Skip Navigation

Research Funding

Skip Content Marketing
  • Share this:
  • submit to facebook
  • Tweet it
  • submit to reddit
  • submit to StumbleUpon
  • submit to Google +

October 27, 2010

Feature Articles

Opportunities and Resources

Other News

Advice Corner

New Funding Opportunities

Feature Articles

Laying the Groundwork for Your Research Plan

This is the eleventh article in our New Investigator Series.

So far, we have discussed what it takes to get independent support, how to pick a project, and steps to start planning your application. Here we focus on thinking through your design for your Research Plan.


  • To create a top-quality Research Plan, you will need to do more planning than writing.
  • Start by choosing a hypothesis that is the destination for your research.
  • Define your Specific Aims as objectives you could achieve within the time you are planning to request.
  • In your Research Strategy, map out experiments and alternatives, making sure they track with your aims.

To get the most out of our advice, you should be familiar with earlier articles in this series, especially on picking a project and writing to different reviewer audiences. See the box on the right for a list.

This article is about planning the heart of a grant application—its Research Plan—and is geared to the R01, NIH's basic research grant. Our next article will cover writing the Research Plan.

Make a Plan

At the core of your application, your Research Plan details your planned experiments.

As eager as you may be to jump right in, beware. To create a top-quality Research Plan you will need to spend more time planning than writing. Before you proceed, you should:

  1. Decide on a hypothesis.
  2. Define Specific Aims to test your hypothesis.
  3. Choose experiments that support your aims.

Mapping out a strategy will pay off since reviewers will quickly pick up on logical flaws and feasibility issues with your experimental design. By thoroughly planning, you skirt those game-ending pitfalls.

Adding to the complexity of your task is the fact that the information in the Research Plan works in a feedback loop with other parts of your application. For example, the experiments you choose will affect your budget and personnel, and the accessibility of resources will limit the experiments you can plan.

Before you start, make sure you've completed the planning steps we've already covered:

  1. Choose a high-impact topic.
  2. Know your audience—your peer reviewers—so you can feel confident that your project will excite them and you can gear the application to their level of knowledge of your field.
  3. Limit the scope of your planned research so you are not being overly ambitious or setting unrealistic expectations.

Conceptually, your hypothesis is your destination that all research roads must lead to.

First Step: Choose a Hypothesis

Most R01 applications set out to test a hypothesis, rather than search for a problem or simply collect information.

Your hypothesis triggers everything you plan to do. Conceptually, think of it as your destination, determining the course of your research and the terminal point of all its pathways.

Choose a hypothesis that is well-focused and testable, and that your experimental results will be able to prove or disprove. Reviewers must believe that your hypothesis is sound and important so your research will be able to make a high impact on its field.

Here are examples of effective hypotheses:

From Jacques Banchereau, Ph.D., Baylor University:

  • Systemic lupus erythmatosus patients with active disease display considerable alterations in their CD8+ T cell compartments, including effector CD28+ CTLs and suppressor CD28- subsets. We surmise that an excess of killer cells in lupus results in the characteristic tissue damage and explains an excess of dying cells that are considered as key factors in this disease.

From Volker Briken, Ph.D., University of Maryland College Park:

  • This proposal seeks to test the hypothesis that the capacity of Mycobacterium tuberculosis to inhibit infection-induced apoptosis of macrophages is a major pathway of the bacteria to avoid the host’s innate and adaptive immune response.

And here are examples of hypotheses that are poorly focused:

  • Understanding the strategies of Escherichia coli to subvert host cells will allow for improved ways of preventing and treating E. coli -related diseases.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis patients with active disease show many alterations in their immune profile.
  • A wide range of molecules can inhibit HIV infection.

Ready, Aim: Talk the Talk

Make each aim an achievable objective, not a best effort, one with clear endpoints peer reviewers can easily assess.

Now to the next step: designing Specific Aims to test your hypothesis.

As part of your Research Plan, your Specific Aims convey the big picture. In it you'll "talk the talk," telling your reviewers what you plan to do ("walking the walk" comes later as you'll see below).

For your aims, think high level. Ask what two or three objectives you could achieve within the time you are planning to request. Make each aim an achievable objective, not a best effort, one with clear endpoints peer reviewers can easily assess.

Limiting your application to few Specific Aims keeps you clear of the typical new applicant trap of being overly ambitious. Like your topic, your Specific Aims should build on your previous experience. 

Checkpoint. After finishing the design, check that:

  1. My Specific Aims can test my hypothesis.
  2. They are doable within the grant period I am requesting.
  3. The aims are concrete and well-focused.
  4. I can define endpoints my peer reviewers will be able to assess.
Start planning the strategy by sketching out experiments you could do to accomplish each aim, including alternative pathways.

Fire Up the Strategy: Walk the Walk

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 the strategy by sketching out experiments you could do to conclusively accomplish each aim, including alternative pathways you could pursue. Plan what would you do if:

  • You get an exciting new lead.
  • You get a negative result.

Map out the alternative experiments too, making sure they track with your Specific Aims. Showing alternatives will help convince reviewers you are well-prepared to deal with unknowns and reveal how you thoughtfully planned your research.

It's a good idea to create a flowchart and timeline for planning purposes—you can also include it in the application if you wish. If at any point you hit a roadblock, revise your plans.

Checkpoint. After finalizing this work, check that:
  1. For each aim, I determined which experiments I need.
  2. My planned experiments are appropriate and sufficient to fully complete each aim.
  3. I created a flow diagram that shows the branching of the possible pathways I could take.
  4. I planned those experiments too.
  5. My team and I are qualified to execute the experiments.
  6. I or they have the required resources to do the work.

Stay tuned for an issue after the holidays with advice on writing your Research Plan.

Related Links

Opportunities and Resources

New in ImmPort: Dataset From an ITN Clinical Trial on Seasonal Allergies

For each enrolled subject, you can access study data including demographics, medication history, physical exam assessments, lab tests, and adverse events.

On September 30, 2010, NIAID’s ImmPort portal publically released its first complete dataset from a clinical trial that looked at the effects of a monoclonal antibody on rush immunotherapy.

Now you can access study data including comprehensive demographics, medication history, physical exam assessments, lab test data, and adverse events associated with each enrolled subject.

Data also include results of peripheral blood mononuclear cell flow cytometry and serum anti-allergen ELISA from samples taken before, during, and after therapy. 

If you are new to ImmPort, you can get the data after registering as a Life Science Researcher at Register User: Notice. For existing users, log in into your account and click on “Semi-Public Workspace.”

Led by Dr. Thomas Casale, the study, Omalizumab (Xolair) and Allergy Shots For the Treatment of Seasonal Allergies, examined the effects of omalizumab, an anti-IgE monoclonal antibody formulation, on the response to rush immunotherapy for seasonal allergies. NIAID and the Immune Tolerance Network sponsored the research.

ImmPort is a Web portal of the NIAID's Bioinformatics Support Contract.

Separator line

Get Animal Models to Move Your Research Along

Our Animal Models of Infectious Disease program can save you time and effort by providing models or services that you lack in-house.

This is the third in a series of articles highlighting resources for researchers from NIAID's Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID).

Do you need to develop or refine animal models, perform in vivo screening, or conduct efficacy testing to move your discovery along the product development pathway?

Our Animal Models of Infectious Disease program can save you time and effort by providing models or services that you lack in-house.

The program can help you with traditional small laboratory animals, non-human primates, and nontraditional animals such as armadillos, woodchucks, snails and other invertebrates, goats, swine, horses, and cattle.

For example, one project used a non-human primate model of pneumonic plague to demonstrate the efficacy of licensed antibiotics, while another used a rabbit model to test an anthrax vaccine in combination with antibiotics for post-exposure prophylaxis. Both submitted data to FDA.

You could be the next success story. Even if you don't have an NIAID grant, you may access these resources—you just need to have preliminary data to justify doing in vivo work. A DMID program officer can help you assess whether your data are sufficient.

For information on eligibility, assurances, preliminary data, user requirements, a program contact, and the application and approval process, go to Animal Models of Infectious Disease.

Separator line

Big Thanks to Our NIAID Committee Volunteers

Being part of peer review is invaluable experience for qualified investigators.

Hats off to all the volunteers who served on NIAID peer review committees, our advisory Council, or other such group in FY 2010.

If you are an experienced investigator, please consider volunteering for an NIAID peer review group. The generosity of people like you lets us identify and fund the best science—plus, being part of peer review is invaluable experience for you. Learn more at How to Volunteer.

If you are on our thank you list and spot issues with your entry, please email and accept our apologies.

Separator line

YouTube, Podcasts, and More—Oh My!

Check out NIH's multimedia offerings, updated regularly.

There's only so much information you can easily glean from text, so NIH has a broad spread of multimedia for you to choose from. Here are some highlights:


  • YouTube Channel. Videos illustrating science and health news. Updates frequently.
  • Videocasting. Special NIH events, seminars, and lectures for the public and for NIH staff. Updates frequently.
  • i on NIH. Video podcast on medical research advances from NIH institutes.


