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September 1, 2010

Feature Article

Opportunities and Resources

Other News

Advice Corner

New Funding Opportunities

Feature Article

Your Application Takes Center Stage

This is the seventh article in our New Investigator Series.

In previous articles, we looked at what it takes to be ready for an independent grant, how to choose a grant type and topic, resources needed to conduct the research, and timing considerations. Here we discuss writing to the audience.


  • Your scientific review group is the primary audience for your application.
  • Your application's assigned reviewers must be able to readily grasp the essence of your project so they can explain it to the others.
  • Write for different audiences—one with expertise in your field and one with more general knowledge—depending on the section of the application.
  • Study the study sections to find one that would applaud your ideas, and target the application to its members.

Study sections usually have about 20 peer reviewers, but all do not play equally critical roles for your application.

All writers shape their material to the understanding and tastes of their audience.

Shakespeare, for example, was not only a poetic genius but also a celebrated playwright in his day, whose popularity stemmed from writing plays that appealed to people from all walks of life.

As a writer of an NIH grant application, your audience is much smaller. In fact, the most important people to reach may total only three.

Focusing the spotlight on such a tiny group is a much easier job. The catch is to know who the players are and what they're looking for.

Secondarily, you'll need to capture the interest of your audience that's not on stage but still vital to your success.

Three Key Players

Broadly speaking, the primary audience for your application is its peer review group. NIH scientific review groups—also called study sections—are made up of mostly academic scientists who get together for around two days three times a year.

Study sections usually have about 20 peer reviewers, but all do not play equally critical roles: three serve as "actors" who perform on behalf of you, the writer.

They are your primary and secondary reviewers (plus at least one additional discussant), chosen by the group's scientific review officer (SRO)—a federal scientist—because their expertise is closest to your field.

These assigned reviewers do the following:

  • They read your application thoroughly and write a critique before the meeting.
  • They assign preliminary scores for each review criterion and an initial overall impact score.
  • The primary reviewer presents your application's topic, strengths, and weaknesses to the group, and other assigned reviewers may comment.

These initial remarks launch the group discussion that is the basis for the overall impact score your reviewers give your application. Everyone scores your application—even those who may not be well versed in your field or research.

More than anything else, that score determines your application's funding fate, which takes us back to the reason you need to write your application keeping your reviewers in mind.

In case you're wondering why review meetings work this way: it's just not feasible for everyone to read all applications.

Review meetings cover dozens, sometimes hundreds, of applications, meaning reviewers have thousands of pages to read. Serving as a volunteer reviewer for NIH does not replace a reviewer's day job, and many must peruse applications after work hours.

Because reviewers can't possibly read all the applications in depth in the limited time they have before the meeting, they rely on the expertise of the assigned reviewers to focus the discussion.

In the next section, we'll show you how to appeal to everyone and make advocates out of your assigned reviewers.

Write and organize the application so the primary reviewer can readily grasp what you are proposing and be well poised to explain it to the others.

Write for Everyone, but Win Over Your Assigned Reviewers

In the various parts of the application, you'll use different approaches to reach out to your audience so you can accommodate different levels of knowledge about your techniques and field.

Your best strategy is 1) to write and organize the entire application so your assigned reviewers can readily grasp what you propose and be well poised to explain it to everyone else and 2) to not neglect the rest.

Though most reviewers may read only parts of your application, all twenty will score it.

Moreover, it can't hurt to grab their attention and get them onstage too! Any reviewer is more likely to read your application if it is an intriguing area, has a well-thought-out title, and shows well-crafted Specific Aims.

Play to the house. Try to get as many people excited about your project as you can. Let them know why the Institute should fund you and why they should give you the best score by telling them how your topic is high impact and your objectives worth pursuing.

Fire up your reviewers by convincing them that:

  • Your proposal has a strong potential to have a high impact on its field of science.
  • Your approach is logical and innovative.
  • Your institution will give you the support you need.
  • You (with the help of your collaborators) are the person to do the research.
  • Testing your hypothesis is worth NIH's money.

Be aware that a grant application is not a scientific review article. Think of it as a production that must arouse its viewers to value your proposal as highly significant and worthy of our investment. Besides stimulating enthusiasm and being persuasive, focus the action by leaving out any facts that do not make your case.

Expect your assigned reviewers to read your Research Strategy and other important parts of the application.

Write for your assigned reviewers. Help your assigned reviewers become your advocate by building a strong case for your research and making it easy for them to perform.

Organize and write so your assigned reviewers can readily find and understand the goals, significance, and feasibility of your project. Make it easy by including lines they can deliver to explain your research to the rest of the study section.

Don't take that step to mean that your assigned reviewers will gloss over your application. On the contrary, expect them to read your Research Strategy and other important parts. When you write, keep in mind that they will:

  • Look at your Specific Aims to make sure the research hasn't been done before or is not currently underway.
  • Review your Specific Aims and Significance to see if the research can make an impact on its field.
  • Look at Innovation to see if the work is new and unique and can add significantly to existing knowledge.
  • Review your Approach to assess how you'll conduct the research.
    • Read the biosketches to look at the expertise of the key personnel you propose.
    • See if you have the institutional resources to do what you plan.

