By Eva Szarek, PhD, MPM
“It’s called research not search because we have to re-search over and over” (J.D. Robertson)
The grant application process is not science; it is the marketing of science. The June 26th half-day Grant Writing workshop introduced participants to the general outline and structuring of a grant application, with an emphasis on how to put together a K99 and other new-investigator NIH grants. John D. Robertson, PhD, an associate member of the Grant Writers’ Seminars & Workshops, LLC, with extensive experience in competitive extramural funding from both the NIH and non-federal sources, led the event.
The main points covered during the session centered on the development of the application, including aspects addressing the specific aims, central hypothesis, research strategy, innovation, and approach. The two most important aspects of the grant application are the specific aims, which garnered the most time at the workshop, and the newly created section to address innovations relating to your proposal. Dr. Robertson’s best advice focused on the specific aims, because this is the first section reviewers read and should be the executive summary to your entire grant.
The specific aims give the reviewer all the essential details about the proposal, including why the work is important, why it needs to be done, why you are qualified to solve the problem, how you will solve it, and the big picture (what is the impact in the current field?). Most importantly, you will need a “hook” sentence, one that has directional focus and addresses the target institute’s or agency’s mission. In addition to the hook sentence, the problem being proposed needs to be framed—that is, the critical need or driving force must be evident to the reviewers. For example, if your research grant is related to cancer research, your opening sentence should not begin with “Cancer is the world’s leading…” This opening sentence has not taught the reviewer anything. Focus your opening statement.
The hook sentence example from the workshop is as follows:
Unhelpful: “Approximately 2 million children in the U.S. make the transition from preschool to kindergarten every fall.”
Helpful: “More than 15% of the 2 million children in the U.S. who annually transition from preschool to kindergarten lack adequate social and/or emotional skills necessary to thrive in the kindergarten environment.” This statement may not need a reference, unless you think reviewers will have their doubts. Teach the reviewer something new (…well at least try!).
The new addition of the innovation section for NIH grants is aimed at addressing the original and substantially different way of addressing the research significance. What constitutes innovation? Will your research question challenge or seek to shift current research? Does your research employ novel theoretical concepts, approaches, methodologies or instrumentation? Are any of these innovations novel to the field? These are some on the key questions one should be thinking about when writing this section.
The flow for the innovation section was presented at the workshop as follows:
(a) Document the existing strategies currently being used to address a problem (or similar problem) and their limitations or why they were unsatisfactory
(b) Include an italicized statement of potential innovation: The proposed research is potentially innovative because…
(c) Summarize the advancements that are likely to be possible with this new approach that would probably not have been possible without this innovative new approach.
The greatest challenge is to persuade your reviewers to get your science funded. Not only does your grant need to address the specific study section (the group of people in a related field assigned to review your grant), but it also needs to be reviewer friendly: use appropriate font, eliminate ambiguity, and follow the instructions. “What is research except attention and detail,” said Dr. Robertson.
And last but not least: create a writing schedule with set completion dates that you will stick to. Efficient time management is one of the most important ways you can gain that edge over your competitors, not only by making sure your writing is succinct and the information relates specifically to your topic, but also by guaranteeing that you have written an aesthetically pleasing grant application with sufficient time for your referees to write you that glorious reference letter.
What are you waiting for…get writing!!!
Grant funding NIH link:
Grant Writers’ website: