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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.

Previous page in Strategy.Get Started Writing the Research Plan   ·   Master the ApplicationNext page in Strategy.

Write the Research Strategy

Find information and advice on writing every section of the Research Strategy, including tips and strategies from funded investigators.

Before reading the information in this part, you may want to first read about planning the application in Part 2.

While this document is geared toward the basic research project grant, the R01, much of it is useful for other grants.

Table of Contents

Just the Facts

(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)

Instructions for the Research Strategy

Your Research Strategy is the bigger part of your application's Research Plan (the other part is the Specific Aims—discussed at Get Started Writing the Research Plan in Part 3.)

For information and advice on planning your application, go to Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.

The Research Strategy is the nuts and bolts of your application, describing the rationale for your research and the experiments you will do to accomplish each aim. It is structured as follows:

  • Three main sections
    • Significance
    • Innovation
    • Approach
  • Preliminary Studies (for new applications) or a Progress Report (for renewal and revision applications).
    • You can either include this information as a subsection of Approach or integrate it into any or all of the three main sections.
    • If you do the latter, be sure to mark the information clearly, for example, with a bold subhead.
  • Possible other sections, for example, human subjects, vertebrate animals, select agents, and others (these do not count toward the page limit).

Though how you organize your application is largely up to you, NIH does want you to follow these guidelines:

  • Add bold headers or an outlining or numbering system—or both—that you use consistently throughout.
  • Start each of the Research Strategy's sections with a header: Significance, Innovation, and Approach.
  • Organize the Approach section around your Specific Aims.

For an R01, the Research Strategy is limited to 12 pages for the three main sections and the preliminary studies only. Other items are not included in the page limit.

Find instructions for R01s in the SF 424 Application Guide—go to NIH's SF 424 (R&R) Application and Electronic Submission Information for the generic SF 424 Application Guide or find it in your funding opportunity announcement (FOA).

If you're responding to an institute-specific program announcement (PA) (not a parent program announcement) or a request for applications (RFA), check the NIH Guide notice, which has additional information you need. Should it differ from the FOA, go with the NIH Guide.

Also note that your application must meet the initiative's objectives and special requirements. NIAID program staff will check your application, and if it is not responsive to the announcement, your application will be returned to you without a review.

Plan Ahead for Video

If you plan to send one or more videos, you'll need to meet certain standards and include key information in your Research Strategy now.

First, create your videos to fit these requirements:

  • Include only content that NIH deems acceptable for videos, such as data with a temporal component, unusual interventions or surgical procedures, prototype model use, visualization of 3-D structures, software or database demonstrations, and educational materials.
  • Use a cross-platform video format such as mp4, mov, avi, flv, or wmv.
  • Ensure videos total no more than two minutes (or five minutes for a multiproject application).
  • Embed each video in a separate PDF file, following instructions for your PDF-making program. Each PDF's file size should be no more than 25 MB.

Next, as you write your Research Strategy, include key images from the video and a brief description.

Then, state in your cover letter that you plan to send video later. (Don't attach your files to the application.)

After you apply and get assignment information from the Commons, ask your assigned scientific review officer (SRO) how your business official should send the files. Your video files are due at least one month before the peer review meeting.

For advice, read If You Plan Video, Be Reviewer-Friendly, below.

Our Advice

(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts.)

When writing your Research Strategy, your goal is to present a well-organized, visually appealing, and readable description of your proposed project. That means your writing should be streamlined and organized so your reviewers can readily grasp the information. If writing is not your forte, get help.

As you read this page, look at our Sample Applications and Summary Statements to get an idea of the different strategies used by PIs whose applications scored in the exceptional range.

There are many ways to create an outstanding Research Plan, so explore your options.

What Success Looks Like

Write yourself an insurance policy against human fallibility: if it's a key point, repeat it, then repeat it again.

Your application's Research Plan is the map that shows your reviewers how you plan to test your hypothesis.

It not only lays out your experiments and expected outcomes, but must also convince your reviewers of your likely success by allaying any doubts that may cross their minds that you will be able to conduct the research.

Notice in the sample applications how the writing keeps reviewers' eyes on the ball by bringing them back to the main points the PIs want to make.

