By Payal Ray, PhD
How do you capture intricate ideas in a straightforward way on paper…and then convince someone to fund those ideas? For fellows struggling to answer this question, the NICHD Office of Education organized a “Writing Winning NIH Grant Proposals” workshop. Dr. John Robertson, a member of Grant Writers Seminar and Workshop, LLC, revealed to workshop participants that the secret to getting your grant funded is to make your research sellable—convince your reviewers that the outcome of your study will provide a solution to a critical need within the community.
The daylong workshop featured key aspects of a stellar grant application, with a focus on material in the specific aims section, research strategy, significance, innovation, and approach. In particular, Dr. Robertson placed emphasis on the two most important sections of the grant: the specific aims page and the innovation section.
The specific aims page is equivalent to an advertisement for your research; whether the reviewers decide to read the rest of your proposal hinges on the impression you make in this section. You need to pose your question (critical need) clearly and propose a novel solution to this need to show you have something special to offer. It is imperative that the specific aims page contains everything important about the project, but without a lot of detail. Needless to say, this is the most difficult section to write and must be written FIRST.
The Specific Aims Page
Dr. Robertson laid out the essentials for a strong specific aims section, listed as follows:
- Introductory paragraph, including knowns and unknowns (the gap in knowledge)
- Central hypothesis and rationale
- Aims (specific aims/goals)
- Payoff paragraph consisting of expectations and positive impact
In the introductory paragraph, it is best to use a “hook” sentence to generate interest in the proposal. This section should also address what the proposal will be about and how it relates to the mission of the funding agency, but avoid stating information that is obvious to any reviewer. For example, if your research is cancer-related, do not write “Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world.” This statement fails to present new information or introduce what the grant proposes.
Dr. Robertson presented two lead sentence examples from a proposal to develop natural products that can be used in wound healing:
The unhelpful lead: Type II diabetes, currently recognized as among the major debilitating disease in the U.S affecting more than 3% of all adults, frequently results in open wounds that are resistant to healing.
The helpful lead: Reestablishment of the skin’s protective barrier functions through wound healing is known to be significantly compromised in a number of chronic diseases including diabetes, scleroderma, and severe acne.
The remainder of the first paragraph must acquaint reviewers with current work in your field and establish a gap in what’s known. Do not assume reviewers will know why your work is important; clearly define a critical need—the driving force for the proposal.
The second paragraph should present an objective that addresses the critical need identified in the first paragraph and a testable central hypothesis. This paragraph also contains the long-term goals. At this point, check that the objective matches the critical need you identified. The primary purpose of this paragraph is to convince the reviewers that you (and your team) have the fix to the problem identified in first paragraph.
The third paragraph comprises a logical step-by-step plan to address the critical need. This is commonly known as the specific aims. The best way to accomplish this is to have two to three headline statements that are conceptual rather than descriptive. For example, referring to our example regarding natural product development for wound healing:
Conceptual aim: “Identify the active component of G. jasminoides extracts responsible for wound healing.”
Descriptive aim: “Examine whether the active component in G. jasminoides extracts responsible for wound healing is β-carotenoid.”
Both the aims address a working hypothesis that the active component will be b-carotenoid, but in the second example, the opening “Examine whether” is indeterminate and seems like a look-and-see objective without a concrete basis. The first example takes into consideration that the active component may be something other than β-carotenoid.
The fourth paragraph serves to highlight the “payoffs” of the study, emphasizing why this would be of value to the funding agency. Begin this paragraph with expected outcomes (e.g., We expect to have determined), which must be specific and credible. For K awards, use singular first person pronoun (i.e., “I” instead of “we”). The final statement in this paragraph should be of positive impact, basically, how the outcomes will meet the need and advance the mission of the agency.
The Research Strategy
The Research Strategy follows the Specific Aims page and consists of three subsections
While the significance and approach subsections may seem easy to develop (after all, that is what we just covered for the specific aims page), Dr. Robertson said the two most common mistakes made by applicants are “insufficient justification for the significance of the proposal” and “including too few details about proposed studies.”
The middle subsection on Innovation follows significance and should be about one-third to one-half of a page. This section is different from the significance section in that significance is a positive effect of the study while innovation refers to a new and substantially different way of answering an NIH-relevant problem.
While writing the innovation section, document the existing strategies, state their limitations, and then use the italicized statement, “The proposed research is innovative, in our opinion, because…” Next, summarize the advancements that may become possible with your innovative new approach.
Selling Your Science
To get your research funded, you have to win over your reviewers and turn them into your advocates. It should be a breeze for the primary reviewer to present your proposal to the study section because you wrote and organized your proposal well. Also, it helps to spend some time creating a good title—that is the first thing the reviewers will read!
If possible, know your reviewers by looking up the members of the study sections at http://public.csr.nih.gov/. To make the entire process smooth, always stay in touch with your program officer, who can make helpful suggestions about which study section would be appropriate.
Make sure you start writing your proposal well ahead of the deadlines and recruit friends and colleagues to read and edit your document. Also, give your collaborators/mentors/co-mentors ample time to critique and offer feedback on your proposal. This will ensure that you have the perfect grant application ready for submission in a timely manner.
More information can be found at:
NIH GRANT WRITING TIPS
Also visit Dr. Yvette Pittman in the Office of Education, NICHD, to review grant application requirements and time lines for our institute.
Reference: Russell, S.W. and Morrison, D.C. The grant application writers’ workbook: National Institutes of Health Version