Many research projects may fit multiple funders. This is especially true of research that may have clinical applications. Often, we fall into a sort of middle ground called translational research. Basically, researchers in this field, myself included, discover and manipulate physical phenomena in the hopes that it will yield a clinically relevant product. Because we often work on both sides of this translation, investigating the natural phenomena as well as deriving clinically relevant applications from it, we may find that our research fits into the missions of both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). So it is vitally important to our funding aspirations to fully understand the differences between these two organizations.
The NSF mission basically boils down to expanding the state of human knowledge. To address this, they want applicants to push boundaries so that we may further understand the natural phenomena of the world around us. This results in a very broad base of research. The NSF, through its various grant and fellowship programs may fund anything from astrophysics research to the development of a new strain of bacteria designed to manufacture pharmaceutical compounds. The key to impressing the NSF is that they want you to focus on the foundational science rather than the translation to practice. Focus on the basic physiochemical or social science phenomena that comprise the basis of your work, and steer clear of clinical research. To this end, the NSF expressly discourages applications that seek to directly influence health-related outcomes.
The NIH, in contrast, expressly and exclusively seeks proposals that would directly and positively influence health-related outcomes. Here is where the clinically relevant research gets its day in the sun. Focus on the clinical translation your research seeks to develop. Focus on the medical technology you are developing from your foundational research. Focus on actual clinical studies if you have a mind to do them.
The flagship awards from each organization are their respective predoctoral fellowships. For the NSF, this is the Graduate Research Fellowship, abbreviated GRF. In addition to focusing on the foundational scientific research, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind. First, this is an early graduate fellowship. Begin with a good idea, but just as important as the idea itself is your ability to think it through. Highlight the aptitudes, skills, and perspective that will enable you to conceive this and other projects in the future.
For the NIH, the larger predoctoral fellowship is the Kirchstein National Research Service Award, also referred to by its funding code of F31. The expectation for this fellowship is a dissertation proposal-level research project that holds the potential to contribute to the training of its primary investigator, which would be the student. Focus on the project and its potential applications and broader significance as well as the training plan for the applicant. This means you should consider including information on collaborative efforts, mentorship, and other institutional resources that will enable you to develop into a competent translational researcher.
As always, you can schedule a meeting with us for more in-depth information on these two funders and the specific awards they offer.