Don't neglect the others. During the roughly 15-minute discussion, members of the group will ask the assigned reviewers questions and skim parts of the application—most likely, the Abstract, Specific Aims, and Significance section of your Research Strategy.

So you'll write those sections to meet the needs of a less expert audience. In addition to the points noted above under "Play to the house," be sure to use a level at which an intelligent reader can understand your work, as in a Scientific American article.

After you have chosen a study section, determine how its membership may affect your writing.

Investigate Committees and Members

While you are still choosing your project, look into which study sections your application may fit.

View the rosters online, and find a committee with some people who will appreciate your research and share your scientific perspective. Be aware that this process is not perfect: the Center for Scientific Review may reconfigure study sections, use ad hoc reviewers, or (more rarely) not honor your request.

But even though there's no guarantee that the same people will review your application, it's still beneficial to see who may be on the committee, so you can learn the possible perspectives they and their peers have on your area of science.

Read their publications that are important to your field so you can write your application with those perspectives in mind, acknowledging that there are other points of view.

Then forge ahead, following these guidelines:

  • Find a study section you feel would applaud your ideas.
  • Take time to research the committees—make sure the study section you pick is the right one.
  • Seek familiar names.
    • If the area seems right but you don't recognize anyone, read some papers by the members.
    • If they seem to be working in very different areas or are likely to have competing world views, go elsewhere. For example, if your approach is functional genomics, you don't want to be reviewed by a study section populated by cellular and molecular biologists.
  • Get advice from experienced people in your institution.
  • Contact a scientific review officer for help in determining which study section is appropriate.

Keep looking until you find the right audience for your application. To search for a study section, go to the main page of the Center for Scientific Review or the CSR Study Section Roster Index.

If you have a multidisciplinary application and don't see all the expertise on the roster, don't assume CSR will add it, so write for a less expert audience.

After you have picked a study section, determine how its membership will affect your writing.

  • Try to figure out who could be your assigned reviewers, so you can tailor your writing to them. To learn more about their research, see if they have Web sites, and read their publications.
  • Ask: Is the study section diverse or narrowly focused? Will the reviewers get the impact of your proposed project? Depending on the answer to those questions, define the level of detail to include in the application.
  • If you have a multidisciplinary application and don't see all the expertise on the roster, don't assume CSR will add it, so write for a less expert audience by avoiding technical jargon.
  • Ask investigators working in a different field from yours to read your application and give you feedback on readability.

In your application cover letter, you will request the study section you've selected. Note that you may not request reviewers—if you do they will be disqualified!

Frame your request in positive terms: say that a study section has several people who are qualified to judge your work. Read more at Create a Cover Letter in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

All this research into study sections and members takes time but is well worth it—you have a major stake in the people you choose to review your application.

Related Links

Opportunities and Resources

Get Help Turning Discoveries Into Diagnostics, Vaccines, and Therapeutics

DMID-funded contractors provide a variety of services to improve your chances of success.

When you're standing at the entrance to the product development pathway, think about how we can make your journey a little less risky.

Contractors funded by our Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID) offer a variety of services to improve your chances of success.

You can apply for support even if you don't have an NIAID grant, but your work has to fall within DMID's research areas, and you need preliminary data that justifies advancing your product to your requested stage of development.

If you're an investigator in academia, government, industry, or a not-for-profit organization, DMID's newly redesigned Resources for Researchers portal gives you a broad range of help.

In the portal, drill down to each service's Web site for information on eligibility, assurances, prerequisites, user requirements, and the application and approval process. You can find resources by following links under these headers:

  • Research Tools and Technologies for standardized, high-quality organisms and reagents, microbial sequencing, genotyping and protein biomarker discovery, databases, bioinformatics tools, biocontainment facilities, and core services.
  • Preclinical and Clinical Services to Facilitate Product Development for planning assistance and help developing critical data, so you can make a more informed decision about whether your discovery stands a good chance of becoming a candidate product.

You can also view resources by product type, product development stage, or organism type or see a full alphabetical list.

Consider discussing with your program officer how these services might be useful to your project. Stay tuned for more news—we plan to highlight significant resources in future articles.

Related Links

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Try These Handy Annotated Application Forms

Use the annotated forms as a reference while you work on your grant application.

You'll probably like the field-by-field tips in NIH's new annotated SF 424 application forms. The annotations explain form behavior, help you decide what to enter, and highlight fields required by NIH but not marked as such in the SF 424.

NIH has posted these forms in PDF or plain text format. We suggest that you use the PDF version since it visually matches the layout of the SF 424 forms.

To use the annotated file as a reference while you work on your application, you can print it out or keep it open in another window.

Though these annotations may help you, they don't replace the full instructions in the opportunity's Guide notice and in the SF424 Application Guide. Go to the new Annotated SF 424 Grant Application Forms.

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Get In On a "Transformative" Opportunity

NIH seeks research that proposes "transformative approaches to major contemporary challenges in biomedical or behavioral science."

