How do I Apply for Federal Grants?

The type of funder will also indicate the formality of rules and requirements. For example, charitable foundations often have less stringent regulations for grant proposals than federal agencies. While federal agencies offer significant awards, they require more work when writing a plan, and therefore it is necessary to weigh the costs and benefits of applying for federal grants. It may be wiser to focus on foundations as a new grant writer due to the time it takes to complete a federal proposal and the level of complexity involved. However, if you are an individual interested in a research project, a federal agency may be a much more appropriate funder to collaborate with since fewer foundations support individuals.

There is an enormous amount of government granting agencies available to partner with for funding. Still, for this illustration, I will focus on two such opportunities that many academics focus on for research funding, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

National Institutes of Health Grants

The National Institutes of Health or NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.

The NIH consists of twenty-seven institutes and centers, twenty-four of which administer grant funds. These agencies include the National Human Genome Research Institute or NHGRI, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research or OBSSR, and the National Institute of Nursing Research or NINR. The alphabet soup of agency names is one of the reasons that people shy away from federal grants. These names may seem confusing, but don’t worry, there is a list of the funding agencies and their acronyms at NIH distributes roughly two billion dollars a year.

You can find NIH grant opportunities at or by visiting the NIH website at Both contain research databases; the only difference is that includes grants from all federal funding agencies, and NIH’s database only lists grants from NIH institutes and centers.

Conduct research using the NIH grants database similarly to how you identify opportunities at Search for grant announcements posted within the past month or grants that precisely match your project’s aims to narrow the search and make it more manageable. During your search for NIH funding opportunities, you will notice that NIH grants fall under three categories, Program Announcements, Request For Applicants, and Parent Announcements.

Program Announcements:

Program Announcements

Program Announcements referred to in the NIH system as PA, PAR and PAS, highlight the broader goals and aims of the National Institutes of Health and receive applications roughly three times a year. Program Announcement funds typically cover projects lasting up to three years.

Request For Applications:

Request For Applications or RFA’s are funding announcements with a specific focus, and that includes earmarked funds for that focus. The deadlines for these opportunities are often once a year.

Parent Announcements:

The NIH values new ideas and innovation. Parent Announcements are the way individuals and institutions offer up ideas in a specific research area that may not be covered by a Program Announcement or Request for Applications. Parent Announcements use activity codes. You can find a list of activity codes on the NIH website, type agency code list into the search function. There are approximately two hundred and forty-four different activity codes that match NIH giving priorities. The following is an example of a description of an activity code.

Activity Code: F30

Title: Fellowship Programs

Category: Individual Predoctoral NRSA for M.D./Ph.D. Fellowships

Description: Individual fellowships for predoctoral training, which leads to the combined M.D./Ph.D. degrees.

The NIH uses two different terms when referring to applicants in the process Applicant Organization Investigator. An Applicant Organization is a Fiscal Agent for the project, and the Investigator is the individual researcher. NIH does not award funds directly to individuals; they instead grant funds to institutions, organizations, small businesses, and the like who will support the Investigator in their research. So, if you are an individual with a fantastic research idea that you think NIH would like to fund, your first step is to identify an organization that can act as your Applicant Organization or sponsoring organization.

Another critical aspect to be aware of is that when you are applying for funds through NIH, you need to register for several different online applications. For instance, you need to register with the NIH online interface, eRA Commons, you are required to have a DUNS number, you must complete an applicant registration form with, and you must also register in the system for award management. NIH warns applicants that it can take eight weeks to complete all of these registrations, so it is essential to apply early if you plan to submit a proposal. You can fill out the registration forms at the following websites:

The NIH emphasizes the importance of contacting the Program Officer related to the specific opportunity for which you seek to apply. As stated in the previous chapter, these connections are invaluable in your proposal process; they explain the importance of your project to the Program Officer and help to personalize the project. Also, Program Officers can give you honest feedback on whether or not your project is a good fit for the funding opportunity. If your grant idea doesn’t fit the specific announcement that they are in charge of, they may be willing to share your project idea with other Program Officers overseeing different funding opportunities.

Grant proposals with the NIH pass through a peer-review board that uses the score criterion of Significance, Investigators Innovation, Approach, and Environment. Therefore, you must understand how your project meets each of these criteria. Then, you need to write your proposal in a way that explains that connection. Below are the definitions of this criterion as described at


Does the project address a significant problem or a critical barrier to progress in the field? If the aims of the project are achieved, how will scientific knowledge, technical capability, and clinical practice be improved? How will successful completion of the goals change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?


Are the PD/PIs, collaborators, and other researchers well suited to the project? If Early Stage Investigators or those in the early stages of independent careers do, they have appropriate experience and training? If established, have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments that have advanced their field(s)? If the project is collaborative or multi-PD/PI, do the investigators have complementary and integrated expertise; are their leadership approach, governance, and organizational structure appropriate for the project?



