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Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.

Getting Funded from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

By Edward Fantino, Ph.D.


My first application to NIMH, back in 1964, was unsuccessful, but the rejection was informative. I had put together what I thought were proposals for three good sets of experiments. I learned that the experiments were not all that good, that they were too unrelated and that I was asking for far too much. Since that first application I have submitted dozens more. In all I tried to take into account the lessons learned from that first ill-fated attempt. While several of these proposals were not funded, and while I certainly bristled from time to time at the reviews, based on my experiences with NIMH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and based on a term on the NSF panel, in large measure I believe that the grant process is fair. Perhaps I have been asked to write this piece because I have succeeded in obtaining uninterrupted funding from NIMH and/or NSF since my first NSF grant in 1965. Currently we are completing the second year of a five-year NIMH grant. But it has never been easy (and a thick skin is recommended). What have I learned? While there is a certain degree of variability in the process, I would say that there generally is a correlation between the perceived quality of the proposal and the likelihood of funding. So the first principle involves putting in the time and planning required for a strong proposal. The proposal should have implications either for theory or application if it is to compete successfully. At the very least, the proposal should make clear why the outcomes of the proposed experiments are likely to be of interest to others. Above all the proposal should be clearly written. The application for NIMH funding features a single-spaced proposal of up to 25 pages. If the application proposes experiments studying non-human animals it goes to a panel that includes several members sympathetic to behavior-analytic research. The panel meets three times a year.


Unlike NSF panels, which rely on the reports of outside reviewers as well as on the evaluations of the panel members, NIMH relies solely on the opinions of the panelists. Thus, one's first step should be to check out the membership of the appropriate panel on the NIMH web site or by phoning the office of the relevant program director (currently, Howard S. Kurtzman, PhD, Chief, Cognitive Science Program). Obviously one takes special care not to ignore research relevant to one's proposal done by any of the panel members. Since our laboratory investigates choice in humans as well as in pigeons this panel was appropriate. If our proposal had consisted entirely of human research, however, it would have been sent to another panel (I know not which), and very possibly would have received a less favorable reception. There can be a downside to this strategy however: if the human and non-human research is not well integrated the proposal may be judged unfocused. Since I have been repeatedly advised of the importance of coherent well-focused proposals there is a definite tradeoff here. Indeed I have had a proposal from our lab derided as "a potpourri proposal" for this reason (one person's breadth is another's potpourri). In my judgment steering the proposal to the appropriate panel is probably even more important than submitting the best possible proposal. In our most recent proposal that strategy was successful. Although one or two of the three reviewers did comment on the lack of focus, they nonetheless recommended funding.


While all of the panelists on an NIMH panel vote (giving a score in a secret tally) three panelists are primarily responsible for influencing the fate of the proposal (one "primary" and two "secondary" reviewers). These panelists present their detailed evaluations to the rest of the group and lead the discussion. Soon after the panel meeting, the investigator receives the three detailed reviews and a "priority score" and percentile rank. The percentile rank is critical. The cutoff for funding will depend on how well funded NIMH is at the time. In the past few years at least the top 20% have been funded. If the proposal is not funded, the investigator may revise and resubmit it twice (for a total of up to three considerations). If the reviewers' concerns can be adequately dealt with, chances for funding obviously improve.


What can we do to increase the number of behavior-analytic proposals that are funded by NIMH (and NSF for that matter)? The most obvious and effective strategy IS TO APPLY! The more applications received from behavior-analytic researchers, the more qualified panelists will be appointed in our area. And the more panelists who are knowledgeable about, and sympathetic to, research in behavior analysis, then the brighter the prospects for the funding of behavior-analytic proposals.




Modifed by Eddie Soh