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Strategy for NIH Funding
Strategy to Design a Project · Policy Areas With Special Requirements?
Pages of Part 2. Pick and Design a Project
On this page, you will find detailed information and advice on the approaches outlined in Strategy to Design a Project.
We give you advice on planning and executing your design, using an iterative process to keep everything in sync. This enables you to define your Specific Aims and experiments while ensuring you have the necessary resources and expertise to complete the work.
We also give you advice on how innovative your research should be and how to keep it in scope so the project is doable within your targeted time and budget.
If you have not yet decided on a project, go to Pick a Research Project in Part 2.
While this document is geared toward the basic research project grant, the R01, much of it is useful for other grants.
(This section has factual information only, limited to a few aspects of designing the Research Plan; for advice covering more topics, go to Our Advice below.)
You will plan an application that shows you have the time, resources, and expertise to complete the research project you are proposing.
Your application's Research Plan has two sections:
Your application will describe the time, resources, and expertise needed to complete the research project you are proposing. It's fine to engage collaborators to fill in gaps in expertise.
Be aware that certain policy areas create the need for additional documentation. For more information, go to Will Your Application Involve Policy Areas With Special Requirements? in Part 2.
The multiple PI option, which allows applications to have more than one principal investigator, is for collaborative research, also called team science.
Most NIH grants, including R01s, allow multiple PIs; to be sure, check the funding opportunity announcement.
If you are a new investigator, this approach has consequences for your new investigator status. Read more in the Our Advice section below.
Also be aware that a multiple PI application is usually appropriate only if you could not complete the research without the other person (or persons). To succeed in peer review, your research must require a high degree of synergy.
For a multiple PI application, all PIs have the same status and are responsible for their research.
Each PI must have a leadership role, and the application should state which PIs are responsible for which Specific Aims. The science determines the level of effort for each PI; there is no minimum.
One person serves as contact PI, coordinating communication between all PIs and NIH and coordinating the progress report. He or she must be affiliated with (not necessarily employed by) the applicant institution. On large studies, other PIs may perform other coordination activities.
Leadership Plan. Your application must include a Multiple PI Leadership Plan; eRA Commons will reject it if the plan is missing.
Peer reviewers judge the plan's scientific merit and whether it promotes enough coordination and communication among PIs. They consider the appropriateness and quality of the plan in their evaluation and scoring of the investigators as well as the overall impact of the application.
The Leadership Plan has no page limit and does not count toward the Research Strategy page limit. It must address these items:
For more information, go to NIH's Examples of Project Leadership Plans for Multiple PI Grant Applications and Team Science in Part 2. Also see Tips for Writing a Strong Multiple PI Leadership Plan.
For guidance on filling out the forms, go to Complete the Forms in Part 3.
Your budget must be appropriate to the work you propose. To get an idea of average grant costs, see these FY 2010 data for competing R01 applications.
Level of effort. The percentage of your time you devote to your project should be appropriate to the work you propose. Go to NIH's Usage of Person Months questions and answers.
Years. You may request up to five years for an R01.
Consultants and collaborators are treated differently in your application. Sometimes people play both roles.
Consultants usually provide advice or services.
They may participate significantly in the research, but often they help fill in smaller gaps, for example, supplying software, making technical comments, or setting up equipment.
Consultants do not receive a salary from your grant but may receive a fee. When paying them, your institution issues a Form 1099 Misc to the Internal Revenue Service.
Collaborators always play an active role in the research.
They do not get a fee, but the grant may pay part of their salary in person months through a consortium agreement (also called a subaward). Collaborators get an IRS Form W-2 from their institutions.
Using subawards. Subawards allow another organization to perform some activities for your grant under your supervision. They enable collaborations between you—the grantee—and the subawardee. This arrangement does not involve NIAID.
You still include the details of the work in your application because the initial peer review committee needs to evaluate it (unlike a purchase contract).
Get your business office involved since the subcontract will probably require agreements between the organizations.
Managing subawards. In managing subawards, grantees are fully responsible for the following:
As the grantee, you (not the subawardee) are accountable to NIAID for the performance of the research project, spending of grant funds by all parties, reporting requirements, negotiating animal and human subjects assurances, and other obligations for the grant.
