whether the agency and a particular funding opportunity fit a proposed idea, and the agency’s priorities, level of interest in the proposed topic, backgrounds of likely reviewers, the review process, and other related considerations including budgeting. Contact with a program officer can be invaluable. One’s grantsmanship can be enhanced by reading funded grants and reviewers’ comments, serving as a grant reviewer, attending grant writing workshops offered by one’s institution or professional meetings, and obviously, staying on top of one’s professional literature. For those applying to the NIH, it is helpful to identify previously funded studies relevant to one’s own area by consulting the NIH RePORT (Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools) website, which lists funded research and can be searched by investigator(s), substantive areas, or institutes.

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