Foreign Applicant Institution NIH Grants

Nov 21 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH funding

The NIH allows non-US Universities and other institutions to apply for NIH grants. I don't pay much attention to this issue so I don't know how many.
What I am curious about is whether the PIs who review have noticed anything about these applications. How are they received in study sections you have attended? Is there a high bar for the unique environment or capabilities? 
I believe I was on study section during a transition where the foreign applications were essentially treated like domestic apps to where there was intense skepticism. This was around the mid-naughties, approximately a decade ago. 
I'm curious what you folks are seeing. 

26 responses so far

  • Grumble says:

    Dunno, but seems like grants to foreign institutions would be an easy target for our new guv'mint. That, and the NIH's various diversity programs, including those mentioned in your last post.

  • Lisa says:

    I have never seen a grant entirely from a non-US institution, but in my study section, we do talk about it if money is going to collaborators outside the US. There needs to be a strong justification about why those collaborators are the ones to do the work rather than someone inside the US. Special expertise, long track record of productive collaboration with PI, etc.

  • potnia theron says:

    Yes, the bar seemed higher. It seemed to me that the proposal needed to be something unique, something that "can't be done in the US" (although this could probably be said of every application).

  • Laffer says:

    I've been encouraging a colleague of mine to apply for an R01 because of ongoing funding and review issues in the country where they work. I wasn't sure if Study Sections would ding the grant because of it or if it would get folded into a larger 'environment' criticism. This person is at another-wise great, R1-level institution.

  • bacillus says:

    At the beginning of the Bio Defense boom, a colleague from Europe and I (from Canada) had the only extant R01 grant on a particular bug on the very naughty list. The USA had long since abandoned its leadership in this field. Therefore, we were considered top dogs for the first couple of rounds of R01 submissions, during which time we helped a bunch of US institutions re-establish programs in the field. Thereafter, we became much less successful with NIH, but they were already de-funding the field in leaps and bounds by then. A very promising vaccine candidate emerged from these studies and is now advancing toward IND via generous funding from another US granting agency. However, approximately 75% of the budget will go to US companies in this case. So we didn't just take the money and run. Nowadays, I'd never consider applying for funding from NIH, DoD etc without a major or majority US collaborator. Even if we had a unique IP position on something of practical value to offer, we'd always look for a US company to partner with.

  • bacillus says:

    Forgot to mention that foreign institutions can only claim a total indirect cost of 8% which could be considered an advantage to NIH in certain cases?

  • potnia theron says:

    @bacillus - at the level of making SS reviews, indirects don't matter at all. Program officers may see that as an advantage.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Laffer- There is a specific review section that addresses the appropriateness/merit/need for an award to the Foreign Applicant Institution. This section is where it should be addressed.

  • Curiosity says:

    Why I'm thinking of applying for grants from my bunker in Canada too!

  • Vaudaux says:

    In several years of reviewing (mostly for a single study section), I remember only two or three applications for which the PI was outside the US. Occasionally there is a collaborator or co-investigator from outside the US. In most cases that person is clearly an expert in that field or has access to a particularly useful technique or asset (eg, clinical specimens) that is critical for the application. When a review mentions this in a meeting, the SRO often says "Unless the whole application is foreign, no need to even mention it".

    I have never had the impression that a foreign application should be held to a higher standard. In fact, the place to enter comments on Applications from Foreign Organizations is in the section of the critique for issues not affecting score.

    A few months ago, I was curious about this very issue and did some searches in Reporter for R01s outside the US funded by the institute most relevant to me (NIAID). I don't remember the numbers, but there were not very many. Most of what I found had a clear reason to be elsewhere - eg, malaria studies in Africa. (These may have been submitted in response to particular RFAs, I don't know.) I also found a small number of academic departments in Canada and the UK that had received several NIH grants. From the titles it didn't appear that these projects could only be done at those organizations - they were simply good applications from good labs that had gotten competitive scores. I think that it probably takes quite a lot of effort for an institution or department to get to the point where they can be very successful in the NIH system. Not so many groups make that investment.

  • Yizmo Gizmo says:

    Why don't they start calling themselves the IIH? The International Institutes of Health.
    Last time I had an accident there with broken equipment (at NIEHS) I couldn't even find an English-speaker to help me out, amid all the Chinese postdocs.

  • JL says:

    Yes, how dare those postdocs not learn English to help you when you needed it.

