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January 19, 2011


Reader Questions

New Funding Opportunities

Header: Recent NIAID Funding Blog Posts.

Latest News on Fellowship, Training, and Career Development Grants

NIH issued several recent Guide notices that affect fellowships, training grants, and career development awards. In case you missed them, here’s a recap.

New Page Limits for Ks

Starting with the February 12, 2011, due date, investigators should follow the new page limits outlined in the December 7, 2010, Guide notice.

Heads up for those applying for the January 7, 2011, AIDS due date: when you submit your application, you will get a warning related to the new page limits. Disregard it. You don’t have to take any action.

Keep in mind, however, that you still have to address warnings about other issues.

On the Table: Revised Tables for Ts

NIH has revised the SF 424 Data Tables for training grants, which must be used starting May 25, 2011. See the December 2, 2010, Guide notice.

How does this affect our T32 and T35 applicants?

Use the revised Tables for NIAID’s annual submission dates: September 25 for non-AIDS and January 7 for AIDS-related applications.

Reminder: Full Steam Ahead for xTrain

We’ve written about this before, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Use the eRA Commons’ xTrain module to submit NRSA forms, like fellowship terminations and training appointments.

Read more at Submitting Your Fellowship Forms, Contacting NIAID and Submitting Your Training Grant Forms, Contacting NIAID in our Advice on Research Training and Career Awards.

For the official word, see the December 8, 2010, Guide notice.

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Use Our Food Allergy Guidelines to Find Your Next Research Topic

If you’re pondering your next food allergy research project, get inspiration from NIAID’s clinical guidelines for food allergy research.

Though designed for healthcare providers, the report identifies gaps in food allergy research, provides new research data, and establishes consistent terminology and definitions. It also contains a thorough review of scientific literature.

That information could help you because reviewers tend to be enthusiastic about research that opens up a new area of discovery or develops a new approach to a major problem. You can expect them to have brushed up on the most recent literature, so make sure you understand the current state of various research problems.

The guidelines also highlight NIAID’s priorities, and they’ll be the basis for our future food allergy initiatives. When you submit an investigator-initiated application, applying with a project that meets our priorities can give your application a leg up on the competition.

Go to Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy in the United States to read the recommendations, see NIAID’s literature review, and view public presentations.

For our advice on picking topics and planning your application, read the articles in our New Investigator Series, especially How to Pick a Project and Application Approach: What Are Your Choices?

Get general background on how we plan funding opportunities at Planning Research Opportunities.

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News Flash: NIAID Town Hall Meeting on March 7—Save the Date!

To continue the discussion of the future of the HIV/AIDS and Infectious Diseases Clinical Trials Networks, NIAID will host a second public Town Hall meeting on Monday, March 7, 2011, in Bethesda, Maryland.

The meeting provides a forum to discuss the proposed development of a network for non-HIV/AIDS infectious diseases with the larger infectious disease community.

It will be held at the Bethesda Marriott, 5151 Pooks Hill Road, Bethesda, MD. We will post registration and other important information soon.

The first Town Hall meeting, held on October 26, 2010, examined restructuring the HIV/AIDS clinical trial networks. You can read more at Town Hall Meeting to Examine the Restructuring of the NIAID Clinical Trials Networks.

Header: Feature Articles.

Writing the Research Strategy

In this series, we have delved into what it takes to get independent support, how to pick a project, and steps to start planning your application. In this article, we explore how to write the core of the Research Plan, the Research Strategy.


  • Get reviewers on board by anticipating their concerns and emphasizing your key points, including significance and innovation, throughout your Research Strategy.
  • Choose a solid organization and stick with it.
  • In your Approach section, design a few sets of experiments to address each Specific Aim.
  • Add the appropriate amount of detail depending on your experience level and publication record.
  • Know how to include preliminary data and citations.

Before you start writing, be sure you have completed the planning steps described in the Related Articles listed below.

At this point you should have defined your hypothesis, prepared your Specific Aims, and determined which experiments you will do to support those aims. To learn more about those steps, read "Laying the Groundwork for Your Research Plan" in our October 27 issue and "Start Writing Your Application" from January 5.

Our advice is geared mainly to the R01, NIH's standard research grant.

Check Out Our Samples

As you read this text, look at our new Sample R01 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 write a great Research Plan, so explore your options.

Our PIs keep reviewers' eyes on the ball by bringing them back to the main points they want to make.

What Success Looks Like

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.

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?

Use these questions as a litmus test for deciding what to include. Most everything you write should elucidate—and quell potential concerns—on these topics.

Spread the news. 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 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.

Know your audience's perspective. Though there's no guarantee exactly who will review your application, it's a good idea to see who may be on the review committee, so you can learn their possible perspectives on your area of science.

Read their publications that are important to your field so you can write with those perspectives in mind (we discussed this topic in "Your Application Takes Center Stage"—see Related Links below).

A. B. C. or 1.2.3?

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.

As we did in our previous article, we give you advice to use as you work. Each section starts with general background that you use to create an initial draft. Then use our checklists under the Checkpoint headers to critique your draft and improve it.

Check each point, analyze your text, revise—and repeat until perfect!

Research Strategy: Significance

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, gaps, 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. (Read more about choosing a highly significant topic in "May the Force Be With Your Application".")

