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September 15, 2010

Feature Articles

Opportunities and Resources

Other News

Advice Corner

New Funding Opportunities

Feature Articles

Your Project's Scope: Plot Your Boundaries

This is the eighth article in our New Investigator Series.

In previous articles, we looked at getting ready for an independent grant, timing considerations, and writing to your audience. Here, we talk about scope and what to think about when deciding the breadth of your project.


  • Make sure you're not being overly ambitious or setting unrealistic expectations.
  • Don't put your life's work into one application: limit Specific Aims so you can accomplish them within the planned time frame.
  • With innovation, significant incremental progress trumps giant leaps forward.
  • Make your budget and level of effort appropriate to the work you propose.
  • Plan to stay funded: plan overlapping grants based on the level of effort you have to devote to research.

Avoid one of the biggest mistakes new investigators make: being overly ambitious.

Defining the scope, or scientific parameters, of your research project is crucial. It will affect not only how many Specific Aims you'll have but also the amount of money you request and time you devote to your research.

The key is to avoid one of the biggest mistakes new investigators make: being overly ambitious. Though showing enthusiasm is one thing, biting off more than you can chew is another. Peer reviewers will recognize you've proposed too much and doubt your ability to do the work. As a result, your application's score will suffer.

Bottom line: you'll likely do more harm than good by setting unrealistic expectations.

Focus Your Scope, Make It Doable

To sidestep the common trap of proposing too much, you don't want to:

  • Propose too many Specific Aims.
  • Require resources you don't have access to.
  • Undertake complex work that's beyond your skill level.

Though we touched on this in our July 7 installment, "How to Pick a Project," it bears repeating.

You're better off playing it safe by having a Research Plan with a few, highly focused Specific Aims that are doable with the resources and time you ask for. We recommend that you plan no more than three or four Specific Aims for one application.

By breaking up your long-term research goals into application segments, you can fit the research of this application into your bigger plans—read more in "Scope Too Broad? Spread Out Your Ideas" below.

That way you can ensure each application has a modest scope, which helps you show reviewers that you can handle the work and that your project's goals are achievable. In return, reviewers will be more inclined to give you a fundable score.

Note that the more complex your project, the more documentation you'll have to provide. If you plan to use research animals, human subjects, select agents, or the like, be prepared to meet additional requirements.

Be Innovative, But Be Wary

As you ponder your Specific Aims, think about how innovative you want your project to be. Since innovation is a review criterion, you want to think outside of the box—but not too far.

  • Think of innovation as what your project will contribute to your field if it succeeds.
  • As a new investigator, your goal should be significant incremental progress, not a "giant leap forward."

Often reviewers are skeptical of giant leaps, so going that route is risky. If reviewers feel that they couldn't accomplish what you propose, they will assume you can't either.

Scope Too Broad? Spread Out Your Ideas

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.

  • Rather than writing a single overreaching application whose Specific Aims are unlikely to be achieved in a single grant, propose only what you are absolutely sure you can accomplish in the time you request.
  • Take into account that research usually takes longer than people plan for, so build in extra time by proposing to accomplish less.
  • Then, submit additional applications in your second and third years to extend your long-term ideas that you can pursue with additional funding.
  • Tie the research you are proposing in each application to your long-term plans and briefly indicate where your research is headed next.

Your goal is to be funded eventually with multiple grants that overlap in time with significantly different renewal dates but are distinct projects that do not overlap scientifically—see "Put Forth Your Best Effort" below for more information.

To reiterate, you want to limit your scope so you can accomplish your aims with the resources you have within the time given you. That way, you don't risk being penalized for trying to cover too much ground.

Keep Your Budget In Check

Once you've settled on your project's scope, you'll have to think about the amount of money to request. Be careful: significant over- or under-estimating shows you don't understand the scope of the work, which will count against you in peer review.

As with your Specific Aims, you should limit your budget. For new investigators, this means trying to stay within the $250,000 limit of a modular budget in direct costs. In FY 2009, about 75 percent of new investigators had, on average, an award of $225,000 to $250,000.

That said, guard against coming up short: ask for enough money to perform your research. Clinical applications or those involving non-human primates might require more money (though you should still aim to keep costs as modest as you can).

Here are two suggested approaches for the budget:

  • Create a budget after you write your Approach and Specific Aims so you know how much money these will require.
  • Start with a target budget figure, e.g., $250,000 a year, then give yourself some leeway by designing a project that costs less than $200,000 annually.