Keep the following in mind:
For details, see the Subawards (Consortium Agreements) for Grants SOP.
Consortium and contractual arrangements appear in several parts of your application.
Research Strategy. If you're working closely with an investigator from another institution, your institutions may need a formal agreement of the terms of the collaboration.
Grantees must establish a subaward, or consortium agreement, with any outside organization that performs any of their grant-supported research activities.
In your application, you will also need a letter from your consultants describing their willingness to participate and their role in your project.
You could send your consultants a sample letter they can return to you with their signature. That way, the letter will contain all the information you need (and they may return it to you faster). Attach as Letters of Support to the PHS 398 Research Plan form.
Budget Form. Provide each subaward's DUNS number, and make sure information in the subaward budget form matches that in the Research Strategy.
Biosketches. Create biosketches for all key personnel and other significant contributors and attach them to the Research and Related Senior/Key Person Profile form.
For the consortium justification in a modular application, use the PHS 398 Modular Budget form. For nonmodular, use the R&R Subaward Budget in the Research and Related Budget Component.
For examples of funded applications, go to Sample Applications and Summary Statements.
(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts.)
Before you start your research design, make sure you've completed the steps we covered in Pick a Research Project in Part 2.
A common mistake is to jump into writing the application without proper planning. Reviewers will quickly pick up on any flaws in logic and feasibility with your experimental design.
Though planning takes some time, it will save you time and headaches in the long run.
At the core of your application, your Research Plan details your project's rationale, objectives, and planned experiments, showing the time, resources, and expertise needed to complete the research.
To design a top-quality Research Plan, you will need to:
All this information works in a feedback loop with all parts of your application: the experiments you choose will affect your budget and personnel, and the accessibility of expertise and resources will limit the experiments you can design.
Our iterative process will help you plan effectively.
In the text below, we expand on (or link to information about) each step.
Step 1. We described this step in Find Your Niche and Within Your Niche, Choose an Important and Unique Project in Pick a Research Project in Part 2.
As you work on the project design, detailed on this page, you will go back repeatedly through steps two to six. If the design is not working out, you will need to go back to either step one or two.
If you would like to look at some samples of outstanding funded applications, see our Sample Applications and Summary Statements.
Conceptually, your hypothesis is your destination that all research roads must lead to.
Step 2. For most types of research, you will choose a hypothesis (or hypotheses) that is well-focused and testable by your experiments.
Further, your reviewers must view your hypothesis as sound and important enough that your research can make a high impact on its field.
To test your hypothesis, you will need to design objectives, your Specific Aims, and experiments, which will form your application's Research Strategy.
Some people write their Specific Aims first and then develop a hypothesis instead of the other way around. And some applications have one overall hypothesis, whereas others have one for each aim. Use whatever approach works best for you.
Here are examples of effective hypotheses:
From Jacques Banchereau, Ph.D., Baylor University:
From Volker Briken, Ph.D., University of Maryland College Park:
Here are examples of hypotheses that are poorly focused:
Find more examples in our Sample Applications and Summary Statements.
Now to the next part of this step: designing your Specific Aims.
Think high level. Ask what two to four objectives (most people propose three) you could achieve within the time you are planning to request.
Make each aim an achievable objective, not a best effort, with clear endpoints your peer reviewers can easily assess.
Limiting your application to few Specific Aims keeps you clear of the common error of being overly ambitious. Like your topic, your Specific Aims should build on your previous experience.
When defining your aims, make sure that:
Since innovation is a review criterion, you want to think outside of the box—but not too far.
Think of innovation as the knowledge your project can contribute to your field.
It's enough to show how the work you propose is new and unique and will push the frontiers of knowledge ahead starting from what's known, as illustrated by the graphic at right.
For most people, the goal then is significant incremental progress, not a giant leap forward. That generally means improving on or proposing a new application of an existing concept, method, or clinical intervention.
If you are a new investigator or are entering a new area, expect reviewers to be skeptical if your research is highly innovative.
Note that if your reviewers feel they could not get the work done, they are unlikely to think you could either. Plus, a reviewer may take a challenge to the status quo as a challenge to his or her world view or research.
For advice on applying with a groundbreaking, high-risk project, read Getting a Grant for Innovative Research.
