Work at it.
Chance favors the prepared. You can't win if you don't play the game. Effort matters. Persistence pays off.
The NIH rewards those that work at it.
Sally Rockey finally got around to looking at the per-investigator success rate some time ago. It is higher than the per-application success rates. Jeremy Berg posted some data on the cumulative probability of restoring NIH funding after an interval of no-funding to show that it IS possible to get back in the game.
I've been around the system long enough to see the boom and bust funding cycles from a number of viewpoints. The funding I've managed to acquire for my lab group, of course. But my close colleagues at my own institution, and those in my subfield, are part of the picture. As are the grants and career packets I've reviewed, where the ups and downs of grant funding are in full relief. And, as you know, I have an unhealthy interest in the NIH system as a whole and I snoop around on RePORTER quite a bit*.
As a minor disclaimer, I never know with any certainty how hard any PI other than myself is working at getting and maintaining funding. Sure, I hear the moaning and I participate in it. But I cannot have a full grasp, save for those few cases where someone more-junior wants a serious counseling session from me. And even then, I'm.....gentle**.
What I do know is this. When I am looking at the prospects of a funding gap, I am submitting grant applications. Frequently. At least one per round and often more than that. For many rounds. Yes, I start well in advance of the actual financial cliff for my group because I recognize it can take years of trying to get a grant funded.
This is a very long game.
I have missed one grant deadline in my career. By "missed" I mean that I really should be putting an application in, I planned to do so, was working (ish) on it and then pulled out at the last minute. I have never missed a deadline in the sense of just not getting the grant application finished.
I'm here to tell you, I have been shocked multiple times by my peers who have missed deadlines. I have been shocked multiple times by my peers who put in a single grant application, wait for review, revise it a round later and then complain about the dismal NIH odds. I am bemused by more-senior colleagues who are realizing in the past few years, well past time IMNSHO, that one R01, continually renewed on schedule is not a smart expectation anymore.
Dear Reader, you know my attitudes about steps you should be taking to nudge your grant odds. Researching study sections, trying many of them out with your apps and seeing how to adapt. Getting to know Program Officers and telling them what is important. Bird dogging the NIH guide each week. Spreading your application ideas around in terms of wheel-house studies and exploratory reaches. Going with what you have (preliminary data, pubs) rather than what you expect in a year. Experimenting! Talking to members of study sections. Getting ON study sections. Managing the grant you do have in a way that anticipates the attempt to get more funding in 5 to 8 years.
I'm here to tell you, not everyone sees it my way.
And yes, I recognize that you can't do everything, all at once or all at a time. Particularly when your lab is young. Time is limited and you have other responsibilities. And if you don't leave time to smell the data roses, well, why are you doing this anyway, right?
People who assert with great confidence that the NIH game is ONLY a game of pure chance, leavened by scientific fame and pedigree***, annoy me.
They make me want to ask hard questions about exactly how hard they are trying to get funded.
I know there are people who work as hard as, or even harder than, I do to get funded and may be striking out entirely. I know this. But I also know that many folks looking enviously at the successful and attributing it to back room dealing, connections, fame and "luck" simply aren't working at it as hard as some others.
*Like when a scientist on news media complains obliquely about funding being "pulled" from their lab, for example.
**My tactic is usually "here's what I do, here's what works for me". I don't think I have said directly to anyone "Dude, you need to submit a LOT more applications", even when that is my opinion. Maybe this is too hands-off?
***Seriously. Get thee to RePORTER and see just how broad the distribution of NIH grants is. Look at the PIs. Look at the Universities and, gasp, colleges. Give up on this "pedigree-only" whining. Leave off the nonsense that only those who publish in single-name elite journals can get a grant.