Do you find the requirements and competition for your first R01 daunting, and funding opportunities at private foundations don't seem to match your research interests? Is there a middle ground for other funding opportunities?
Research contracts offered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may offer an attractive opportunity for funding without sacrificing scientific independence. NIH may use the research contract mechanism to stimulate research in an underserved domain, to gather data and/or biological specimens for public health priorities, or to fund "big science" initiatives.
Instead of requests for applications (RFA) which are sometimes issued to stimulate grant applications in particular areas, contracts are advertised using requests for proposals (RFP). The gamut of contract opportunities is very broad, and the use of the RFP mechanism differs by Institute. For example, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has used the contract mechanism to fund multicenter epidemiologic studies of viral infection in the blood transfusion setting. NHLBI project officers maintain ultimate direction of the project, but give substantial scientific latitude to a steering committee comprised of academic investigators. On the other extreme, a contract could provide the mechanism for NIH to obtain a specific deliverable, such as repository services or the collection of plant or animal specimens with potential medicinal value.
Several differences between grants and contracts bear mentioning. First, a non-scientific contract officer (similar to a grants specialist) at NIH bears primary responsibility for the financial and legal obligations of the contract, while a project officer maintains scientific oversight. Expect more detailed scrutiny of budget proposals. Second, contract applications follow different formats from the traditional R01 application, often requiring more description of institutional capacity and investigator track record than of the science underlying the research proposal. Requirements for quarterly and annual reports may also be more demanding. Finally, keep in mind that data and specimens generated under a contract may become the property of the government and not of the investigator or University. Although NIH typically respects academic freedom to publish, be sure to scrutinize contract clauses related publication as you would with an industry contract.
The Office of Acquisition Management and Policy at National Institutes of Health offers a useful Contract Tool Box.