  • Audio Reports. Based on recent press releases, short news stories. Updates about twice a week.
  • Research Radio. Podcasts including two or three short reports and an in-depth interview. Updates every other Friday.
  • Health Matters 60-second spots. Series for the public and journalists. Updates once a month.

NIH also offers Photo Galleries and more on the full list of NIH's Multimedia.

Other News

Annual Progress Reports for Multi-Year Funded Awards

Reports are due on or before the anniversary of the project's start date.

Now you must send your progress report annually if you have a multi-year grant that received all its funding in the first year—an R15 (AREA) grant, for example.

Reports are due by the anniversary of the project's start date. Two months before then, the multi-year progress report option will automatically appear in the eRA Commons. Find it in the "Action" column for your grant on the Status page.

For more details, go to NIH Instructions for Progress Reports for Multi-Year Funded (MYF) Awards. NIH announced this change in the October 6, 2010, Guide notice.

Separator line

How to Use the New Grants Policy Statement

On October 15, NIH published an updated Grants Policy Statement that governs all NIH grants and cooperative agreements. The document is a handy reference for policy in addition to housing the terms and conditions of award to which grantees are held.

Here's how to use the two versions.

  • Use the newer version to find the policies that affect all grants and cooperative agreements (the document is current as of its publication date, October 1, 2010).
  • To find the terms and conditions for your award:

You can find out what has changed in the last seven years in the Summary of Significant Changes to the NIH GPS—10-1-2010 (MS Word 252 KB).

While NIH has issued many policies during that time, there is nothing new in the updated version NIH has not already published before, usually in the Guide. NIH announced this news in the October 15, 2010, Guide notice.

Separator line

News Briefs

For Now, Noncompeting Grants Get Less Money. While a continuing resolution is in effect until December 3, 2010, NIAID will issue noncompeting grants at up to 90 percent of the amount requested for the current budget period. Grantees should keep spending below this level until we have a budget, at which point we may restore some or all of the funding. For more information, see the October 18, 2010, Guide notice and our Financial Management Plan.

No More PI Verifications for Final Invention Statements. PIs no longer have to verify the Final Invention Statement in the Commons Closeout before the signing official verifies and submits it to NIH. And any PI on a multi-PI grant will be able to upload a Final Invention Statement. Read more in the October 14, 2010, Guide notice.

For a Mentored K Award: Charge Costs to Prepare an Application. While on a Mentored Career Development Award, you may charge effort as a direct cost for preparing an application for subsequent research. Read more in the October 15, 2010, Guide notice, and contact for help.

Advice Corner

Can I Spend Before Getting an Award?

You can possibly receive funds from your institute before actually receiving the award.

Congratulations on your pending award! At this point, you may want to consider looking into the option of receiving funds from your institution before actually getting your grant.

Here are the conditions for pre-award spending:

  1. You must ask for permission from your institution to spend money before receiving your award.
  2. If your institution agrees, you will be awarded funds to spend three months ahead of your official project start to:
    • Hire personnel.
    • Purchase supplies and equipment.
  3. The grant does not start early for NIAID.
  4. Your renewal date remains the same.

Note: Pre-award spending is at your institution's risk, so make sure you get permission and spend the funds wisely.

For more information, go to Pre-Award (Pre-Agreement) Costs in the NIH Grants Policy Statement Part II: Terms and Conditions of NIH Grant Awards Subpart A: General – File 5 of 6.

Separator line

Reader Questions

Feel free to send us a question at After responding to you, we may include your question in the newsletter, incorporate it into the NIAID Research Funding site, or both.

"Do our industry collaborators or consultants need eRA Commons usernames?"—Irene Sweeney, Population Council

No. You need eRA Commons registration for only your organization, key personnel, and postdocs with one month or more of effort on the project.

Read more about why and how to register in Section 2.2 of the instructions in the SF 424 Application Guide or PHS 398 Grant Application.

"For a K23 or K24 application, how do you define patient-oriented research?"—an anonymous reader

Patient-oriented research refers to a prospective study that involves your direct interaction with at least a subset of study participants in support of the project's Specific Aims.

Applications proposing only secondary sample analysis or retrospective cohort analysis, for example, would not qualify as patient-oriented research.

Learn more about these award types in the Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (Parent K23) and Midcareer Investigator Award in Patient-Oriented Research (Parent K24) announcements.

Funding Opportunity Links

See these and older announcements at NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

back to top

Last Updated October 25, 2011

Last Reviewed November 16, 2010