Put Forth Your Best "Effort"

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 and oversee it.

We suggest that, as a new investigator, you put at least a 25 percent level of effort on each application you submit.

To calculate the percent level of effort you have for research, do the following:

  • Subtract the amount of time your institution expects you to spend teaching and performing other duties—as well as other research commitments you have—from 100 percent.
  • Halve the remainder to get the percent level of effort you have left to work on two grants simultaneously.
  • If you have a very light teaching load and have, for example, a 75 percent level of effort to conduct research, divide by three and plan for three grants.

Just as your budget should be appropriate to the work you propose, so should the percentage of your time you devote to your project.

Related Links

Opportunities and Resources

Commercialization Help for SBIR Phase II Grantees 

Participants benefit from a customized program of mentoring, workshops with industry experts and investors, an opportunity to present to investors and partners, and more.

Need help developing your business and moving your product to market? Try CAP, NIH's Commercialization Assistance Program.

CAP gives you access to people who are expert in the maturation of life science businesses. Participants benefit from a customized program of mentoring, workshops with industry experts and investors, an opportunity to present to investors and partners, and more.

To participate, you must apply by September 17, 2010. You are eligible if your SBIR phase II award is active or was active in the past six years. If you are selected, you will start the program in October and end in June 2011.

NIH will select 80 companies for two tracks: the commercialization training track and the accelerated commercialization track. Each has different objectives and outcomes.

Read about the details and application instructions at Commercialization Assistance Program (CAP) for Phase II SBIR Awardees.

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Ready to Make Headlines? We Can Spread the News

If you've hit upon an exciting discovery and want to get the word out, our Office of Communications and Government Relations can help.

When getting ready to publish, remember TELL:    

  • Talk to your NIAID program officer to discuss how NIAID might help publicize your research with a news release, Web feature, or article in an NIH publication.
  • Email the news to your press office so it can coordinate with NIAID.
  • Let your collaborators know if NIAID or your press office decides to highlight your work.
  • List your grant or contract number in the publication to acknowledge NIAID support. 

For more details, read our Requesting NIAID's Help on Publicizing Research Advances SOP.

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Global Health Funding From the Gates Foundation

Consider applying for Grand Challenges funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Applications for round six are due November 2, 2010, on the following topics:

  • The Poliovirus Endgame: Create Ways to Accelerate, Sustain, and Monitor Eradication
  • Create the Next Generation of Sanitation Technologies
  • Design New Approaches to Cure HIV Infection
  • Create New Technologies to Improve the Health of Mothers and Newborns
  • Create Low-Cost Cell Phone-Based Applications for Priority Global Health Diseases

Grand Challenges encourage innovative global health solutions. Applicants can be at any experience level, in any discipline, and from any type of organization. Projects will initially get $100,000 each, with up to $1 million of additional funding later for projects that show promise.

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Our Site Has a New Home

Throw out your old bookmarks: all the pages in the Research Funding site have a new address.

For example, follow this link to our newsletter's new home: NIAID Funding Newsletter.

While we are making the transition, you may notice that some of the links send you to a forwarding page and, after a couple of seconds, redirect you to a new address. This situation will resolve in the next couple of weeks after the migration is complete.

We're also having a problem with odd additional characters that appear in the text. Our technical team is working on a solution, so we apologize for any readability issues.

If you spot any pages that do not work or other malfunctions, please contact Jen Sacchetti.

Other News

Stem Cell Funding Takes a New Turn

NIH can now consider awarding applications that were frozen by the preliminary injunction on August 23.

As you may have heard in the news, the D.C. Appeals Court issued a temporary stop to a previous decision that banned federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

That hold, effective until at least September 20, 2010, allows the federal government to temporarily continue funding stem cell research while the court debates the issue. We can now consider awarding applications that were frozen by the preliminary injunction on August 23.

During this time, we are in a transition period and expect NIH to issue guidance shortly. Go to NIH's Stem Cell Information portal for more information.

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Lying on an Application Is Serious

Even though misrepresenting a degree or honor does not qualify as research misconduct, it's a grave matter that can plunge you deep into hot water.

You may have seen one or more recent cases in the press about NIH principal investigators who falsely claimed degrees or other credentials, for example, being a Rhodes scholar.

People who intentionally put this type of false information in an application or award can be charged with a crime—not to mention lose their job.