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.
  • He uses 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.

Research Strategy: Innovation

Innovation can be tricky. Be sure to read the advice in our earlier articles: "Your Project's Scope: Plot Your Boundaries" and "May the Force Be With Your Application"." Though they discuss application planning, the same concepts can help guide your writing too.

The main point for a new PI: 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.
  2. As 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.

Research Strategy: 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 before on your project's significance, its place in your field, and your long-term goals.

You're probably wondering how much detail to include. Look at our sample applications as a guide. You can see very different approaches though in general people used less detail than you'd see in a publication.

Spot the Sample

Look at the applications from Adam Ratner cited above and the one from Carolina Wahlby "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!

As 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 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 Specific Aim results in a set of experiments.
  3. My experiments can yield meaningful data that test my hypothesis (or hypotheses).
  4. 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.
  5. If we have 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 give alternatives in case I hit obstacles or get negative results; these pathways also support my aims.
  8. I omit all information not needed to state my case.
  9. I keep track of and explain who will do what, what they will do, and when they will do it and how long it will take.
  10. My timeline also shows when I expect to complete my aims.

Preliminary Studies

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

Give alternative interpretations to your data to show reviewers you've thought through problems in-depth and are prepared to meet future challenges.

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, just make sure your reviewers will be able to distinguish it. Alternatively, you can create a separate section with its own header.

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

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 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.

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. Stay tuned: we'll give you more pointers in our next article.

Related Links

Related articles:

  • "How to Pick a Project"
  • "Are You Ready to Conduct Your Research."
  • "Your Application Takes Center Stage"
  • "Your Project's Scope: Plot Your Boundaries"
  • "May the Force Be With Your Application"
  • "Laying the Groundwork for Your Research Plan"
  • "Start Writing Your Application"

See the full list of articles in the new investigator series on the Early-Stage and New Investigators portal.

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Plan Now for NIH Regional Grants Seminars

Interact with NIH staff and learn about a host of topics, including the ins and outs of writing an application and the peer review process.

Before your calendar fills up for the new year, you might want to leave space for one of NIH's two annual Regional Seminars on Program Funding and Grants Administration.

These are your chances to interact with NIH staff and learn about a host of topics, including the ins and outs of writing an application and the peer review process.

The 2011 seminars will take place as follows:

  • April 28 to 29 in Scottsdale, AZ
  • June 23 to 24 in Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Optional eRA computer workshops will be held in both locations the day before. This year's sessions will offer additional IC representation with one-on-one meeting opportunities, sessions on NIH niche programs and initiatives, and more.

Be sure to reserve your spot before space fills up. Sign up at the Attendee Registration Page.

For more information, go to NIH Regional Seminars on NIH Regional Seminars on Program Funding and Grants Administration.

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New Leadership for DAIDS' Vaccine Research Program

Our Division of AIDS ushered in 2011 with a new acting director and deputy director for its Vaccine Research Program (VRP).

Familiar Face Takes the Helm

Alan Fix, M.D., is the interim head, taking over from the retired Dr. Peggy Johnston. His effective management skills and in-depth knowledge of clinical trial design and implementation will serve both VRP and the Division well.

No stranger to DAIDS, Dr. Fix joined the Division in 2002 and became a branch chief in 2006. In that position, which he still holds, he has overseen the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and coordinated and harmonized protocols across the HVTN, U.S. Military HIV Research Program, and International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

Deputy Returns to NIAID

New Deputy Director Kevin Ryan, Ph.D., will play a key role in providing scientific leadership and direction for planning, managing, and evaluating VRP's national and international programs.

Dr. Ryan spent five years as program officer and deputy chief of NICHD's Pediatric, Adolescent, and Maternal AIDS Branch, Center for Research for Mothers and Children. Before his tenure at NICHD, he was a program officer and chief of DAIDS' Prevention Sciences Branch. He brings extensive knowledge of extramural research program management as well as scientific expertise in molecular virology and clinical trials for AIDS prevention.

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Get Engaged With Feedback NIH

If you want to join the conversation about NIH's long-term planning and development as a federal agency, go to Feedback NIH, an interactive community resource NIH created to engage you and your colleagues directly.

You can ask questions, make comments, or get the scoop on some of NIH's biggest topics.

Current features include proposals to establish a national center for translational sciences and a new institute devoted to research on addiction and substance use and abuse.

Header: 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.

"Can a subaward on an NIH grant receive more funding than the grantee?"—Joan Eaton, University of Colorado at Boulder

Yes, though the grantee has to play a substantive role in developing the research and not simply channel funds to the subawardee.

"When I attempt to follow the links in the NIAID Funding Newsletter, why do I get a message 'this URL is not syntactically valid'?"—several readers

The links you see go through our email service provider, which is why they have an unusual structure. Unfortunately, we can't change that, and most people have a browser and email reader that work with this approach.

If the links do not work for you, first try contacting your local tech support people for help. If they cannot resolve the problem, try copying the spelled-out link at the top of the email to find the newsletter online, or use the emails as a tickler to read the newsletter at NIAID Funding Newsletter.

Header: New Funding Opportunities.

See these and older announcements at NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

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Last Updated July 08, 2011

Last Reviewed January 19, 2011