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Step-By-Step Grant Help

Write a strong grant application

Typical sequence for proposal development:

  • The problem or need
  • Significance/background
    • Literature search and preliminary draft of relevant materials
      • Look up publications of reviewers
      • Use only those articles which are relevant to support aims
  • Hypothesis and specific aims
    • Rarely more than 3 overall hypotheses with 2-3 aims
    • Operationalize
    • Null and directional hypotheses
    • Implications if hypotheses are/are not supported
  • Theoretical model
    • Essential in intervention level studies
    • Non-essential or inappropriate for exploratory level
    • If no model, explain
    • When possible, use a diagram
  • Research plan — include the following in the research proposal:
    • Description of research design (e.g., 3-group, cross-sectional, nested)
    • Methods
      • Setting
      • Subject selection
        • Power analysis for each aim — oversample
        • Numerators/denominators — describe population
        • Describe who, when, where of recruitment
        • Attrition
      • Variables — define dependent and independent
      • Measures
        • Reliability and validity, population norms
        • Rationale for use
      • Procedures — detailed, and in order
      • Data analysis
        • Use 'highest order' analysis to examine data
        • In quantitative designs, use multivariate approach wherever possible
        • In qualitative designs, provide details of analysis, software, etc., and assume reviewers have no experience with qualitative methods
        • Be consistent in analytic approach
        • Include a biostatistician in writing
        • Mock tables of figures for major analysis
        • Potential results and implications for public health
        • How proposed research, if successful, will lead to future funding applications
        • Limitations
      • Timeline with specific tasks for team members
      • Tables
      • Appendices
        • Procedure manuals
        • Measurement scales
        • Representative publications directly related to
        • Letters of support
      • Table of Contents
      • Human subjects forms, population
      • Data safety monitoring
      • HIPAA
  • Progress report/preliminary studies
  • Budget and Justification
  • Justify effort and expertise for all personnel
  • New PI should be at ≥ 20% of effort
  • Do not use "To be Announced" for key
  • Justify equipment and supply requests
  • Anticipate salary/operating increases for future years
  • Include two trips for conference presentations
  • NCI often cuts budget ~ 10%
    • Biographical sketch
    • Abstract
      • This is the most read section of the grant application
      • (Re)Write after completing the body of the application
      • This is a summary of the proposal, consisting of the following:
        • Background, 2-4 sentences
        • Rationale, 1-2 sentences
        • Aims/objectives, 2-3 sentences
        • Theoretical approach, 1 sentence
        • Methods, 5-7 sentences
        • Implications for anticipated results and contribution to science, 1-2 sentences

          Keep the following tips in mind when writing your grant:

          • Know your audience, and write to them.


          • Write clearly enough for the primary reviewer to fully grasp, easily explain, and be able to answer questions about what you are proposing. Other reviewers may focus only on your abstract, significance, and specific aims.


          • Make a clear case for why your hypothesis should be funded, why you are the person to do the research, and how your institution will support you in getting it done.


          • Your proposed research should be innovative, and should also have the data to support your innovative approach - especially if it challenges current ways of thinking about the problem you are proposing to investigate.


          • Since not all reviewers will be technically proficient in your field, it may be wise to limit technical information to the methodology section. Write less technically in the sections most reviewers are likely to read: the abstract, significance, and specific aims sections. You might also include both technical and nontechnical information throughout your proposal, beginning each section with simple information, and progressing to the more detailed for those who wish to continue.


          • Make your application easy for busy reviewers to read by submitting a neat, well organized document. Keep your application short and to the point, label all materials clearly so that reviewers can find information, and use graphics to break up text and to help reviewers grasp concepts. Make sure to edit and proof your application, as typos and internal inconsistencies can lower your score.

          Key elements of successful proposals

          Reviewers use five criteria to evaluate investigator-initiated research grant applications. The review criteria serve as important assessment tools for the review committees. Nonetheless, not all committees adhere equally to the review criteria, and your application does not have to be strong in every review criteria to receive a high-priority score. Reviewers' judgments of an application's overall merit, as well as its usefulness in relation to the current science in the field of proposed study, also influence their scores. In addition to addressing the review criteria, it is important to prepare a well- written application that makes a clear, persuasive argument for why NIH should fund your work.

          The five criteria reviewers use to evaluate investigator-initiated review are as follow:

          1. Significance. Does this study address an important problem? If the aims are achieved, how will scientific knowledge or clinical practice be advanced? What will be the effect of these studies on the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventions that drive this field?


          2. Approach. Are the conceptual or clinical framework, design, methods, and analyses adequately developed, well integrated, well reasoned, and appropriate to the aims of the project? Does the applicant acknowledge potential problem areas and consider alternative tactics?


          3. Innovation. Is the project original and innovative? For example: Does it challenge existing paradigms or clinical practice or address an innovative hypothesis or critical barrier to progress in the field? Does the project develop or use novel concepts, approaches, methods, tools, or technologies?


          4. Investigators. Are the investigators appropriately trained and well suited to carry out this work? Is the work proposed appropriate to the experience level of the principal investigator and other researchers? Does the investigative team bring complementary and integrated expertise to the project (if applicable)?


          5. Environment. Does the scientific environment contribute to the probability of success? Do the studies benefit from unique features of the scientific environment or subject populations or use useful collaborative arrangements? Is there evidence of institutional support?

          Avoiding common, fatal flaws

          Reviewers are capable, experienced scientists, but they can't know everything. Not all reviewers will be experts in your specific area of study, so it is important that you be clear about the significance of your proposed research, as well as your methods. Demonstrate that your lab is equipped to complete the research you are. Write clearly and concisely, and submit a neat, organized, and attractive proposal.

          The following is a list of reasons that reviewers often cite for denying applications. As you develop and present your research idea, make sure you have not committed these errors:

          • Problem not important enough.


          • Study not likely to produce useful information.


          • Studies based on a shaky hypothesis or data.


          • Alternative hypotheses not considered.


          • Methods unsuited to the objective.


          • Problem more complex than investigator appears to realize.


          • Not significant to health-related research.


          • Too little detail in the research plan to convince reviewers the investigator knows what he or she is doing (i.e., no recognition of potential problems).


          • Issue is scientifically premature.


          • Over-ambitious research plan with an unrealistically large amount of work.


          • Direction or sense of priority not clearly defined (i.e., experiments do not follow from one another and lack a clear starting or finishing point).


          • Lack of focus in hypotheses, aims, and/or research plan.
          • Lack of original or new ideas.


          • Investigator too inexperienced with the proposed techniques.


          • Proposed project a fishing expedition lacking solid scientific basis (i.e., no basic scientific question).


          • Proposal driven by technology (i.e., method in search of a problem).


          • Rationale for experiments not provided (i.e., why they are important or how they are relevant to the hypothesis).


          • Experiments too dependent on success of an initial proposed experiment. Lack of alternative methods in case the primary approach does not work out.


          • Proposed model system not appropriate to address the proposed questions.


          • Relevant controls not included.


          • Lacks enough preliminary data or preliminary data do not support project's feasibility.


          • Insufficient consideration of statistical needs.


          • Not clear which data were obtained by the investigator and which reported by others.

          * Adapted from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) grant tutorial.

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Last Updated: October 3, 2012

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