What Makes a Good NIH Grant Application
Center for Scientific Review Chairs Relay Their Experience
Writing good NIH grant applications can be tricky. To help new and established applicants submit better applications, NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) has shared insights of six former study section chairs explaining common elements of impactful applications they’ve seen. Don’t miss their responses below and be sure to check out more tips on the NIH website.
Propose something significant. It’s a real turn-off to read an application that is basically a rehash of a previous project with a new tissue. The same goes for “me too” research. Identify an area of current controversy and importance within your field. Make it something that would interest more people than you and your coworkers. Will it be important to clinicians or other investigators? Are you dealing with key questions or controversies in the field?
Good ideas don’t always sell themselves. Tell why it’s important up front in the background section. Tell what’s known and what isn’t known and how, after you complete your studies, you’ll move the field forward or answer important questions. If you’re seeking an incremental advance over what’s known, it’s essential to justify it.
Make it exciting. It’s great to see fresh, well-supported ideas that have a good hypothesis behind them that could really open up an area. It is both exciting and intellectually stimulating to encounter new approaches to major problems and research that could advance both clinical and basic science. Even if it’s somewhat high risk, if it comes with a good hypothesis and you can test it, it could be very exciting.
Probe for mechanisms and seek new models. We need to know how something happens — not just what happens. With this knowledge, we can affect outcomes and design something to prevent something from happening. If you don’t know what’s happening on the bench, you’re not going to move to the bedside with any reproducible or knowledgeable treatment.
Avoid proposing to "collect more data." It might help you to set up the system, but if it’s not critical to fundamental understanding, don’t dwell on it. Although some experiments might take a lot of time to perform, they will not necessarily qualify as specific aims.
Be very clear and very concise about what you want to do, why it’s important, and what you expect to get out of it. Keeping it clear doesn’t mean doing away with complexity. Just make sure your general sense and key questions come across very clearly throughout your proposal.
Don’t assume too much. Not all reviewers will have the same in-depth, highly expert knowledge you do. Avoid any unnecessary technical jargon, and write your application assuming it will be reviewed by intelligent scientists who have a breadth of knowledge around your area. Consider asking a researcher at your institution who isn’t an expert in your field to read your application and tell you how well it flows.
Be brief with stuff everyone knows. Lots of people go too far describing routine laboratory methods, which take up space and really distract reviewers. It gives the message that applicants are not as organized as they should be. New investigators, however, should show that the techniques they proposed to use are within their capabilities.
Aim each aim. Spend time on the Expected Outcomes, Data Interpretation, Pitfalls, and Contingencies section for each aim. The “expected outcomes” section shows you’ve got a logical strategy. The section on Data Interpretation gives insight into your depth of understanding the problem. The Pitfalls section shows how familiar you are with the proposed techniques and methodologies. Finally, in discussing alternative strategies, you can give us confidence you are able to deal with the problems that arise when experiments don’t work as expected.
Pull it together. At the end of your methods section, have a succinct, one-paragraph summary of what you intend to do, how you intend to do it, and what it’s going to tell you. Write it like a manuscript abstract. It’s really helpful at the very end to see the take-home message.
Don’t jump too fast into writing your application, particularly if you’re a new applicant. The most critical parts are the summary and specific aims sections. Write a one-page summary page with specific aims first and share it with someone who is experienced, has their own funding, or — ideally — someone who has served on a study section. If you can’t wow them, start again and come up with some fresh ideas.
Don’t test the waters to see how reviewers like your initial ideas or let them find the limitations for you. Find the limitations yourself and discuss them in the application.
Don’t cram your application like a suitcase. Reviewers complain about small fonts, tiny margins, numbered references (because they require readers to constantly flip back to the reference section), and statements such as “See the reprint in the appendix for details.” It’s helpful to see spaces between paragraphs, spaces between sections, and well-magnified figure legends.
Proofread your application. Better yet, have someone else proofread it!
Persistence: the key word. Half the applications reviewed aren’t discussed. So don’t despair: You’re in good company. Go through your critiques with your investigators. If there’s a fatal flaw, stand back and then decide the best route to take next time. But usually the weaknesses are fixable, so address them and re-submit.
In appreciation for their many contributions:
Rozanne Sandri-Goldin, PhD, chair, department of microbiology and molecular genetics, University of
California — Irvine; former chair, Special Emphasis Panel F08 for NSRA Fellowships; and former chair,
Experimental Virology Study Section
Jonathan D. Kaunitz, MD, Professor of Medicine, UCLA School of Medicine
former chair, Clinical and Integrative Gastrointestinal Pathobiology Study Section
Robb Krumlauf, PhD, scientific director, Stowers Institute for Medical Research
former chair, Development - 2 Study Section
Phoebe Leboy, PhD, professor emeritus, University of Pennsylvania Dental School
former chair, Skeletal Biology Development and Disease
Alice Clark, PhD, vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs, University of Mississippi
former chair, Drug Discovery and Mechanisms of Antimicrobial Resistance Study Section
Greg Ashby, PhD, professor, psychology, UC Santa Barbara
former chair, Cognition and Perception Study Section