  • babyattachmode says:

    I've tried this and from the comments we received (from reviewers, not discussed at study section) it seems like you need to do something that literally nobody in the US can do in order to get funded. For us, reviewers had done a pubmed search for what we intended to do and figured that even though we had a pretty unique combination of techniques (if I may say so about my own stuff), others had done those individual techniques and therefore it did not tick the box that it could not be done in the US. From what I hear from someone who did get funded by the NIH nearly ten years ago, it was definitely easier to get that box ticked back then.

  • Ola says:

    I don't recall ever seeing a single non US app from my time on a regular NIH study section, but that's probably because the disease area is so well represented within the US that there's not much unique the ferners have to offer. Clearly YMMV in other disease areas.

    On the other hand, at the grant review panel of a small US-based orphan disease foundation we get a lot of foreign applications, probably at least 50% because there's a lot of expertise about this particular disease in Europe. Unlike NIH, we do actively discuss budget and bang-for-buck-if-funded during the review meeting, since the review panel is also the council and we don't meet separately to decide funding. So, questions such as "could this work be done domestically for less money?" are quite frequent during review. The killer is when we get post-doc' applications from Scandinavia, where the salaries are huge in dollar-exchange-rate terms. In addition the board has to justify our choices to the fundraisers, who are overwhelmingly US based - it's hard to sell marathon runners and bake sale folks on the idea you spent their money for 6 months of a Danish post-doc' instead of a year of a US post-doc'. As a result, not many overseas apps get funded.

  • MoBio says:

    On review groups that I've been on since the mid 1990's these have come in occasionally and typically have done well as the PI's were outstanding and the work proposed interesting. The quality of the science was the most important criterion and the 'uniqueness' was only addressed secondarily.

  • MoBio says:

    @babbyattachmode: Addendum I've never reviewed foreign postdoc applicants so cannot comment on those concerns.

  • babyattachmode says:

    @MoBio It was actually a multi-PI R01 where I was one of the applicants

  • drugmonkey says:

    I always thought it sort of odd for the NIH to have this "cannot be done at a domestic institution" approach. Just because some other lab could do the work doesn't mean they would. I though idly that if the plan was meritorious then maybe it *should* be funded and just assigned to some domestic lab willing to do it.

    That would go over well.

  • drugmonkey says:

    [I should be clear, however, that I recall that my stance on foreign Applicant institutions leaned toward the profoundly skeptical side. I think it is ridiculous that NIH funds *any* of these in the current budget environment.]

  • babyattachmode says:

    I guess it makes sense that the NATIONAL institutes of health fund national science, but can we at least join the WORLD series then?

  • bacillus says:

    @DM. I largely agree with your sentiments. However, sometimes NIH is looking for a product and if a foreign organization has something of interest that is already pretty far down the development pipeline versus a US applicant who wants to start from scratch, I can see the former being competitive.

  • XCSR says:

    Its important to keep in mind that NIH is a US government institution, and is bound by all US law, including those specifically targeted at NIH. The rules on foreign grants are determined by Congress, not the NIH. The same is true for many things that NIH gets blamed for, including all the conflict of interest rules, most of the study section membership rules, and a lot more. For example, the exclusion of providing coffee and refreshments at study section meetings did NOT come from NIH.

    The rules for reviewing foreign applications are these. The “Foreign” part of a true foreign application occurs after final scores but it is mandatory and the summary statement must have a write-up under a specific heading (council has to discuss all foreign applications and they need to see the reviewers comments).

    As in everything else, each IC council has different ways of dealing with foreign applications, although the rules about needing something special apply to all of course (US law).

  • drugmonkey says:

    I recall that the fact of being a FAI came up in the main discussion but perhaps I am misremembering. Still, it remains the case that things that are not supposed to affect scoring often pollute a reviewer's stance on an app. Budget and overhead for example.

  • Dave says:

    Have a key computational collaborator on one app who is in another country and will be paid with a subcontract. 2/3 reviewers liked it as there is an established relationship and he has a unique skill set, but one reviewer and the PO most definitely did not like it. Concerns were mostly about communication, but I suspect it went a bit deeper than that.

  • Boehninglab says:

    I have an active multi-PI R01 in which the contact PI is in Canada ( The fact that he was in Canada was a non-issue from the beginning, and was not in any of the peer review notes. SRO and PO made it clear before submission there should be no barriers to this arrangement. BTW, happy thanksgiving everyone.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    NSF does not fund foreign applicants. What they do do is have programs where both sides are funded from their own countries.

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