Checkpoint. After finishing an initial draft of the Specific Aims, assess the following:
Step 3. At this point you should have identified a potential funding institute and a study section that would most likely appreciate your research.
If you have not done that yet, go to 3. Identify a Potential Institute and Study Section in Pick a Research Project in Part 2,.
And read more detailed information in Investigate Committees and Members in Know Your Audience in Part 3.
Step 4. If your Specific Aims section is the big-picture part of your application's Research Plan, the Research Strategy is its nuts and bolts.
In your Research Strategy you'll show your reviewers that you can not only "talk the talk" but also "walk the walk."
Start planning by sketching out experiments you could do to conclusively accomplish each aim, including alternative pathways you could pursue. Plan what you would do if:
Map out the alternative experiments too, making sure they track with your planned aims.
Showing alternatives will help convince reviewers you are well-prepared to deal with unknowns and reveal how you thoughtfully planned your research. You may want to create a flowchart and timeline for planning and possibly include it in the application.
As you design, work within the iterative process described above to ensure that you have all the resources and expertise needed to conduct all the experiments—you can read more about that in step five below.
While you work, it's also a good idea to keep a running tab of "who, what, when, where, and how (much money)" to help you keep everything on track and fill out the application forms later.
Checkpoint. After finishing an initial experimental design, check the following:
Step 5. As you define your aims and experiments, you'll need to consider whether they are feasible by:
Step 5a. Reviewers often expect new R01 investigators to have fewer data, resources, and publications than more established researchers do, but everyone must design a feasible project.
The basis of the overall impact score they give your application is the likelihood that the research will make a high impact on its field. No matter how elegant your science, you can't escape the likelihood factor—can you actually get the job done?
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), staying within the limits of your targeted budget.
1. See what equipment you can share with others.
Try to gain access to large equipment by sharing it with other investigators at your institution or by sharing the cost of purchasing it.
2. See if you can find a collaborator who has the equipment you need, and determine whether you can work out a feasible arrangement.
3. If those options don't pan out and you're new to your institution, look to your start-up funds to see if you can afford the purchase.
To determine whether you can afford a major purchase, take into account other expenses you may need to pay for.
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.
When you write your application, you will describe your institutional support.
4. Request money in the application to buy the equipment.
This approach is fine for small 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 here are some tips.
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, your grant's legal grantee.
You may want to get advice from experienced investigators before deciding whether to request funds for a major purchase.
Most projects rely on various types of expertise to carry out the different parts of the research.
Don't be shy about letting other people fill in gaps in your expertise.
Don't be shy about letting other people fill in gaps.
Choosing highly experienced people to be on your team will help build reviewer trust in the future success of your project.
While you will be the project leader, you can expand your pool of expertise by recruiting consultants and collaborators, especially those who are known and respected in the field.
Get commitments from collaborators at the planning stage, so you don't waste time planning work you cannot deliver.
Others, especially senior-level collaborators, will work part-time for credit (e.g., the potential of future publications), rather than pay.
If you are a new investigator, adding these highly experienced people to your team will help build your reviewers' trust in your future success.
But while collaborations are common, there are some drawbacks.
For one, you will not have 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 work out at the outset—is 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:
If you decide to include outside consultants or collaborators (or both), secure a written agreement at the planning stage, so you don't waste time designing work you cannot deliver.
Here are some questions to consider:
Before proceeding, get advice from senior colleagues and staff in your grant's business office to help decide whether to use a subaward or consultant and whether you need a consortium or other agreement. Find details in Just the Facts above.
If your application includes an established PI, it will not qualify for the new investigator payline.
Another way to beef up expertise or create a research team is to be part of a multiple PI application.
Think carefully before you decide to go this route especially if you are a new investigator.
Unless all the PIs on a multiple PI application are new, you will not benefit from your new investigator status, and you will lose it for future applications. Read more in Are You "New"? in our New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding.
We can think of a number reasons that multiple PI applications are often better suited to people who already have grants.
Note that the multiple PI option is for collaborative, usually multidisciplinary, research and is usually appropriate only if you are in different fields and could not complete the research without the other person.
Despite these caveats, a multiple PI application can be useful for research that needs a team science approach. Learn more about the pros and cons of working on a team in Team Science in Part 2.