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News Briefs

Always Cite a Funding Opportunity Announcement. Starting on September 25, 2010, you must cite an NIH funding opportunity announcement (FOA) in your application. For a list of FOAs, see NIAID Funding Opportunities List. NIH announced the change in a September 3, 2010, NIH Guide notice.

Application Delays Due to Hurricane Earl and Other Natural Disasters. If you must submit your application late due to weather problems, just say so in your cover letter—no need to ask anyone permission. The delay should not exceed the amount of time your institution was closed. NIH follows this policy in the wake of natural disasters. See NIH Extramural Response to Natural Disasters and Other Emergencies and the September 2, 2010, NIH Guide notice.

Get Help Repaying Educational Debt. You can apply for one of NIH's Loan Repayment Programs through November 15. These programs can help M.D.s and some other doctoral-level professionals pursue research careers by erasing part of their educational debt. Applications are due on November 15.

Next ARRA Quarterly Reporting Period Begins. Starting October 1, your institution can begin submitting data for your next ARRA quarterly report at Primes and subrecipients must file a report for every quarter, including the first quarter of an ARRA award, no matter how short the time frame or whether funds were used.

Advice Corner

About to Submit? Check One, Check Two . . .

What do pilots, musicians, wedding planners, and auto mechanics have in common? They all run through checklists.

So it probably can't hurt for you and your institution to take a moment to go through NIH's ten-item checklist of common submission errors before sending your application. See the list at Avoiding Common Errors.

For more on applying, including troubleshooting tips and resources to decipher eRA Commons errors and warnings, go to Strategy for a Successful Submission in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

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How Much Technical Language Should an Application Have?

Plain language enables all readers—scientist and nonscientist alike—to quickly comprehend your message.


  • Write your entire application in plain language, using more technical language for your assigned reviewers.
  • Use lay language for the parts the public may read.

As we explained in our last new investigator feature, "Your Application Takes Center Stage," your application has two main audiences 1) its assigned reviewers whose expertise is closer to your field and 2) the others, whose scientific focus lies elsewhere.

Because parts of a funded application are made public, a third nonscientific audience is important to NIH and to science in general rather than the funding of your application.

Plain Language for All

Your entire application can benefit by following the principles of plain language.

Why? Reviewers are busy and don't have a lot of time to spend with your application. Making your ideas as easy to grasp as possible lightens their burden.

Using active voice, avoiding noun strings, and writing simple declarative sentences are solid approaches that enable all readers—scientist and nonscientist alike—to quickly get your message.

Plain language is not simple or dumbed-down. Rather, it's about writing to a level appropriate for the audience, using vocabulary, sentence structure, and formatting that makes it easy for people to grasp the information.

As NIH states on its Web site, plain language is characterized by:

  • Common, everyday words, except for necessary technical terms
  • Personal pronouns (we, you)
  • Active voice
  • Logical organization
  • An easy-to-read format that includes

You can and should write in plain language, using technical terms where appropriate, for example, in the application's Approach section.

Lay Language for the Non-Scientist

For the parts of your application that will be read by nonscientists, e.g., Congress and the general public, use lay terms so they can understand the purpose and significance of your research.

Use lay language in your title, abstract, and statement of public health relevance.

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.

"Will I get reviewer comments back on the SBIR application I submitted in August in time for a December resubmission?"—an anonymous reader

Possibly. You cannot submit a revised application until after the summary statement is in the Commons. You can find your application's peer review date in the Commons. Your summary statement should appear there within 30 days after the peer review.

"If I send a 12-page Research Strategy plus three pages of bibliography, how does this affect the automatic page limit check?"—John Keane, John A. Keane and Associates, Inc.

Though your Research Strategy makes frequent reference to the bibliography, they aren't attached together, so validations are not affected.

Attach your Bibliography and References Cited as Item 9 of the Research and Related Other Project Information component.

"If I take a second no-cost extension, do I need to submit an annual progress report for my first one?"—Irene Sweeney, Population Council

No. When your second no-cost extension ends, your institution has to send the final progress report within 90 days.

"Do you have a print version of the NIH Grant Cycle: Application to Renewal?"—Pinta H. Freel, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Department of Behavioral Science

We don't have a paper version of Strategy for NIH Funding, but our pages are formatted so you can print just the content and graphics—without the links on the side and top of the page.

We constantly review and update our information and advice, so if you do print out our pages, check back regularly and follow Latest Updates.

Funding Opportunity Links

See these and older announcements at NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

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Last Updated October 06, 2011

Last Reviewed September 16, 2010