The Big Three

So as you write, put the big picture squarely in your sights. When reviewers read your application, they'll look for the answers to three basic questions:

  1. Can your research move your field forward?
  2. Is the field important—will progress make a difference to human health?
  3. Can you and your team carry out the work?

Add Emphasis

Savvy PIs create opportunities to drive their main points home. They don't stop at the Significance section to emphasize their project's importance, and they look beyond their biosketches to highlight their team's expertise.

Don't take a chance your reviewer will gloss over that one critical sentence buried somewhere in your Research Strategy or elsewhere. Write yourself an insurance policy against human fallibility: if it's a key point, repeat it, then repeat it again.

Add more emphasis by putting the text in bold, or bold italics (in the modern age, we skip underlining—it's for typewriters).

Here are more strategies from our successful PIs:

  • While describing a method in the Approach section, they state their or collaborators' experience with it.
  • They point out that they have access to a necessary piece of equipment.
  • When explaining their field and the status of current research, they weave in their own work and their preliminary data.
  • They delve into the biology of the area to make sure reviewers will grasp the importance of their research and understand their field and how their work fits into it.

Spot the Sample

You can see many of these principles at work in the Approach section of Boris Striepen's Application, "Biology of the apicomplexan plastid."

  • In the first paragraph, he describes the biology involved, highlighting new models in the field.
  • He then ties his work to that larger picture, including past research and preliminary studies for the current application.

Aim Your Antennae

Our applicants not only wrote with their reviewers in mind they seemed to anticipate their questions. You may think: how can I anticipate all the questions people may have? Of course you can't, but there are some basic items (in addition to the "big three" listed above) that will surely be on your reviewers' minds:

  • Will the investigators be able to get the work done within the project period, or is the proposed work over ambitious?
  • Did the PI describe potential pitfalls and possible alternatives?
  • Will the experiments generate meaningful data?
  • Could the resulting data prove the hypothesis?
  • Are others already doing the work, or has it been already completed?

Address these questions; then spend time thinking about more potential issues specific to you and your research—and address those too.

Use Graphics

For applications, a picture can truly be worth a thousand words. Graphics can illustrate complex information in a small space and add visual interest to your application.

Look at our sample applications to see how the investigators included schematics, tables, illustrations, graphs, and other types of graphics to enhance their applications.

Consider adding a timetable or flowchart to illustrate your experimental plan, including decision trees with alternative experimental pathways to help your reviewers understand your plans.

If You Plan Video, Be Reviewer-Friendly

To present some concepts or demonstrations, video may enhance your application beyond what graphics alone can achieve. However, you can't count on all reviewers being able to see or hear video, so you'll want to be strategic in how you incorporate it into your application.

Help your cause by taking the following steps:

  • Caption any narration in the video.
  • In the Research Strategy:
    • Choose evocative still images from your video to accompany your summary.
    • Write your summary of the video carefully so the text would make sense even without the video.

For more information, refer to Plan Ahead for Video above.

Know Your Audience's Perspective

Though there's no guarantee which reviewers will be assigned to your application, check the committee rosters to see who is on the committee. Even if some people change, you can expect to see a similar range of expertise.

It's important to determine their perspectives on your area of science early on to: choose a topic they would consider to be important (we covered this stage in Pick a Research Project in Part 2) and write an application that meets their expectations.

Read publications that are important to your field by the committee members who are likely to be your assigned reviewers so you can write with their perspectives in mind (read more in Investigate Committees and Members in Know Your Audience in Part 3.)

For more information, go to:

Note: You can log in to the Commons about 30 days before the review meeting to find your study section's roster.

A. B. C. or 1.2.3?

Add bold headers or an outlining or numbering system—or both—that you use consistently throughout.

In the top-notch applications we reviewed, organization ruled but followed few rules. While you want to be organized, how you go about it is up to you.

Nevertheless, here are some principles to follow:

  • Add bold headers or an outlining or numbering system—or both—that you use consistently throughout.
  • Start each of the Research Strategy's sections with a header: Significance, Innovation, and Approach—this you must do.
  • Organize the Approach section around your Specific Aims.

The Research Strategy's page limit—12 for R01s—is for the three main parts: Significance, Innovation, and Approach and your preliminary studies (or a progress report if you're renewing your grant). Other sections, for example, research animals or select agents, do not have a page limit.

