Strategies for Obtaining Funding as a New Investigator

By David D. Odell, MD, MMSc

February 22, 2018

For surgeons beginning academic careers, developing a research portfolio is frequently a key metric of success. Yet many have significant concerns about finding adequate funding in an era where National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding is at an all-time low. However, early career investigators have a number of advantages, even in a competitive research climate.

It Starts Before You Get There
Your journey to success as an early career physician-scientist begins with the interview and negotiation process. This is a time to learn as much as you can about the institutional environment and available resources. For many early career grants, it will be the strength of this environment as much as the strength of your research that helps to secure grant funding. Use this process to start building your team of collaborators (ask to meet with these people when you interview) and garner the resources you will need. Your recruitment period is when you will have the most leverage with the institution in negotiations for the resources to begin building your lab. If possible, negotiate for both human (research coordinator, lab technician, statistician) and financial support, as you will need elements of both.

Protect Your Own Time
Most academic contracts begin with a 2-3 year period where the surgeon is relatively protected financially from clinical production pressures. Use this time to your advantage and establish your research program. For surgeons beginning their careers, the importance of establishing themselves operatively cannot be understated, but make sure this is not happening at the expense of your research progress.

For surgeons beginning their careers, the importance of establishing themselves operatively cannot be understated, but make sure this is not happening at the expense of your research progress.

Align Your Work
The development of your research career should proceed in parallel with your clinical growth. Aligning your clinical and research work makes it easier to stay current and generate meaningful research questions.

Build a Team
You are far less likely to be successful alone. For one thing, as surgeons, we frequently are busy clinically for long periods of time. The research needs to go forward even when you are not there, and funding agencies will want to see that you have the infrastructure in place to carry out the proposal. The team ideally should include people with a variety of skills and backgrounds that complement your own experience.

Mentorship Is Critical
As with all areas of career development, finding mentors for your research career is a critical element to success. A good mentorship team may indeed be the most important element for any grant with a career development component. STS is building a Mentorship Portal to align early careerists with mentors who have similar interests. That Portal should be available in early 2019.

Start at Home
Resources are often available intramurally to help you get started. Many institutions have internal grants intended to help generate preliminary data. Look to the clinical/translational research institutes, cancer center, cardiovascular center, or other institutional philanthropy for these opportunities. The success rate here is typically high, and these grants will not only develop data, but also will help you establish a track record of successfully conducting research.

As with all areas of career development, finding mentors for your research career is a critical element to success.

Seek Out Early Career Grants
Frequently, professional societies have grant programs specifically targeted at early career faculty (typically within the first 5 years of practice) and often include both mentored career development and investigational components. Examples include The Thoracic Surgery Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and the American College of Surgeons. While these grants can be competitive, the limited eligibility results in a higher likelihood of success than with open funding calls. These awards also are an excellent way of establishing your research as important to the relevant stakeholder groups. It also is important to note that the NIH grants “new investigator” status for a 10-year period after completing your training, which improves your chances of receiving funding.

Do not overlook opportunities from other non-federal funding sources. These frequently are very well-funded opportunities that are focused in scope. Many universities have development office staff who can help identify opportunities that may fit your research interests.

Apply for Federal Funding
Obtaining NIH or equivalent federal funding is the ultimate goal for many researchers. The first step in this process is understanding the funding mechanism that fits you best.

K-series awards are Mentored Career Development grants focused on investigators at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels and require a well-developed training plan and mentorship team. This training plan is at least equal in importance to the science proposed. These grants require a significant time commitment (75% effort for most institutes, although the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has a special waiver for cardiothoracic surgeons that allows 50% effort) and should be discussed with your department chair prior to applying.

R-series awards support Independent Investigation and are of varying lengths. R21 awards, for example, are typically 2-3 year grants focused on early stage investigation, whereas R01 awards span 4-5 years and typically fund well-developed research ideas.

NIH program officers are an invaluable resource and can help you determine the appropriate mechanism to which you should apply and advise you how your research fits into the priorities of the NIH. Program officers are typically very willing to discuss your research, and doing this early in the process can increase your chances of success. Write a Specific Aims page, and email this ahead of time to discuss your ideas.

Success with your first submission is rare, so plan your timeline so that you have ample time to resubmit. Look critically at the comments that you get back from the study section and incorporate their feedback into your resubmission. Persistence is key with NIH grant applications, and good ideas will eventually get funded.

There is more than one pathway to research funding, so plan your strategy to accentuate both your own strengths and those of your research environment. By combining a meaningful research question and strategy with a carefully selected group of mentors and your own determination, it is possible to turn your funding goals into reality.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.