Original, groundbreaking, exceptionally innovative. If these words describe your research project, NIH's Transformative Research Program might be right up your alley.

For the third year running, the program seeks research that proposes "transformative approaches to major contemporary challenges in biomedical or behavioral science." To fit the bill, your research must have the potential to either:

  • Create or overturn fundamental scientific paradigms through new and novel approaches.
  • Lead to major improvements in health through developing highly innovative therapies, diagnostic tools, or preventive strategies.

NIH asks that you submit a letter of intent by September 27, 2010. Applications are due a month later. For the full scoop, read the August 4, 2010, Guide notice, and go to NIH's Transformative R01 Program Web site.

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Money Available for Great Mentors

You can nominate a colleague, your own mentor, or even yourself. Application deadline is October 6, 2010.

Some outstanding mentors will get $25,000 for a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program offers 16 awards for leaders who boost participation of scientists and scientists-to-be who are members of groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

You can nominate a colleague, your own mentor, or even yourself. Application deadline is October 6, 2010. For details and eligibility, read the August 9, 2010, Guide notice and go to Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Other News

In FY 2009, Multiple PI Applications Fared Better Than Before

In FY 2009, success rates for single and multiple PI applications were closer, altering the historical trend.

Though initial outcomes for multiple PI applications have been inauspicious, new data show an upturn in success.

NIH began allowing more than one PI on a grant application in 2006 to encourage team science. Since then, we have been looking at the success of multiple PI applications compared to the traditional single PI model.

One Year, Big Difference

Initially, multiple-PI applications fared much worse in peer review than did those with only one PI. Even as late as FY 2008, only a bit more than half as many multiple PI applications got a grant compared with single PI applications. That gap narrowed to roughly three-quarters in FY 2009, as you can see in the table below.

Success Rates* for NIAID Investigator-Initiated R01s

Application Type
FY 2008 (in percent)
FY 2009 (in percent)
Multiple PI 12.6 16.2
Single PI 21.6 21.2

*Exclude American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) awards.

We don't know the reason for the improvement, but we do know where in reviewers' eyes multiple PI applications often fall short.

Learn more about the caveats to the multiple PI approach, especially for new investigators in the pages listed below.

Related Links

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News Flash graphicNews Flash: NIH Stops Stem Cell Funding

Following an injunction on federal support of research involving human embryonic stem cells, NIH will not allow funding of new human embryonic stem cell research and has stopped action on applications in review. Active awards will receive funding through the end of their budget period only.

For more information, go to NIH's Stem Cell Information portal.

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News Briefs

NIAID Has a New Program Project (P01) FOA. For the first time, NIAID has issued a funding opportunity announcement for investigator-initiated program project grants (P01). Now you'll need to read and cite PAR-10-271, NIAID Program Project Applications, when applying. You can use our Guidance for Preparing a Multiproject Research Application for additional help.

Find a Site for Monkey Business. Working with nonhuman primates? Take a look at the new Nonhuman Primate Enrichment and Social Housing Resources from NIH's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare for guidance, reports, online seminars, and other information on nonhuman primate care.

Advice Corner

After You Cross That (R56) Bridge, What Next?

After a Bridge award, apply with a resubmission or a new R01 application—not a renewal.

Coming to the end of an R56-Bridge award? To clear up some confusion we're seeing lately, here's a do and a don't for your next move.

  • Do submit either a resubmission or a new R01 application. Either way, use data you obtained during the Bridge award to improve on your initial try.
    • Resubmission. Revise and resubmit your R01 application as soon as you can address all the issues in your summary statement. Follow this route if you're on the right track and can still resubmit.
    • New application. Submit a new R01 with new Specific Aims and Research Strategy. When you have no more opportunities to resubmit or find yourself crossing a bridge to nowhere, use your new data to switch gears.
  • Do not submit a renewal. Whether your application was new or a renewal, submit a resubmission.

Bridge awards are for R01s that missed the payline. You cannot apply, and whether we select you depends on available monies and the strategic and programmatic priorities of the Institute. For more information, talk to your program officer.

Related Links

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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.

"What is required by NIH for IRB certification in the just-in-time request?"—an anonymous reader

NIH requires certification of institutional review board (IRB) approval of the parts of the application involving human subjects in the just-in-time request. You may include the certification of IRB approval in your application if it's ready.

"During a no-cost extension of a K23, what is the requirement for the PI's effort?"—an anonymous reader

Since PIs have done their part leading up to the no-cost extension and won't receive additional salary from us, they do not need to meet the minimum effort requirement for a Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (K23).

(The minimum effort requirement is 9 person months at 75 percent or 6 person months at 50 percent, if previously approved, of professional time.)

"Can I add my postdocs to the NIAID Funding Newsletter listserv?"—Peter Williamson, NIH

We could do that for you, but your postdocs may want to add and control their own subscriptions at the NIAID Funding Newsletter and Email Alerts Subscription Center.

Funding Opportunity Links

See these and older announcements at NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

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Last Updated October 03, 2011

Last Reviewed March 14, 2011