Significance

For more information about highlighting significance in your application, you may want to read Highlight Significance and Innovation in Part 3.

Although you will emphasize your project's significance throughout the application, the Significance section should give the most details. Don't skimp—the farther removed your reviewers are from your field, the more information you'll need to provide on basic biology, importance of the area, research opportunities, and new findings.

When you describe your project's significance, put it in the context of 1) the state of your field, 2) your long-term research plans, and 3) your preliminary data.

In our sample applications and summary statements, you can see that both investigators and reviewers made a case for the importance of the research to improving human health as well as to the scientific field.

Spot the Sample

Look at the Significance section of Adam Ratner's Application: "Gardnerella vaginalis: toxin production and pathogenesis" to see how these elements combine to make a strong case for significance.

  • Dr. Ratner starts with disease prevalence data and a short description of the morbidity caused by Gardnerella vaginalis.
  • He then gives a background of the field, including its knowledge gaps and opportunities, before telling the reviewers how his research fits in.
  • Note his use of bolding, italics, color, and sectioning to highlight key points and make it easier for reviewers to read the text.

Checkpoint. After conveying the significance of the research in several parts of the application, check that:

  1. In the Significance section, I describe the importance of my hypothesis to the field (especially if my reviewers are not in it) and human disease.
  2. I also point out the project's significance throughout the application.
  3. The application shows that I am aware of opportunities, gaps, roadblocks, and research underway in my field.
  4. I state how my research will advance my field, highlighting knowledge gaps and showing how my project fills one or more of them.
  5. Based on my scan of the review committee roster, I determine whether I cannot assume my reviewers will know my field and provide some information on basic biology, the importance of the area, knowledge gaps, and new findings.

Innovation

Not only is innovation just one of five review criteria, but a paradigm shift can be as dangerous as an earthquake!

Innovation can be tricky. Be sure to read Getting a Grant for Innovative Research and Be Innovative, But Be Wary in Design a Project in Part 2.

Though that document is oriented to application planning, the same concepts can help guide your writing.

The main point if you are either a new PI or entering a new area: be cautious about seeming too innovative. Not only is innovation just one of five review criteria, but a paradigm shift can be as dangerous as an earthquake! A reviewer may take a challenge to the status quo as a challenge to his or her world view.

When you look at our sample applications, you see that both the new and experienced investigators are not generally shifting paradigms. They are using new approaches or models, working in new areas, or testing innovative ideas.

Checkpoint. After finishing the draft innovation section, check that:

  1. I show how my proposed research is new and unique, e.g., explores new scientific avenues, has a novel hypothesis, will create new knowledge.
  2. If I am a new investigator:
    • Most likely, I explain how my project's research can refine, improve, or propose a new application of an existing concept or method.
    • Less likely, I go for the other option described in NIH's definition: show how my research can shift a current paradigm. If I choose that path, I:
      • Make a very strong case for challenging the existing paradigm.
      • Have data to support the innovative approach.
      • Have strong evidence that I can do the work.

Approach

In your Approach, you spell out a few sets of experiments to address each aim. As we noted above, it's a good idea to restate the key points you've made about your project's significance, its place in your field, and your long-term goals.

You're probably wondering how much detail to include.

If you look at our sample applications as a guide, you can see very different approaches. Though people generally used less detail than you'd see in a scientific paper, they do include some experimental detail.

Expect your assigned reviewers to scrutinize your approach: they will want to know what you plan to do and how you plan to do it.

NIH data show that of the peer review criteria, approach has the highest correlation with the overall impact score.

Spot the Sample

Look at the Application from Adam Ratner cited above and the Application from Carolina Wählby "Image analysis for high-throughput C. elegans infection and metabolism assays" to see how two new investigators handled the Approach section—and got a perfect score!

Especially if you are a new investigator, you need enough detail to convince reviewers that you understand what you are undertaking and can handle the method.

  • Cite a publication that shows you can handle the method where you can, but give more details if you and your team don't have a proven record using the method—and state explicitly why you think you will succeed.
  • If space is short, you could also focus on experiments that highlight your expertise or are especially interesting. For experiments that are pedestrian or contracted out, just list the method.

Be sure to lay out a plan for alternative experiments and approaches in case you get negative or surprising results. Show reviewers you have a plan for spending the four or five years you will be funded no matter where the experiments lead.

Spot the Sample

See Colin Parrish's Application "Structural controls of functional receptor and antibody binding to viral capsids" for strong sections on potential problems and difficulties and alternative approaches, for example, on page 37.

Here are some pointers for organizing your Approach:

  • Enter a bold header for each Specific Aim.
  • Under each aim, describe the first set of experiments.
  • Outline the branching of next steps (omit detail if you don't have the space):
    • If you get result x, you will follow pathway x; if you get result y, you will follow pathway y.
    • Consider illustrating this with a flowchart.

Trim the fat—omit all information not needed to make your case. If you try to wow reviewers with your knowledge, they'll find flaws and penalize you heavily. Don't give them ammunition by including anything you don't need.

Keep Track of Who, What, and How Much

As you design your experiments, keep a running tab of the following essential data on a separate piece of paper:

  • Who. A list of people who will help you for your Key Personnel section later.
  • What. A list of equipment and supplies for the experiments you plan.
  • Time. Notes on how long each step takes. Timing directly affects your budget as well as how many Specific Aims you can realistically achieve.

Jotting this information down will help you prepare your budget justification and other sections later.

Checkpoint. After finishing a draft Approach section, check that:

  1. I include enough background and preliminary data to give reviewers the context and significance of my plans.
  2. Each of my Specific Aims results in a set of experiments.
    • They can test the hypothesis (or hypotheses).
    • I show alternative experiments and approaches in case I get negative or surprising results.
  3. My experiments can yield meaningful data to test my hypothesis (or hypotheses).
  4. As a new investigator, I include enough detail to convince reviewers I understand and can handle a method. I reviewed the sample applications to see how much detail to use.
  5. It is clear what I do well and what unique skills I and my team bring to the research. If I think reviewers may have doubts, I explicitly state my team's resources and expertise.
    • If I or my team has experience with a method, I cite it; otherwise I include enough details to convince reviewers we can handle it.
  6. I describe the results I anticipate and their implications.
  7. I omit all information not needed to state my case.
  8. I keep track of and explain who will do what, what they will do, when and where they will do it, how long it will take, and how much money it will cost.
  9. My timeline shows when I expect to complete my aims.

Preliminary Studies or Progress Report

If you are applying for a new application, include preliminary studies; for a renewal or a revision (a competing supplement to an existing grant), prepare a progress report instead.

Describing preliminary studies. Your preliminary studies show that you can handle the methods and interpret results. Here's where you build reviewer confidence that you are headed in the right direction by pursuing research that builds on your accomplishments.

Reviewers use your preliminary studies together with the biosketches to assess the investigator review criterion, which reflects the competence of the research team.

Give alternative interpretations to your data to show reviewers you've thought through problems in-depth and are prepared to meet future challenges. If you don't do this, the reviewers will!

Though you may include other people's publications, focus on your preliminary data or unpublished data from your lab and the labs of your team members as much as you can.

As we noted above, you can put your preliminary data anywhere in the Research Strategy that you feel is appropriate, but just make sure your reviewers will be able to distinguish it. Alternatively, you can create a separate section with its own header.

Including a progress report. If you are applying for a renewal or a revision (a competing supplement to an existing grant), prepare a progress report instead of preliminary studies.

Create a header so your program officer can easily find it and include the following information:

  • Project period beginning and end dates.
  • Summary of the importance of your findings in relation to your Specific Aims.
  • Account of published and unpublished results, highlighting your progress toward achieving your Specific Aims.

Note: if you submit a renewal application before the due date of your progress report, you do not need to submit a separate progress report for your grant. However, you will need to submit it, if your renewal is not funded.

Find more information in How to Renew Your Application in Part 7.

Checkpoint. After finishing the draft, check that:

  1. I interpret my preliminary results critically.
  2. There is enough information to show I know what I'm talking about.
  3. If my project is complex, I give more preliminary studies.
  4. I show how my previous experience prepared me for the new project.
  5. It's clear which data are mine and which are not.

