Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

Computing Research at the NIH: Funding Opportunities, Tips for Applying

April 11th, 2011 / in policy, resources / by Erwin Gianchandani

Peter Lyster, Program Director, Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Modeling, NIH/NIGMSThe following is a special contribution to this blog by Peter Lyster, Program Director for biological modeling and bioinformatics in the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).  Peter describes ways to find and apply for NIH funding opportunities that may well be relevant for computing researchers.

The Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative (BISTI) is a consortium of representatives from each of the NIH’s institutes and centers that serves as the focus of biomedical computing issues at the NIH.  Established in May 2000, BISTI’s mission is “to make optimal use of computer science and technology to address problems in biology and medicine by fostering new basic understandings, collaborations, and transdisciplinary initiatives between the computational and biomedical sciences.”

Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative (BISTI) at NIHAs part of this mission, BISTI coordinates research grants, training opportunities, and scientific symposia associated with biomedical computing.  It holds regular monthly meetings to discuss, among other things, future needs and directions as well as topics of general interest to the bioinformatics community.  And perhaps most importantly, it maintains a compendium website — called the BISTI funding page — that serves as a catalog of links to most programs and funding opportunities with significant components of effort in Biomedical Informatics and Computational Biology (BICB) at the NIH.

How to apply to NIH programs

Besides the funding opportunities found on the BISTI funding page, visit — the primary source to find and apply for Federal government grants.

You can get a glimpse into current NIH-funded grants that have computing components — which is likely to provide a sense of existing work related to your area of interest — by performing customizable searches on the Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool (RePORTfor Expenditures and Results, one of a handful of RePORT functions.

Also review the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts — and join the mailing list on that website to get up-to-date additions or modifications.  Some important points from this guide:

  • In your grant application, you do not need to specify the institute or center (IC) to which your grant application should go.  You also don’t need to be concerned about assignment to study section; the Center for Scientific Review‘s (CSR’s) Division of Receipt and Referral (DDR) does a good job on both of these counts.  However, do pay close attention to the ICs that have signed on to the various announcements, and to the program contact person(s) named in each funding opportunity announcement.
  • Please follow the application rules and guidelines very carefully.  If you do everything formally right, that gives program and review staff more time to deal with your scientifically substantive concerns because they won’t have to work around procedural issues.
  • Review the latest NIH receipt schedule.
  • NIH predominantly uses electronic submission, so make sure to visit the Electronic Research Administration (eRA) page, which provides IT solutions and support for the full life cycle of grants administration functions for the NIH and other agencies.  In particular, go to the Electronic Submission page which provides tips for submissions during all phases of the application lifecycle, and visit the eRA Commons, where grant applicants, grantees and federal staff can access and share administrative information relating to research grants.  Plan well ahead — especially if your institution has little or no NIH support.  Your business office/sponsored research office may need considerable time to accomplish the logistics of submitting the grant, let alone reviewing the budget and any support agreements.
  • The CSR has useful overview information in its resources for applicants, including information about the submission and assignment process, as well as instructions for evaluation of unallowable resubmission or overlapping applications.
  • Finally, check out the NIH’s tutorial on Enhancing Peer Review.

Tips for NIH grant writing

Some suggestions I’ve compiled over the years:

  • Since NIH no longer accepts more than one resubmission of a grant application, make sure the first version of your grant gets ‘reviewed’ by your colleagues before you send it to the NIH.  Tell them to not hold back.
  • The Project Summary should state:  what is the research; why is it important; and what are you going to do about it.
  • A lot of computational projects can be thought of as:  what is the input data; what is the computational machine; and what is the output data and information.  But don’t forget about the previous bullet.
  • Be aware that reviewers have limited time.  Every word should count.
  • The abstract and project summary should be instantly comprehensible to a biomedical reviewer who understands your area of research, and clear for a reviewer outside of your area of expertise.
  • Do not start the project summary “In the last ten years there has been a deluge of…”  Try to engage the reviewers with your ideas, and tell them something they don’t know.
  • Confusion is the enemy of a successful grant application.  Try not to confuse reviewers.
  • Reviewers are not perfect, admittedly, but it is critical to take responsibility for negative reviews and plan for changes you can make.  There is no opportunity to change a reviewer’s mind after a review except for well-written resubmissions.
  • After a first submission, take time to think beyond the content in the summary statement.  In general, it is not sufficient to simply respond to the critiques on a point-by-point basis and resubmit.  Make the resubmission substantially better.
  • Consider diversifying the potential sources of funding to multiple ICs and other agencies.
  • Know your competition and set your project apart.   Check out (RePORT), in particular the RePORTer tool for Expenditures and Results, and examine closely the literature related to your project.  Your application should clearly describe how your proposed work is distinguished from other work in the field.  Don’t assume it will be obvious to the reviewer.
  • If you are a young faculty member, or otherwise new to grant writing, find a mentor who has been funded by NIH and ask for help.  Getting multiple viewpoints is even more helpful, since it can help you anticipate questions a diverse review panel might raise.
  • A lot of good programs start by like-minded investigators getting together on a regular basis and mulling the research problems.  Take advantage of opportunities within your department or institution to talk with your colleagues about areas of mutual interest.
  • I have seen applicants successfully use the method of Use Cases.  For example, a Use Case can demonstrate how a tool you plan to develop will be useful in a clinical research setting.

For more information

I also encourage you to read my April 2010 editorial on the state of biocomputing at NIH, published by Simbios, the NIH National Center for Physics-Based Simulation of Biological Structures at Stanford University.

Computing Research at the NIH:  Funding Opportunities, Tips for Applying