By Pushpanathan Muthuirulan, PhD
The key element of a successful grant proposal is being able to sell novel ideas to reviewers. Remember, first impressions are hard to change. Grant writers need to capture the reviewer’s attention, identify credible needs, and make ideas understandable to expert and non-expert reviewers. Understanding the creation process of a grant proposal and the review criteria are essential.
The NICHD Office of Education, in collaboration with four other institutes, organized a “Write Winning NIH Grant Proposals” seminar and workshop on July 14, 2016. Dr. John D. Robertson, associate member of the Grant Writers’ Seminars & Workshops, LLC, has been successful in obtaining competitive extramural funding from both NIH and non-federal sources. In this workshop, he covered NIH grant application preparation, basic grant structure, and strategies for producing well-written research proposals.
Basic components of an NIH grant application
The basic NIH grant application includes the following components:
Specific Aims (1 page)
The Specific Aims include the concise goals of the proposed research and a summary of the expected outcomes.
Structure Specific Aims into 4 paragraphs:
1st Paragraph – identify the “need”
2nd Paragraph – outline the idea for a solution
3rd Paragraph – spell out the approach
4th Paragraph – summarize expectations and impact.
It’s highly critical by the end of the opening paragraph to convince every reviewer that there is a bona fide “problem” or “need” (that is relevant to the mission of the funding agency), or else everything that follows will be very difficult to “sell” to the reviewers! Ensure that proposed aims are interrelated, but not interdependent, and avoid indeterminate objectives.
Research Strategy (6-12 pages)
The research strategy contains the significance, innovation, and approach of your proposed project.
The Significance section establishes the scientific premise by including existing evidence (e.g., statistical evidence). The scientific premise for each aim should be accompanied by a literature review and preliminary results. It is highly important to explain why your contribution will have an NIH-relevant positive impact.
Note on new NIH guidelines: If human subjects and/or vertebrate laboratory animals will be used in the proposed research, to properly inform the research design, preliminary data should be generated using both sexes, unless use of a single sex can be justified (NOT-OD-15-102)
The Innovation section should emphasize a new and substantially different way of addressing an important, NIH-relevant problem that requires a departure from the status quo and could lead to new scientific horizons. It should follow the significance section and can be one-third to one-half page long.
The Approach is an essential review component in a grant application. The purpose of this section is to describe how the proposed research will be carried out. It’s important to avoid the inclusion of mindless minutiae. Provide only meaningful details in a succinct manner. Include a timetable indicating important “milestones” that will underscore progress, which will be highly helpful for reviewers during the review process.
Research Strategy (6-12 pages)
This section contains information about the applicant, in the form of a biographical sketch, and the applicant’s research environment.
The information included in the Biographical Sketch should reflect that you have the required expertise necessary to successfully pursue the proposed project. The biographical sketch should contain the following items:
- Chronological listing of your education and training
- Personal statement
- Positions and honors
- Contributions to science (half page) – list each contribution, including supporting material. Use up to four supporting publications
- Research support – applicants are asked to list all of their funding sources within the last three years
The Environment: Contribution to Success description should reflect how the research environment would facilitate success of the project. This section should include truly distinguishing features of the research environment such as
- Key collaborative arrangements
- Extraordinary institutional commitments
- Rich intellectual environment
For example, early-stage investigators can provide more information about their institutional environment related to space, equipment, start-up funds, protected time for research, salary, technical and administrative support, and organized research interest groups.
The budget is the monetary amount you will need for your proposed project. There are two budget types: modular and detailed.
You use a modular budget form if you meet the following criteria:
Your budget is less than $250,000 per year
You are applying for a R01, R03, R15, R21, or R34
Your organization is based in the United States
If you do not meet each of these requirements, then you should use a detailed budget, also known as an R&R budget form. More information can be found at “Develop Your Budget,” an NIH guide on creating a budget for your NIH grant application.
The title is the first thing a reviewer will see. A title should be highly informative and engender enthusiasm. It greatly contributes to the funding agency’s (and reviewers’) first impression of a grant proposal.
The project summary is one of the most important sections during the grant review process, because all reviewers will read it, not just those assigned to the application. The project summary should be a stand-alone section that includes the need or gap that drives the proposal, long-term objectives, specific aims, and research design. Do not use this section to summarize past accomplishments or to review background material. You must write the summary in plain English, which is easily interpretable by laypersons.
Note on New NIH guidelines: Grant writers are allowed to write 30 lines for the project summary for R- and K-series applications
The project narrative is a two- to three-sentence description of the proposal’s relevance to public health. It is highly recommended that writers include relevance to the mission of the institute or center here, rather than in the project summary.
Note: The NIH SF 424 Application Guide requires that the project narrative of the proposal be written in plain, lay language.
Grant writers should always keep in mind: Why should reviewers read my proposal? Answering this question will provide an effective path to successful grantsmanship. Creating a grant proposal that is “reviewer friendly,” following NIH grant policies and guidelines, will help researchers sell innovative ideas in the crowded marketplace of grant applications.