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Strategy for NIH Funding
Get Started Writing the Research Plan · Master the Application
Pages of Part 3. Write Your Application
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.
(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)
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:
Though how you organize your application is largely up to you, NIH does want you to follow these guidelines:
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.
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:
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.
(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.
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.
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:
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:
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."
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:
Address these questions; then spend time thinking about more potential issues specific to you and your research—and address those too.
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.
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:
For more information, refer to Plan Ahead for Video above.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Checkpoint. After conveying the significance of the research in several parts of the application, check that:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
As you design your experiments, keep a running tab of the following essential data on a separate piece of paper:
Jotting this information down will help you prepare your budget justification and other sections later.
Checkpoint. After finishing a draft Approach section, check that:
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:
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:
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.
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.
You will list all citations in your Other Project Information Form: Bibliography and References Cited form.
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.
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:
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:
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, you must state that in your cover letter. No plan is needed.
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. For more information, see the following:
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
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Part 3. Write Your Application
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We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated October 25, 2012
Last Reviewed December 01, 2011