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Understanding the NIH

By Daniel (Randy) McMillan, Ph.D.
Grant & Proposal Writer
Research Administration
Assist. Prof. (Adjunct)
Internal Medicine

Likely, everyone involved in most any facet of biomedical or public health research is acutely aware that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the single largest and most important source of research funding. However, the details of the structure and function of the NIH are less well known. A basic understanding of the NIH is important for all members of the research community, but is critical for beginning investigators seeking grant funding.

The overall  mission of the NIH is the pursuit and application of knowledge that will enhance life and health, but it actually comprises 27 Institutes and Centers (IC) each with a distinct focus and individual budget appropriation from Congress. The total NIH budget varies by fiscal year, but recently has been just over $32 billion and of that, more than 80% is used to support extramural research projects. The mission, focus and priorities of each IC can be found on their respective websites — all important information to consider when trying to find the right fit for your research. Due to the inherent cross-discipline complexities of biomedical research, often a particular research project may be of interest to more than one IC. In any case, it’s helpful to contact the IC Program Official (PO), well in advance of your submission.  One facet of a PO’s job is to help acquire a portfolio of quality research, therefore most are very responsive to inquiries. A PO can help determine if your project is appropriate for an IC and also may be able to help identify a funding program.

The NIH announces grant funding availability by issuing a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA); an annotated example can be seen here. Parent announcements are ongoing, broad general announcements that stipulate the available activity code, i.e., funding mechanism, and allow unsolicited or investigator-initiated applications with no scientific area of interest specified. Many ICs usually participate in a parent announcement and the standard NIH due dates, e.g., Cycles I - II - III, are utilized. Program Announcements (PA) are more defined as they are issued by one or more ICs to strengthen certain areas of new or ongoing scientific interest. PAs are usually issued for 3 or more years and also utilize standard NIH due dates. Requests for Applications (RFA) are the most restrictive announcements; therefore, it is extremely important to ascertain that your research project fits within the scope of the announcement. RFAs are issued to highlight well-defined areas of scientific interest with the goal of achieving specific program objectives. Additionally, an RFA will indicate the total amount of available funding and the anticipated number of awards. It is also important to note that RFAs are usually not renewable. All FOAs can be searched using the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts .