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Strategy for NIH Funding

Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding. Link to Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding.Link to Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.Link to Part 3. Write Your Application.Link to Part 4. Submit Your Application.Link to Part 5. Assignment and Review.Link to Part 6. If Not Funded.Link to Part 7. Funding.

Ten Steps to a Winning R01 Application

For your R01 application to succeed, it must meld a highly significant and innovative topic with iron-clad feasibility. NIH calls that combination "impact"—which is reflected in an application's peer review results: its overall impact score.

When evaluating your application, your reviewers will ask: could the project move the field forward without being too risky? Could you accomplish it within the time and resources at your disposal?

The steps below give you a roadmap for designing a high-impact project that will stand out in peer review.

Table of Contents

Ten Steps—Outlined

If you are a new investigator or entering a new field, start at the beginning. If you are continuing your research, begin with Step 3.

1. Conduct a self evaluation. Assess what field of research you best qualify for. To apply for an R01, you'll need significant experience and publications (first or last author) in your field—an area of science like AIDS or TB vaccines or a technology, such as imaging or bioinformatics.

To make sure your reviewers agree, evaluate your training, publications, and presentations at scientific meetings.

For more on this topic, read:

2. Find a niche. Now that your self evaluation is done, you're ready to identify your own niche in your field.

Your niche is the specialized area in your field (for example, understanding the immune evasion of TB) where you will conduct research and create new knowledge for the next several years. Get our take on finding your niche in:

3. Draft two to four (three is most common) Specific Aims you could accomplish in the four or five years of a grant.

In this step, you focus your niche down to a single project. Create an initial draft of the project's Specific Aims: goals you can accomplish within the timeframe of a grant and with resources you can access.

As you consider and prioritize various potential aims, keep impact in mind. Your Specific Aims need to be able to push the frontiers of knowledge ahead, starting from what's known, as our graphic illustrates.

Illustration: starburst graphic showing how your research pushes the borders of your scientific field outward.

Begin using our Iterative Approach to Application Planning described below.

To further gain more insight into these concepts, visit our Sample Applications and Summary Statements from outstanding funded PIs.

PI Field Niches Project Title
Colin Parrish, Ph.D. Viral diseases of dogs and cats, concentrating on parvoviruses. Host range control, receptor binding, antibody binding to viral proteins and capsids, biology of cell entry, and viral evolution for parvoviruses and other viruses. "Structural controls of functional receptor and antibody binding to viral capsids."
Adam Ratner, M.D., M.P.H. Pathogenesis of infectious diseases, focused on bacterial diseases affecting children. Bacterial colonization and host range, evolution and function of bacterial toxins, infectious causes of preterm birth, and epidemiology of pediatric infectious diseases. "Gardnerella vaginalis: toxin production and pathogenesis."
Boris Striepen, Ph.D. Cell and molecular biology of protozoan parasites. Function and cell biology of the parasite chloroplast and novel targets for the treatment of cryptosporidiosis. "Biology of the apicomplexan plastid."
Carolina Wählby, Ph.D. Methods for high throughput image based screening. Screening of C.elegans, focusing on infectious diseases and fat metabolism. "Image analysis for high-throughput C. elegans infection and metabolism assays."

See the following resources for details:

4. Identify an institute, review committee, and potential reviewers. Start by making sure NIH has an institute that would most likely be interested in funding the research you are considering. Then, look for a study section and potential reviewers who would appreciate your idea for a project.

Check out study section members and their interests, and keep looking until you find the most scientifically compatable group to target your application to.

Get more information in:

As you proceed after this point, make sure you remain satisfied with what you've done for steps 1 to 4. For example, check to see you're still excited about your proposed scientific focus and comfortable with the institute or study section you've identified. If you find yourself wavering, don’t hesitate to return to the beginning and make modifications.

5. Start sizing up your Specific Aims. At this point, you need to further assess the high-impact Specific Aims you drafted.

Can you justify these aims with preliminary data? Do they lend themselves to a testable hypothesis (or hypotheses)? Could you achieve your objectives with the time, funds, and resources available if the grant is funded? If not, choose other aims to achieve your goals.

For more on this topic, read:

6. Outline your experiments. After this initial test of your draft Specific Aims, you're ready to start sketching out experiments, timelines, and anticipated outcomes.

As you work through the next steps, use our Iterative Approach to Application Planning to assess and reassess the feasibility of your aims and research design as it develops.

Take a look at:

7. Define the characteristics of your research team. Make sure you have the necessary expertise to complete all aspects of the research.

If you need more expertise to complete the experiments, consider bringing in expert coinvestigators, consultants, or even another PI (using a multi-PI project approach).

Learn more in Design a Project and Team Science in Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.

8. Define the resources you can access and those you will need to secure. Reassess whether the project is still feasible with resources you have.

If you do not have access to equipment you require, explore other options such as sharing it with other investigators in your institution or requesting funds to buy it in your application.

For other facts and advice, go to Design a Project in Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.

9. Divide your research into projects that fit within your proposed budget. Continuing that thought, ask yourself whether you can get the work done with the funds you're requesting.

Go back and check that your plans are in sync with the budget you are planning. Keep in mind that, for most people, personnel costs are the biggest expense.

Get the full scoop in:

10. Write an application that will excite your reviewers. Now that you have designed a feasible project that will interest your reviewers, start writing.

Make a strong case to your reviewers—convince them that you understand the problem, can perform the research, and have access to necessary resources and expertise.

And write for both your reviewer audiences: those who are subject matter experts in your field and the others who are experts in related fields.

Follow our Strategy to Write the Research Plan in Part 3. Write Your Application.

Step 1: Conduct a Self Evaluation

When applying for an independent research grant, you'll need demonstrable expertise in a scientific field, an area of science like AIDS or TB vaccines or a technology, such as imaging or bioinformatics.

Your qualifications lay the foundation for your grant-seeking efforts: whatever you write in your application is immaterial unless your reviewers deem you able to complete the work you propose.

They will scrutinize your application for your credentials, publications, and presentations at scientific meetings, to determine whether you are a new investigator or an experienced one breaking into a new field as well as to gauge your technical expertise and grasp of the research area.

You may need outside collaborators to round out the technical expertise that your research demands, but you will still need to convince reviewers that you understand all aspects of your project.

Take Aim

When picking an area to study, most investigators stay in the field where they are already working or extend their interests to a highly-related field.

A proven track record in a specific field builds the confidence of your peer reviewers in your ability to conduct the research. For a more experienced investigator, reviewers consider past successes to be indicators of whether he or she can successfully compete in a new area of research.

To assess your qualifications to work in a certain area of research, we suggest following these steps.
  • Evaluate your training, publications, and presentations at scientific meetings in the field.
  • Be critical: look at yourself through the eyes of your future reviewers.
  • Ask colleagues or advisors to make the same assessment of you.

To help you determine where your research might best fit at NIH, review mission statements of its institutes and centers (ICs) and be mindful that different NIH ICs can have overlapping research priorities. Find this information at NIH’s Institutes, Centers, and Offices.

Got the Creds?

To get nods from reviewers, you'll need significant experience and a publication record (first or last author) in respected peer-reviewed journals. Though a history of overseeing projects in your field can be helpful, keep in mind that nothing, including review articles, can substitute for high quality peer-reviewed research papers.

If you are trying for your first independent grant, your reviewers will also ask whether you will be able to lead a major research project in the proposed area.

Experienced investigators wishing to enter a new field may want to start with a small grant type such as an exploratory/developmental research grant (R21) or a small grant (R03) before trying for an R01. These smaller awards could permit you to generate key preliminary data (especially “proof of principle” data) for a later R01.

Anyone needing more experience or wanting to change fields should also consider getting more training in the new area before preparing a grant application, unless the grant program is specifically designed to attract investigators new to a particular field of research. Such training can come from formal courses offered by (or through) professional societies or hands-on training gained in the laboratory of an experienced colleague.

Also, if you're working in an area that's different from your previous one, it's worth taking the time to publish in this new area, possibly through a collaboration, before applying for a grant.

You may also want to look into our career development awards, which are especially helpful for postdocs.

For example, the NIAID Career Transition Award (K22) lets you gain experience with support. For other institutes, look into the NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00). NIAID makes very few of these awards, but some other institutes fund a good number of them.

We also support the mentored K awards below. Mentored awards allow new investigators to develop necessary credentials under the guidance of a more experienced scientist.

For more information, read our Advice on Mentored Career Development Awards.

Related Links

Search for publications

Search for funded projects, experts in your field, their publications and grants, and study sections that reviewed their applications. By doing so, you can get a good perspective on the depth and breadth of projects that previously excited reviewers as well as a sense of the extent to which cutting-edge technology and innovation play in the overall project design.

Look for training opportunities

New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding

Strategy for NIH Funding

Small and Exploratory/Developmental Research Grants SOP

Step 2: Find Your Niche

In this next step, we help prepare you to find a research niche in your field where you can make the greatest impact.

Your niche is a specialized corner of your field where you could conduct research for the next, let's say, 10 years. (To determine whether you have the expertise needed to apply in a research field for an R01, see Step 1: Conduct a Self Evaluation.)

Finding your own niche takes you on a quest:

  • Locate the most promising research needs and opportunities in your field.
  • Assess whether you have the skills to make an impact.
  • Look at the other players and judge whether you can compete.

Two potential means of achieving these objectives are networking with people who are in the field and searching the literature online.

In the Related Links section below, we give you links to useful research tools.

Look Wide, Dig Deep

In your general field of science, you should strive to work in a unique area (for example, understanding the immune evasion of TB) where you can create important new knowledge and maximize your impact in the field.

To home in on one, learn all you can about your broader field (e.g., host defense against bacterial infection).

Network: talk to colleagues and meet new people at scientific meetings to get ideas for opportunities in your field. Listen to the buzz and brainstorm ideas you have with the experts.

Take notes as you gather information about the research interests of people in your field, keeping in mind some of them may end up as your reviewers.

As you interact, be sure to make an impression, so people will remember you. For example:

  • Request something: advice, collaboration, a reagent.
  • Inquire about the other person's work.
  • Ask questions about the field.
  • Follow up with an email.

You want to begin networking as early in your career as you can. That way, you can start matching your experience, interests, and abilities with opportunities in science.

After you have some ideas to follow, review the literature to check out your findings and glean ideas for hot topics in the field. See what research has been done and what remains to be done in your area of interest. Filling a previously unfilled knowledge gap is generally a good approach to designing a project, assuming the underlying question is an important one.

Along the way, allow yourself to benefit from serendipity: follow new scientific leads even if they take you in a surprising direction. Think about whether a paradigm-shifting discovery in a related field can be applied to your own area of research.

Assess Your Competitiveness

Just as you scrutinized your field in light of your qualifications, you'll do the same for your niche.

Ask yourself: do I have the skills to make an impact in this area? For the research needs and opportunities you uncover:

  • Determine whether you have the knowledge and resources to pursue them.
  • Get opinions on that judgment from people you respect.
  • Make sure your strengths match up with potential projects that can move the field forward.

It's also important to carve out your own space, so explore opportunities in underdeveloped research areas.

While it's usually a good idea to bypass crowded areas where it's hard to compete with established investigators, make absolutely certain that the area is important to your field—some niches are untouched because they are not considered significant.

In making your decision, get help from colleagues, mentors, and an NIH program officer.

Also get feedback on your ideas by giving a talk about your work at scientific conferences or at other universities as a guest lecturer. This will help to develop your niche and get critical analysis of your ideas before you start your application.

Not only that, it will help expose you and your ideas to the broader scientific community, including colleagues who actively serve as reviewers on NIH grants. If these experienced reviewers have an opportunity to discuss your ideas with you, it may help you better understand how your application might be perceived in peer review.

After settling on a research niche to develop, you'll be well served by a plan that focuses on a broad goal you'd like to accomplish during the next five to ten years.

Then you can divide those different goals into discrete projects you can accomplish within the four or five years of a grant. Those objectives will become your Specific Aims, which we cover in the next step.

Related Links

Strategy for NIH Funding

Find publications

Find funded projects, experts in your field, their publications and grants, and study sections that reviewed their applications

Step 3: Draft Specific Aims

After you have decided the area of research to pursue, you are ready to start designing a high-impact project for an application that you can complete within the four to five years of an R01 grant.

Your project should tackle important research within your niche: it must be able to move your field forward. Beware of concepts that can’t be strongly supported with your own preliminary data or published data from other laboratories.

At the Drawing Board

Iterative Approach to Application Planning

  1. Staying in your niche, propose a project that:
    • Addresses a highly significant problem.
    • Is innovative—can create new knowledge.
  2. Outline draft Specific Aims and one or more hypotheses.
  3. Identify a potential funding institute and a study section that would likely embrace your research.
  4. Outline experiments.
  5. Assess feasibility.
    • See whether you have access to all needed resources and expertise.
    • Make sure the project is not growing too big for your targeted time and budget.
  6. If you hit a roadblock, go back to the failure point and revise your plans.

You'll start to hone your ideas by drafting objectives, known in NIH lingo as Specific Aims.

Thinking high level, ask yourself what objectives you could reasonably achieve within the timeframe of a grant. Start broadly with an emphasis on significance, and then focus on generating experiments with clear endpoints reviewers can readily assess.

While you could design a project around two to four Specific Aims, many people create three.

Limiting your application to a few Specific Aims keeps you clear of the very common mistake of being overly ambitious. It's much better to think small and propose less than to do the opposite.

There Are Good Aims and There Are Poor Aims

A common type of Specific Aim would ask a question like “Does A cause B?”

However, your project may come to an end if A doesn’t turn out to cause B.

It’s better to design an aim where the result doesn’t depend on only one outcome, but where one or more different outcomes would also be of interest. Then the question becomes “Does A cause B or non-B,” so make sure the “non-B” outcomes make sense based on both your central hypothesis and preliminary data.

Another common type of Specific Aim is descriptive. For example, “We will measure levels of X in 1,000 samples of Y to characterize the pattern of expression of X."

Though this may be very doable, it is rarely a highly significant finding in itself and often should be avoided unless you have no other choice. Such descriptive findings should usually be part of your preliminary data, not part of your proposal.

Like your topic, your Specific Aims should build on your previous experience.

Form a Gestalt

Although it may seem an early stage to think about specific experiments, cost of those experiments, needed expertise, and resources, these variables go hand-in-hand with picking a project that is both impactful and feasible. If the project is not feasible, you will need to rethink your experiments or even your Specific Aims.

Because you have several items to juggle, we recommend using the following iterative process:

  1. Staying in your niche, propose a project that:
    • Addresses a highly significant problem.
    • Is innovative—can create new knowledge.
  2. Outline draft Specific Aims and one or more hypotheses.
  3. Identify a potential funding institute and a study section that would likely embrace your research.
  4. Outline experiments.
  5. Assess feasibility.
    • See whether you have access to all needed resources and expertise.
    • Make sure the project is not growing too big for your targeted time and budget.
  6. If you hit a roadblock, go back to the failure point and revise your plans.

Hypothetically Speaking . . .

Why do you need a central hypothesis (or multiple hypotheses)? Because that's what reviewers expect and what anchors your different Specific Aims to a common theme, not just a common field of research. Following a central hypothesis also keeps you focused with both writing the proposal and actually doing the research if the grant is funded.

Some people write their Specific Aims first and then develop a hypothesis; others do the reverse. The correct method will depend on the approach that works best for you and your proposed research.

A strong hypothesis should be well-focused and testable by the Specific Aims and experiments.

After you create your hypothesis, go back and take stock again of your prospective reviewers and their level of interest in light of your draft aims and hypothesis.

Related Links

Strategy for NIH Funding

Sample Applications and Summary Statements

Step 4: Identify a Study Section

Whereas the first three steps view your funding quest from the vantage point of your qualifications and resources, this next step looks at how to find a study section that has the best fit with the proposed project.

Then it peers even further, into the minds of your reviewers.

Tell It to the Judge

Not only are your reviewers the main audience for your application, they are its judge and jury too.

At the end of the day, the primary basis for our funding decision—your overall impact score or percentile ranking—is the result of their structured deliberations.

Since only a small percentage of applications succeed in getting funded, you'll want yours to stand out.

When submitting an application, you will lay the groundwork for success by proposing research that both you and your prospective reviewers will feel is exciting and will have impact in the field.

Consider what concepts and preliminary data they would regard as new and important, so they'll sit up and take notice. That approach will put you on the path of creating an application that appeals to the people who, more than anyone, will determine its fate.

Keep in mind that reviewers are instructed to be pragmatic and will look at your ideas from the perspective of their feasibility, availability of needed resources, and whether the requested budget is realistic for the conduct of the project proposed. Be sure that the scope of your proposed research is appropriate for the time and budget allowed for the funding mechanism.

You've Got Homework

NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR) manages more than two hundred review committees.

They cover the gamut of scientific pursuits from basic to clinical and behavioral research, technology-based studies, and applied research for all human diseases and a plethora of scientific disciplines.

If you are submitting an investigator-initiated application, you'll be well served by taking the time to learn about the review committees that are most likely to receive your application. To find review committees and serving members, look at CSR's Integrated Review Groups. Find roster links at the top of the study section pages.

After homing in on a few study sections, speak with that committee's Scientific Review Officer (SRO) in order to assess whether that committee typically reviews applications in the same general scientific area as your proposal and would appreciate the significance of your field and project. Not every fit is perfect and SROs frequently bring in ad hoc reviewers to provide additional technical expertise. Program officers can also serve as a resource on whether your proposed study section choice is a good fit.

Also conduct some research of the committee members by visiting their Web sites.

Though you can't know for certain whom your reviewers will be, learning about review committees, speaking with the SRO, and researching committee members can help you request the study section that's right for you, should you decide to do so in a cover letter. For more on this, go to Create a Cover Letter in Related Links below.

Applications for Career Development Awards (K) and Training Grants (T) are reviewed in NIAID in our Scientific Review Program. See the rosters for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome Research Review Committee (AIDS); Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Research Committee (MID and MID B); and  Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation Research Committee (AITC).

Play It Safe

Having your application reviewed in a study section that will appreciate your research is so critical that we strongly advise you to do the analysis we've described.

Make sure the needed expertise will be there:

  • Request the required expertise (not named people) in your cover letter.
  • After you apply, check the final roster online. It's posted around 30 days after the receipt date; you may want to add this important event to your calendar.

Given the broad range of expertise that is present in any study section, if there are any nuances specific to your research, consider how you can write your application to be sure that the reviewers appreciate these aspects of your research.

For multidisciplinary work and technology-intensive work, it can be very hard to find a study section that combines expertise from many disciplines. In such a case, you are safer taking the effort in your application to explain the areas that might be unfamiliar to most of the reviewers on the committee.

If you don't think NIH has an appropriate study section for the research you are contemplating, you may need to rethink the project. Alternatively, talk to a few SROs about having your proposal reviewed in a Special Emphasis Panel. This may be particularly important for multidisciplinary proposals.

Related Links

CSR

Strategy for NIH Funding

Sample Applications and Summary Statements—find examples of outstanding funded applications

NLM Databases and Electronic Resources—find publications

NIH RePORTER—find funded projects, experts in your field, their publications and grants, and study sections that reviewed their applications

Step 5: Size Up Your Specific Aims

Here we show you how to put to the test your draft objectives—Specific Aims—you have planned for your project.

Though we are following the steps shown in Iterative Approach to Application Planning in Step 3: Draft Specific Aims, this step provides 1) an extra check of your aims in light of the study section you identified and 2) advice on presenting your aims if you propose highly innovative research.

Take Aim

Start assessing your Specific Aims by taking a hard look at the significance and innovation of your planned research.

Ask yourself:

  • Would my reviewers see my proposed project as tackling an important problem in a significant field?
  • Would they view my Specific Aims as capable of opening up new discoveries in my field?
  • Would my reviewers regard the work as new and unique?
  • Would they view my Specific Aims as likely to exert a significant influence on the research field(s) involved?
  • Are my Specific Aims written clearly and are they easy to understand?

You'll want to get outside opinions for a fresh perspective. Don't assume others, including your reviewers, will consider a research area to have the same priority that you do.

Also discuss your draft aims with colleagues who aren’t in your field. If they can understand your project and get excited about it, you have a better chance your reviewers will as well.

It is particularly useful to have your application reviewed by a colleague who has been successful in getting NIH funding, or better yet, has served on an NIH study section.

At this point, you may want to go back to Step 3: Draft Specific Aims, so you can be as certain as possible that the committee will appreciate your research plans.

Oh Innovation, Where Art Thou?

In previous Ten Steps articles, we emphasized the importance of proposing hypothesis-driven research with well-defined and feasible Specific Aims. But where does this leave innovative ideas that are less likely to fit inside "the box"?

Here are a few points to keep in mind:

Hypothesis-driven research does not necessarily constrain paradigm-shifting or "outside-the-box" research, nor does it necessarily mean sticking with the paradigm du jour. Paradigm-shifting and outside-the-box concepts can still lend themselves to focused hypotheses that can help guide the crafting of solid Specific Aims. Such focused hypotheses need not be tied to a broader theory or paradigm; they may simply provide a rationale that can be used to test the strength of the proposed aim or experiment.

Current criteria for scoring applications provide a transparent and fair guide to evaluate large numbers of diverse applications based on the aggregate merit of scientific significance, innovation, and feasibility.

For projects predominantly focused on innovation and outside-the-box research, investigators always have the option to use grant mechanisms, other than R01s, that may better suit their needs [e.g., exploratory/developmental research (R21) grants, NIH Director's Pioneer Award Program (DP1), and NIH Director's New Innovator Award Program (DP2)].

Serendipity is likely to happen just as frequently regardless of the grant mechanism supporting the research. As Einstein said, "Chance favors the prepared mind." NIH strongly encourages investigators to follow up on chance discoveries made in the course of executing R01-supported research programs.

How to Handle Innovation in Your Application

Although innovation is one of the five peer review criteria, many experienced investigators report that it's difficult to succeed in review with so called "high-risk" research.

Heed these words from an investigator who was the PI of an NIH New Innovator Award:

"It's always more difficult to convince people against commonly held beliefs (even though they may not be based on experimental data). Moreover, due to the higher risk of our work, we may also have a higher failure rate," says Sanjay K. Jain, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

As you scrutinize your Specific Aims, make sure your reviewers will view them to be reasonably close to the scientific mainstream.

If your proposal challenges commonly held beliefs, be sure that you include sufficient evidence in your preliminary data to convince the reviewers that these beliefs may not be scientifically valid. If your research is high risk, it is likely to be highly innovative. Your job is to make the reviewers feel confident that the risk is worth taking.

So the research you propose should be new and unique and able to push forward the frontier of knowledge just ahead starting from what's known, as the Expanding the Frontiers of Knowledge graphic we showed above illustrates.

Illustration: starburst graphic showing how your research pushes the borders of your scientific field outward.

When you write your application, you'll put the information about your project's importance and innovation in the Significance and Innovation sections.

Never forget that reviewers also look at the feasibility of the proposed research. Novelty alone will not help you if the proposed studies are not feasible given the available time, funds, and resources to do the work.

Get an idea of how investigators who wrote outstanding applications balanced these complexities by viewing our Sample Applications and Summary Statements, and read more advice on the pages linked below.

Related Links

Strategy for NIH Funding

Find publications

NLM Databases, Resources & APIs

Find funded projects, experts in your field, their publications and grants, and study sections that reviewed their applications

NIH RePORTER

Step 6: Outline Your Experiments

This step goes further into the iterative approach that will help you design an innovative yet feasible project in a highly significant research area.

Mapping It Out

Now that you have assessed your Specific Aims and are confident they are up to snuff, it's time to sketch out the sets of experiments necessary to address those aims. Note that your experimental design is a plan whose goal is to convince your reviewers that you can reach the objectives stated in your Aims.

As you work, keep the following questions in mind:

  • What are the anticipated outcomes of the experiments?
  • Can they meet the objectives of the aims?
  • Is the scientific scope and complexity of the proposed project a good fit with my expertise and/or the expertise of my team as demonstrated by relevant preliminary data and publications?
  • Am I proposing to accomplish more than I have time and funds for?
  • Have I considered potential pitfalls and alternative approaches?

It will help to start a running tab of "who, what, when, where, and how (much money)." That approach gives you a reality check as you plan and ultimately can save you time. It may also help to document all of the resources and facilities (e.g., access to clinical samples or specialized reagents and animal models) available to you at your institution. We encourage you to include this information in your application.

Research usually takes longer than people think it will, so plan your research design with that thought in mind.

Get help from colleagues and experts in your field if you have never planned out such a large project before or are unsure how long some of your planned experiments are likely to take.

Use a "Wholistic" Approach

Your experimental design—the nitty-gritty of what you will actually do—must enable you to achieve the Specific Aims you describe and test your hypothesis. Optimally, your experimentalresultsshould be able to prove or disprove your central hypothesis.

For planning purposes, your Specific Aims and research design work in a feedback loop: your aims lead to your experiments, which determine your budget and personnel needs.

But the experiments you can design are ultimately limited by the availability of people and resources and proposed scope of the project.

Following the steps in our Iterative Approach to Application Planning is key to ensuring that all aspects of your application stay in sync and in scope as you plan the various parts.

For example, let's say you have an idea for a project that you believe your review committee would judge to be highly significant.

You sketch out a reasonable number of Specific Aims, but when you start designing the experiments you find you cannot gather all the expertise needed to conduct them.

  • First, go back to Step 3 and see if there are different experiments that would meet your objectives with the expertise at your disposal.
  • If that doesn't work, return to Step 2 and create new aims or even to Step 1 and start over with a new project.

Set Boundaries

How do you know whether the scope of project is appropriate to your skill level (or, if you’ve recruited collaborators or consultants, the skill level of your team)?

If you are new to grant writing, you may want to get advice from your program officer, colleagues, or other respected sources.

If you find yourself trying to squeeze too much into your Research Plan, now is the time to step back and reassess.

Be realistic about what you can accomplish. But know that even if you are a new investigator, it's fine to ask for five years—the maximum—for an R01 as long as you can fill the time productively.

The same goes for budget planning—estimate costs realistically. If your budget exceeds $250,000 in direct costs, you will need to provide a detailed budget rather than a modular one. Your chances of getting funded are not impacted by whether your budget is modular or non-modular, although the reviewers may recommend budget cuts in either case.

Related Links

Strategy for NIH Funding

Sample Applications and Summary Statements

Step 7: Build Your Team

Top-notch expertise lies at the heart of your project's feasibility, so expect your reviewers to scrutinize your team's credentials closely.

For an R01 application to succeed in peer review, you must convince reviewers that your team is able to complete your proposed research. You’ll need to convince them to be your advocates, so develop your application with a strategy to get their support.

Here we take you further into the project design, focusing on people, while working within the iterative framework you've been relying on to plan effectively.

Make the Pieces Fit

Most projects rely on various types of expertise to carry out the different parts of the research.

For each experiment, you'll need to figure out the know-how required and make sure you can secure it. You may want to consider bringing in expert co-investigators, consultants, or even another PI (using a multiple PI project approach; read more below at Up for a Multiple PI Application?).

To get there, go through the Iterative Approach to Application Planning.

As you design your Specific Aims and experiments, you'll assess the expertise needed, while making sure you stay within your targeted budget.

Though we don't delve into budget planning until Step 9, you will need to consider money when you plan for personnel, typically your biggest expense.

In these times of tight budgets, many investigators feel their best bet is a modular budget (up to $250,000 in annual direct costs). This is no longer necessarily the case, and applicants should construct a budget that is appropriate for the proposed aims and objectives.

In a typical scenario, you can figure personnel will come in at about 80 percent of your budget, and equipment and supplies at around 20 percent.

Once you have determined who they are, your institution can give you the salary levels for each type of worker. Then you can calculate costs based on their level of effort (which you will also need for your application's Budget Justification).

In the application, you will specify all key personnel (including collaborators and consultants) by name (or "to be determined") and justify their roles and effort to be contributed to the project. Note that postdocs, students, and technical staff are not generally considered senior/key personnel.

The Art of Collaboration

The technical staff you hire may work on your grant full-time.

Others, especially senior-level collaborators, will sometimes be willing to work part-time on your project for "credit" (e.g., the ability to be associated with a cutting-edge project, their own scientific curiosity, the potential of authorship on future publications), rather than be paid a part of their salary.

It's often a good idea to expand your pool of expertise by recruiting expert consultants and collaborators, especially those who are known and respected in the field. You’ll want to secure collaborators to complement, and not overlap with, your expertise and experience.

If you are a new investigator, adding these highly experienced people to your team will not only fill gaps in your expertise and training, but also help build your reviewers' trust in your future success.

But while collaborations are common, there are some drawbacks.

For one, you will not have absolute control over the execution of that part of the research, for example, the timing of your collaborators' actions. Or something may come up and they may back out at the last minute.

Another issue—which you should decide on at the outset—is the ownership and access to data as well as the order of authors on future publications. Your collaborators will want to use the data they generate for their grant too and may see themselves as the lead. Note that collaborators differ from consultants:

  • Consultants usually provide professional advice or services that fill small gaps, for example, supplying software. They often receive a set fee rather than salary support from your grant.
  • Collaborators play an active role in the research. A grant may pay part of their salary through a subaward or consortium agreement.

If you decide to include outside consultants or collaborators (or both), secure a formal written agreement at the planning stage that addresses the negotiated arrangements for meeting the requirements of the grant.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is the collaborator in your institution?
    • If not, what inter-institutional agreements may be necessary?
    • You might want to look at multiple PI agreements as an example.
  • What intellectual property and data sharing plan arrangements do you need to make?
  • What are the expectations for authorship and coauthorship on publications?

Read more about these arrangements in Consultants or Collaborators—How They Differ, linked below.

Up for a Multiple PI Application?

The single PI model does not always work best for multidisciplinary, collaborative research. Another way to enhance expertise is to consider a multiple PI application, which can be very useful for research that needs a team science approach.

Team science can bring complementary and integrated expertise to a project and be a powerful strategy for success. Learn more about the pros and cons of working on a team by going to our Team Science page, linked below.

Note that the multiple PI option is usually appropriate only if you are in different fields and could not complete the research without the other person.

Think carefully before you decide to go this route, especially if you are a new investigator since multiple PI applications have big consequences for you:

  • If your application includes an established PI, it won't qualify for the new investigator payline. You'll qualify for it only if all PIs are new.
  • Once the multiple PI application is funded, you'll lose your new PI status, i.e., you'll no longer be able to apply as a new investigator.
  • You must have time to devote to the project and be at the stage where you can assume duties as a PI. This is not a mentored career development award. The established investigator(s) listed as PIs on your application must also intend to devote the time and effort at the level of the PI.

We can think of a number of reasons that multiple PI applications are often better suited to people who already have grants.

  • It's important that new investigators establish their own "scientific identity," which can be more difficult in a multiple PI situation.
  • It can be more challenging to write a multiple PI application because it is more complex. It can be harder to manage too.
  • You are more locked into the research you proposed when another person is involved than you are when you are on your own. (Read more on that topic in What Is a Grant? linked below.)

For applications designating multiple PIs, you'll need to include a detailed leadership plan that describes the governance and organizational structure of the leadership team and justifies the rationale for using a multiple PI approach. Bringing in another PI who is highly regarded in the field but has an expertise similar to yours, is not a good idea.

If you are proposing multidisciplinary research, either on your own or as part of a multiple PI project, think about the expertise on the review panel. Be clear about why the inclusion of a multidisciplinary approach can accomplish more, and have a higher impact, than if this approach was not used.

For more information on finding a study section that has the best fit with your proposed project, read Step 4: Identify a Study Section, linked below.

Not yet ready for an R01? Explore other ways of participating on a grant besides being a PI that will allow you to demonstrate leadership capabilities, e.g., leading a subproject within a larger project. Read more in Not Ready for Independent Support?, below.

Related Links

Strategy for NIH Funding

New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding

Sample Applications and Summary Statements—find examples of outstanding funded applications

Step 8: Define Resources

In this step, we explore assessing your needs and how you will access the resources required to conduct your planned research. As with previous steps, we are keeping to the Iterative Approach to Application Planning shown in the box above.

Take Stock

Convincing your reviewers of your project's feasibility is just as important as wowing them with the project’s innovation and potential impact in the field.

A key part of "yes we can" is access to needed resources, especially major pieces of equipment. See NIH's definition of equipment.

If you are a new investigator, your reviewers will expect you to have fewer resources at your disposal, compared to more established researchers, but they will also expect you to complete all the work you propose.

As you design your Specific Aims and experiments using our iterative process, you'll factor in the resources you'll need (both those at hand and those you request in the application), while staying within the limits of your targeted budget.

Fill In the Blanks

As you plan your experiments, you'll come to realize your resource needs, particularly expensive equipment (e.g., costing over $10,000) and then take these steps.

In your application, describe your institutional support, e.g., space, equipment, and facilities. Your department chair can tell you which resources and level of support your institution will furnish, so you can then figure out what pieces are missing.

Also state how the scientific environment in which the research will be done contributes to the probability of success.

1. See what equipment you can share with other investigators.

Try to gain access to large equipment by sharing it with other investigators at your institution or by sharing the cost of buying it.

2. Explore options to access core facilities that provide services and expertise.

Consider whether you can access core facilities at your or a collaborator’s institution to meet your needs for a major piece of equipment and expertise.

If that works, you can avoid having to purchase the equipment and using time to set it up during the grant award period.

Reviewers often view the shared resources approach favorably since you will be working with established facilities with demonstrated results. When appropriate, include letters of support in your application that ensure access to core facilities and shared resources, and stipulate whether access will be provided as a fee-for-service. Make sure to include any facility user fees in your budget.

3. See if you can find a collaborator who has the equipment you need, and determine whether you can work out a feasible arrangement.

Sharing equipment has benefits, especially if costs are shared, but there can be downsides. For example, if your collaborator's lab is located far from yours, transporting samples may be a problem if the samples are infectious, temperature sensitive, or fragile.

Also, you might not want to be dependent on a collaborator’s machine that you'll need for several hours a day, every day.

Reviewers may also be less than enthusiastic about a project that is heavily dependent on resources that are ultimately beyond your control.

4. If the options listed above don't pan out and you're new to your institution, look to your start-up funds to see if you can afford a major purchase.

Take into account other expenses you may need to pay for.

  • For example, do your start-up funds pay for office supplies and support services? In some places, facilities and administrative costs pay for those items so find out your institution's arrangements.
  • Inquire about policies for access and payment of stipends to graduate students. Is there a training grant, e.g., an Institutional Research Training Grant (T32), which can pay the stipend of students who want to work in your lab?

5. Request money in the application to buy the equipment.

This approach is always fine for items such as reagents or small pieces of equipment or other items not usually shared.

But asking NIH to pay for a major purchase is trickier, so we will give you some tips.

  • Be sure the equipment is absolutely essential and be able to provide a justification.
  • Take care that your reviewers would not expect your organization to have the equipment, e.g., because it's unique to your project.
  • If your institution has such equipment, but you cannot have (sufficient) access to it, explain why that is the case.
  • Use this rule of thumb to gauge reviewer reaction: if you will be using the equipment at least half-time, they'll likely feel the request is justified.
  • Justify the request in your application by explaining why you need the equipment for your research and why you cannot get it any other way.

Should you end up buying the equipment, keep in mind that you will also need to budget for shipping costs, accessories, a maintenance contract, and repairs.

You should also be aware that if you move to another institution, you may not be able to take your equipment—or your funds—with you. That decision is made by your current institution since it is the legal grantee.

It's a good idea to get advice from experienced investigators before deciding whether to request funds for a major purchase.

Related Links

Step 9: Nail Your Budget

You want the budget for your R01 application to be in the Goldilocks zone—not too big and not too small, but just right. In this step, we show you how to reach that happy medium.

On the Mark

Hitting that "just right" sweet spot is critical for multiple reasons.

Let's start with the least obvious: your reviewers will use your budget request to gauge your understanding of how much your project will cost and what it takes to accomplish the proposed research.

The purpose of the budget and justification is to present and justify all expenses required to achieve project aims and objectives. You'll want to be realistic, request only what is necessary and reasonable, and justify everything, especially the unusual and "big ticket" items.

Reviewers don't use the budget to assess scientific merit. They discuss the budget after the application is scored. However, a poorly prepared budget request can influence their score.

Deliberately underbudgeting or padding the budget reflects naivety, which reviewers will recognize. A request that misses its mark will undermine their confidence not only in your money smarts but also in your ability to manage a major independent project.

Make sure to provide an adequate description of the expenses as well as the justification for why those expenses are needed in each project period of the grant. For example, the number of personnel could vary over the course of a five-year clinical research project as well as the level of effort for individual personnel.

Some reviewers might think that expenses should be lower in the last year of a clinical research project compared to the first since subject followup should be ending. However, if many of the samples are stored and tested in batch at the end of the study, there might be a high level of effort and expenses required in the last year. Be sure to not only describe the level of effort for a person for each year, but also explain the role(s) that person will be playing and the reason why that level of effort is required for a particular year. Otherwise, you risk reviewers making assumptions about your work and recommending budget cuts.

As for the best reason to create an appropriate budget: the success of your project depends on it.

The Iterative Approach to Application Planning we've been using can help you stay on track.

In the Loop

The best things in life may be free, but research isn't one of them.

You can plan only those experiments you can afford, and in this era of scarce resources, you want your budget to be as lean as possible, unless you have strong justification for why it needs to be larger.

For example, animal-intensive studies and studies involving human subjects tend to be more costly and require a full, detailed (itemized) budget.

For most people, lean means a modular budget of up to $250,000 in annual direct costs (excluding consortium facilities and administrative (F&A) costs). Modular budgets are applicable only to R01, R03, R15, R21, and R34 applications, except applications from foreign (non-U.S.) institutions.

For additional information on modular budgets, see NIH Modular Research Grant Applications.

Why go the modular route? You will have an easier time on several fronts.

  • Reviewers tend to recommend more budget cuts to larger projects, especially in a time of fiscal constraints when everyone is hurting.
  • Unlike with a detailed budget, reviewers have few details to consider when deciding whether to cut a modular budget.
  • This lack of detail means you have less to prepare for your application.

To plan your budget effectively, rely on our iterative process.

Start by calculating how much money each experiment will cost based on the personnel and resources needed to do the work.

If the numbers don't line up with your (no-flab) dollar target, go back and revise, always making sure that any new plans you make fit your Specific Aims.

And should those objectives change, be sure that your new aims are still significant to your field.

How Much Is Enough?

To gauge expenses, add up costs for personnel (the largest expense category), consultant services, travel, materials and supplies, reagents, animal costs, consortium agreements, and any requested equipment.

Coming up short will not further your cause—ask for enough money to perform your research and no more. Also, don't propose more work than can be reasonably done during the proposed project period.

Include your salary and that of other key personnel as well as consultants you need to hire. Keep in mind the legislatively mandated salary cap [see Salary Cap Summary (FY 1990-FY 2014)] when calculating the personnel salaries. Be sure to include the correct fringe benefit rate based on your institution's policy.

Carefully determine the number, qualifications, and amount of effort needed for the PI(s) and all personnel. It is not unusual for effort levels and staffing levels to fluctuate in the outyears.

If you propose a large-scale project and request $500,000 or more in direct costs for any year, you must get NIAID's agreement to accept assignment of your application at least six weeks before you submit it. For more information, read our Big Grants SOP, linked below.

If you are a new investigator, reviewers may be skeptical if you ask for a lot of money. Most new investigators should stick to a modular budget.

Here are some FY 2013 data on average grant costs for competing (new, not renewal) R01 applications you can use as a benchmark.

  • The average R01 received roughly $333,000 in annual direct costs. That does not include the institution's overhead or F&A costs.
  • About 65 percent of new investigators (including early-stage investigators) used a modular budget.
  • For non-new investigators, only about 40 percent went the modular route.

Note that though you will stay within the limits of a modular budget, your expenses may vary over time. For example, your personnel costs may be lower in the first year since you may be able to hold off recruiting some of your people until later, but you may need to spend more on equipment up front.

Speaking of equipment, requesting funds for a big purchase is likely a one-time request and will not recur in subsequent budget years. We discussed the ins and outs of buying equipment in Step Seven to a Winning Application—Build Your Team.

You can find more information about application budgets and get more advice in the links below. Also, see examples of budgets from successful investigators at Sample Applications and Summary Statements.

Related Links

Big Grants SOP

Strategy for NIH Funding

Step 10: Write to Excite

Now that the design phase is over, you are ready to put all that planning to the final test: writing the Research Strategy section.

Here we give you tips on creating that winning application by keeping its audience—your peer reviewers—in the forefront of your mind.

Organization, Organization, Organization

Let's start by acknowledging that your reviewers—your application's judge and jury—have day jobs.

By donating their time, they do us all a great service by agreeing to peer review applications on behalf of NIH. For each review meeting, members of a review panel may evaluate more than one hundred applications and will carefully read through those assigned to them.

So while you can expect your reviewers to take their role seriously, they have expectations of you, too.

Make no mistake: reviewers will not likely excuse a poorly organized or otherwise unappealing application. It won't matter how elegant your science is if your reviewers can't find or understand information they seek.

NIH gives you broad guidelines for organizing the application, for example, including headers for each section of the Research Strategy. Beyond that, its organization is up to you, and there are surely dozens of ways to go about it.

But whatever path you choose, be sure to give your reviewers guideposts to your organization. Here are some tips:

  • Make life easy for the reviewers. Organize your application so they can readily grasp and explain what you are proposing.
  • At a minimum, use headers that reflect the application sections. Guide the reviewers with graphics as visual aids.
  • Add emphasis with bold or bold italics, but don't overdo it.
  • Label all materials clearly to make it easy to find information.