Does the application challenge and seek to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms by utilizing novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions? Are the concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions novel to one field of research or novel in a broad sense? Is a refinement, improvement, or new application of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions proposed?


Are the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses well-reasoned and appropriate to accomplish the specific aims of the project? Are potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success presented? If the project is in the early stages of development, will the plan establish feasibility and will particularly risky aspects be managed?


Will the scientific environment in which the work will be done contribute to the probability of success? Are the institutional support, equipment, and other physical resources available to the investigators adequate for the project proposed? Will the project benefit from unique features of the scientific environment, subject populations, or collaborative arrangements?

After your proposal passes through the peer-review board, it goes on to the institution Director for the final decision. If you have failed to register for a specific requirement or neglected to make a case for why your project meets the five criteria, your chances for receiving funds through NIH are slim. However, if you can pay close attention to the funding announcement, if you contact the program officer to obtain as much information about the opportunity as possible, and if you tailor your proposal specifically to the five criteria, you have a much higher chance of success.

From start to finish, the process of receiving funding through the National Institutes of Health takes roughly nine to 10 months. If you are interested in finding out more information on recent projects that have recently funded through NIH, you can visit


National Science Foundation Grants

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) mission is to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense. NSF’s focus on the following areas of research:

  • Biological Sciences
  • Computer and Information Science and Engineering
  • Engineering
  • Education and Human Resources
  • Geosciences
  • Mathematical and Physical Sciences
  • Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences
  • Environmental Research and Education
  • Integrative Activities
  • International Science and Engineering

The NSF overlaps with the National Institutes of Health in some circumstances but differentiates itself by not funding medical science. While NSF may fund projects that are ultimately used in a medical setting or to support medical advancements, NSF funded investigators only focus their research on the very beginning stages of that scientific journey. Therefore, when applying to the NSF, you mustn’t frame your issue in terms of a medical application.

Similar to the NIH, the National Science Foundation passes proposals through a review board. Reviewers evaluate whether or not a project balances Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact. If your proposal has an innovative research approach, substantial baseline evidence, and reliable, collaborative partners but fails to justify the greater impact, it will achieve, then it is unlikely that you will receive funding.

Intellectual Merit:

Intellectual Merit

The intellectual merit of a project refers to its potential to produce innovative results that will advance the field of science. Reviewers look for proposals that stand out with creativity and have the capacity for transformative outcomes. They also want to see that the project will increase scientific understanding across fields. Lastly, Intellectual Merit refers to the qualifications of the Investigator and the quality of resources, through external stakeholders, that are available to that Investigator.

Broader Impact:

The Broad Impact of a proposal refers to the overall benefit to society achieved. This review criterion focuses on scientific discovery while at the same time promoting scientific teaching. Reviewers pay close attention to whether or not the proposal will include the participation of underrepresented groups of individuals. Successful grant applications indicate how an investigator will work with schools and other teaching organizations to leverage the societal impact.

The National Science Foundation administers approximately $7.5 Billion each year to Investigators, which is significantly larger than the National Health Institutes. Therefore, if you are looking to fund research, you may want to consider applying to NSF first due to sheer dollars awarded.

The NSF’s awarded proposal rate, or in other words, your likelihood for success is 20%, but this includes proposals that receive funds after the Investigators were invited to apply. For unsolicited proposals, that figure is closer to 12-15%. The NSF awards funding in three to four-year terms, and deadlines occur throughout the year. The typical funding award for the NSF falls between $500,000 – $1.5 Million.

After researching the appropriate funding opportunity through NSF, it is a good idea to create a one-page write up of your proposal idea and contact that program officer in charge of the award. Build connections, as you would with any funder, by checking to see if your idea is on the right track or if there may be another opportunity that fits better.

In July of 2017, Charles Cunningham, Program Director & CDF Cluster Leader, Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Directorate for Biological Sciences, National Science Foundation, led a lecture at the University of California San Francisco. You can find a link to that lecture in the reference section of this book. During the talk, Cunningham shared the following tips for success:

Tips for success when writing an NSF proposal include:

  • Speak to the Program Officer.
  • Don’t assume that the reviewers understand your science; write out your scientific processes as plainly as possible.
  • Do not forget to state how your proposal addressed Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.
  • Identify Schools and Institutions that will assist in your work and have them write letters of support.
  • State your Hypothesis clearly and make sure that it is testable.
  • Propose an innovative idea that will advance the field significantly.



Due to the size of federal agencies, to achieve their mission they must employ bureaucratic procedures. Therefore, federal grants have more requirements than private or corporate foundations. Although, federal grants offer larger financial awards and support individuals. It is best to weigh the pros and cons before tackling a federal grant proposal.