Referencing Publications

References show your breadth of knowledge of the field. If you leave out an important work, reviewers may assume you're not aware of it.

Throughout your Research Plan, you will reference all relevant publications for the concepts underlying your research and your methods.

References show your breadth of knowledge of the field. If you leave out an important work, reviewers may assume you're not aware of it.

Cite publications that are current and relevant to the project or show that you or your collaborators used your proposed methods. In general, you do not include a copy of publications in the application.

Checkpoint. After finishing the draft, check that:

  1. Throughout my application I cite the literature thoroughly but not excessively, adding citations for all references important to my work.
  2. I cite all papers important to my field, including those from potential reviewers.
  3. I include fewer than 100 citations (if possible).
  4. My Bibliography and References Cited form lists all my references.
  5. I refer to unpublished work, including information I learned through personal contacts.
  6. If I do not describe a method, I add a reference to the literature.

You will list all citations in your Other Project Information Form: Bibliography and References Cited form.

What Resources Do You Need to Share?

See if you need a sharing plan. Then read the linked documents for details.

Your application may need to include a plan for sharing model organisms, final research data, or data or other information related to genome-wide association studies.

If any of these requirements apply to your research, write your plan or plans as a single attachment.

All plans go in the Resource Sharing Plan attachment to the PHS 398 Research Plan form. They do not count toward the Research Strategy page limit.

To find out what to do, read the information below, which summarizes the main points from NIH Sharing Policies and Related Guidance on NIH-Funded Research Resources.

Model Organism Sharing

If you plan to create a new model organism, you need to submit a sharing plan.

First, review Model Organisms for Biomedical Research for a list of organisms that require a plan. Include a justification if you plan to develop one of these organisms but are not providing a plan. Add information to other sections of the application as appropriate.

For sample plans, go to Where can I find basic information on sharing model organisms?

For more information, see the following:

Data Sharing

A data sharing plan is required only for applications requesting $500,000 or more in direct costs for any year unless otherwise specified in the funding opportunity announcement. You may request funds in your budget to prepare, document, and archive data.

Include a justification if you are requesting that amount and are not providing a plan. (You will also need NIAID's approval to submit an investigator-initiated application requesting that level of funding and document the approval in your cover letter. For details, see the Big Grants SOP.)

Your plan should state how you will share the final data set, without identifiers, through your institution no later than the time the main findings are accepted for publication. For a sample plan, go to our Sample Data Sharing Plan.

Add information to other sections of the application as appropriate. NIH's Data Sharing Policy and Implementation Guidance tells you how a data sharing plan may affect other parts of the application.

For more information, read the following:

Data Sharing for Genome-Wide Association Studies

Follow NIH's requirements whether you are proposing to conduct a genome-wide association study (GWAS) or simply planning to access the data in the NIH repository.

If you plan only to access GWAS data, follow the procedures in our Data Sharing for Grants: Genome-Wide Association Studies SOP.

If you are proposing research NIH considers to be a GWAS, you'll need a plan, separate from your data sharing plan, for any award amount. You will also state in your cover letter that you are proposing to conduct GWAS research.

NIH defines a GWAS as a study that looks at variation across the human genome to identify genetic associations with observable traits (such as blood pressure or weight), or the presence or absence of a disease or condition.

Your GWAS data sharing plan will describe how you will send your data to the Database of Genotype and Phenotype (dbGaP) or explain why that is not possible. Your institutional review board must approve your plan.

NIH will check your application to make sure you included a plan and flag it for reviewers, who will assess the plan's adequacy.

For sample plans, see NIH's Guidance for Developing Data-sharing Plans for GWAS.

See the Sharing Data questions and answers for more information.

Finishing Up

Look over what you've written with a critical eye of a reviewer to identify potential questions or weak spots.

Enlist others to do that too—they can look at your application with a fresh eye. Include people who aren't familiar with your research to make sure you can get your point across to someone outside your field.

As you finalize the details of your Research Strategy, you will also need to return to your Specific Aims to see if you must revise.

For more advice, go to Inspect Your Application in Put the Finishing Touches on Your Application in Part 3.

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

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Table of Contents for the Strategy

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

Last Updated March 07, 2014

Last Reviewed December 01, 2011