Write clearly and concisely so that your application is easy to read and easy to understand. Carefully edit and proof the application for grammar and spelling.

And don't fill up all the white space just to gain a few extra lines of text.

Instead, spend time editing useless words (see an "in order to?"—just "to" is enough) so you have the space to give your reviewers some visual breaks. (See how hard it is to read without white space in our Example of Text Without Formatting linked below.)

Be realistic about how long it can take to write and revise your application. We strongly advise that you give yourself plenty of time to submit so you can resolve electronic submission and validation issues that may arise. To learn more, go to Passing Validations in the Strategy for NIH Funding, linked below.

In addition to the guidance we give you here, follow all the instructions in the Grant Application Guide, including font and page limits, so you don't risk having your application blocked from being reviewed.

Consider Your Audience

Although the entire review panel will score your application, not all will be experts in your field or be totally familiar with your science.

How to get through to them all? Write for both audiences: 1) your assigned reviewers who have expertise in your field and 2) the others who are experts in other fields.

In your application, balance the technical and nontechnical language. Keep the Specific Aims, Abstract, and Significance section less technical, and save the technical language for the Approach section.

You'll need to avoid obscure jargon and provide more background information to convey the significance and feasibility of your research to the "non-expert" committee members, especially in the parts they are most likely to read:

  • Specific Aims
  • Abstract
  • Significance section of the Research Strategy

Based on your knowledge of your reviewers' scientific perspectives, it's also a good idea to anticipate and address their questions about your project's significance and innovation.

You'll want to answer likely concerns proactively so they need not be brought up at the meeting. Discuss potential problem areas and possible solutions in your application. That said, in trying to anticipate reviewers' likely questions, don't overwhelm them with excessive detail.

Show the reviewers that you have thought deeply about your Research Plan. Sharpen the focus of your application to demonstrate a high likelihood of meaningful findings. Don't overshoot the mark by proposing too much and don't propose what you can't do. Reviewers will quickly pick up on how well matched your research team and the proposed research are.Be realistic and avoid an over-ambitious project, or one that lacks focus.

If you look at our sample applications (linked below), you'll see how the successful PIs who created those applications addressed these tips.

(See Step 4: Identify a Study Section and Know Your Audience linked below for help investigating and writing for your reviewers.)

Try to get as many people excited about your project as you can. Let them know why they should give you the best score by showing how your research is unique and will make a difference.

Score With Impact

In the world of NIH funding, success requires impact. You'll need to lay out a convincing case that your project can make a high impact in its field. Be explicit because reviewers cannot read your mind. Don't assume they will be able to infer what you intend.

Try to get as many reviewers excited about your project as you can. Let them know why they should give you an outstanding impact score by showing how your research is unique and will move the field forward. Convince them to be your advocate and get them on your side.

To arrive at the all-important overall impact score, reviewers use NIH's five review criteria—significance, innovation, approach, investigator, and environment.

Impact reflects both the importance of your research (significance and innovation) and its feasibility (approach, investigator, and environment).

When considering the review criteria, reviewers will look at different parts of your application, so you want to know where to cover your bases.

Significance, innovation, and approach correspond to sections of the Research Strategy.

Reviewers assess the investigator criterion largely from your biosketches and gauge environment from the Facilities and Other Resources and the Equipment attachments on the Other Project Information form of the Grant Application Package.

However, don’t underestimate the need for letters of support from collaborators. Reviewers will want to see that you have access to samples to conduct your experiments or that a collaborator will be performing critical testing in an animal model that you lack.

Here are some items to contemplate so you can make sure your application leaves no doubts about significance and innovation:

  • Show you are aware of the opportunities and knowledge gaps in your field.
  • Highlight the significance of your research in the context of your field, long-term plans, and preliminary data.
  • While you will delve into significance in detail in that section, also think about highlighting significance in your abstract and aims, especially if you think some of your reviewers will need this information to appreciate the importance of your research.
  • Explain your innovation: how your research is new and unique and can push the frontiers of your field's knowledge ahead.

Approach Boldly

While all the review criteria are important, NIH data show that scores correlate closest with your application's Approach section.

Don't skip critical details, especially when proposing nonstandard methodologies. Reviewers expect them, so include enough details that they can assess your experimental design and feel confident you are using appropriate methods to get the results you anticipate.

You also want to include enough background and preliminary data to highlight the context and significance of your plans. While you should carefully explain the preliminary results needed to establish impact, competence and feasibility, avoid providing unrelated data unless they're needed to demonstrate your mastery of a particular methodology.

To reach your goal, do the following:

  • Show how your experiments will yield meaningful data that test your hypothesis.
  • Include details to show reviewers you understand and can handle a method, especially if you are new to the field or a new investigator.
  • Propose alternative experiments and approaches in case you get negative or surprising results.

Highlight Expertise and Resources

Make a strong case to your reviewers that your team can perform the research, and you have access to necessary resources.

While you will put the details in the Resources and Biosketches forms, also consider addressing any concerns you feel reviewers may have directly in the Research Strategy.

You'll also do well to make clear where you excel and what unique skills you and your team bring to the research.

Keep It All in Sync

An application is a complex system with interrelated information and parts, so be sure everything is in sync for people, money, resources, and time.

Check for accuracy and consistency, taking these steps:

  • Make sure your references and figures are placed and cited accurately.
  • Ensure that your figures and tables are large enough to read easily, graphs have labeled axes, and all figures have figure legends.
  • Check all factual information.
  • Then recheck all factual information.
  • Find a lot more items in our Checklists in Inspect Your Application in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

To take stock of internal consistency, don't be shy about asking for editorial help from colleagues. Ask for their input on matters such as whether you need a certain figure or if a diagram clarifies what you're describing in one of your Specific Aims.

With positive feedback, there will likely be some negative comments as well. It's better to hear about them now than read about them in your summary statement, so use them to strengthen your application.

Related Links

Strategy for NIH Funding

Sample Applications and Summary Statements—find examples of outstanding funded applications

Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Table of Contents for the Strategy

We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email deaweb@niaid.nih.gov.

Last Updated March 17, 2014

Last Reviewed November 06, 2013