If you are conducting multidisciplinary research, make sure NIH has a review committee that will be able to effectively review all aspects of the application.
Checkpoint. Check for feasibility:
Avoid one of the biggest mistakes: being overly ambitious.
Step 5b. Defining the scope, or scientific parameters, of your research project is crucial as you decide not only how many Specific Aims to propose but also the amount of money and time to request.
The key is to avoid one of the most common mistakes many investigators make: being overly ambitious. Though showing enthusiasm is one thing, biting off more than you can chew is another.
Keep Your Budget In Check
It's key to create your R01 budget in the Goldilocks zone—not too big and not too small, but just right.
Your reviewers will regard your budget request as a general gauge of your competence.
Significant over- or under-estimating shows you don't understand the scope of the work, which will count against you in peer review.
Not only must your budget suit the research, it must also be appropriate to your career level.
Reviewers may be skeptical if you ask for a lot of money, especially if you are a new investigator.
That said, guard against coming up short: ask for enough money to perform your research and no more.
Clinical applications or those involving nonhuman primates usually require more money, though you should still aim to keep costs as modest as you can.
Coming up short will not further your cause: ask for enough money to perform your research and no more.
How much is enough? Most new investigators should design a project that can use a modular budget of $250,000 (or less) in annual direct costs.
Why go the modular route? You will have an easier time on several fronts.
Here are some FY 2010 data on average grant costs for competing R01 applications you can use as a benchmark.
Plan effectively. All aspects of your experimental design revolve around your budget. You can plan only experiments you can afford, and in this era of scarce resources, you want your budget to be as lean as possible.
Reviewers tend to be more skeptical about larger projects, especially in a time of major fiscal constraints like today.
To gauge expenses, add up costs for people—the largest expense category—reagents, and possibly equipment. Include your salary and that of other key personnel as well as consultants you need to hire.
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 dollar target, go back and revise, making sure that any new plans fit your Specific Aims.
Should those objectives change, make sure your new aims are still significant to your field.
As you develop your plans, stay in this feedback loop, rechecking that everything remains in sync.
To sidestep the common trap of proposing too much to do, you don't want to propose too many Specific Aims or undertake complex work that's beyond your skill level.
You're better off playing it safe by having a Research Plan with two or three highly focused aims that are doable with the resources and time you ask for.
Ensuring that each application has a modest scope helps reviewers feel confident that you understand what the work involves, and your goals are achievable.
Propose only what you are absolutely sure you can accomplish in the time you request.
If you find yourself trying to squeeze too much into your Research Plan, i.e., overloading on Specific Aims, step back and reassess.
One more issue that can affect the scope of your research is whether it will include any policy areas that have special requirements.
To read more on that subject, go to Will Your Application Involve Policy Areas With Special Requirements in Part 2.
Ultimately, your goal is to be funded with multiple grants that overlap in time with significantly different renewal dates but are distinct projects that do not overlap scientifically. Read more in Hatch a Plan for Your Career in Part 2 and Approaches for Staying Funded in Part 7.
It's best to not only contain your ambitions about the scope of your research, but also to be realistic—even a bit pessimistic—about how much you can accomplish each year of the grant. If you've never estimated how long research should take, get help.
Plan your research design with the understanding that your research may take more time than you originally thought.
Even if you are a new investigator, it's okay to ask for the maximum number of years (five for an R01) as long as you can fill the time productively.
Though NIH does not set a requirement for minimum effort, peer reviewers expect you to devote enough time to your project so you can effectively manage it.
Just as your budget should be appropriate to the work you propose, so should the percentage of your time you devote to your project.
If you are a new investigator, put at least a 25 percent level of effort on each application you submit. Reviewers will likely raise concerns over a lower level of effort from somebody who does not already have a history of independent research on an NIH grant.
Also check with your business office about any institutional rules or guidelines related to calculating effort or balancing grant effort with other institutional responsibilities.
For additional advice, read Putting Effort Into Your Application.
Checkpoint. In setting scope, budget, and effort, check that:
See the other sections ofPart 2. Pick and Design a Project
Table of Contents for the Strategy
We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated November 26, 2014
Last Reviewed February 08, 2012