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February 2, 2011

Articles

Reader Questions

New Funding Opportunities

Header: Recent NIAID Funding Blog Posts.

FFATA Questions? Here’s What to Do

What should you do when you question information in the FFATA Information Center? That site is the government-wide database that collects information about awardees under the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. 

Contact TransparencyActReporting@mail.nih.gov if you notice errors, improper reporting, or other problems with data.

Also use that email for questions you have about policy, process, or submitting your own information.

For more on NIH’s role in FFATA reporting, go to NIH’s Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act Web site.

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Randomization Not Required for Investigator-Initiated Clinical Trials

If you’d like to submit an application for an investigator-initiated clinical trial, note a recent change: your trial no longer needs a randomized design.

You still need to design a hypothesis-driven study with clear primary and secondary endpoints, so we expect you to use randomization if it’s appropriate.

We changed our rules to broaden the scope of the trials eligible for support as milestone-driven implementation grants (R01) or implementation cooperative agreements (U01).

Keep in mind that you need NIAID preapproval to submit any investigator-initiated clinical trial — go to our Investigator-Initiated Clinical Trial Resources portal for more information, including links to program announcements.

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Survey Reveals Strengths, Flaws of Enhanced Peer Review

Take a look at the results of NIH’s first survey of enhancing peer review changes — an early snapshot of opinions from applicants, reviewers, scientific review officers, program staff, and Council members.

Notable findings:

  • NIH staff were “more likely to strongly disagree than strongly agree that the enhanced review criteria result in greater clarity regarding strengths and weaknesses of the application.” Applicants and reviewers were not asked about this in their surveys.
  • While program officers generally thought criterion scores helped them advise applicants after review, applicants’ responses reflected “no clear agreement about whether criterion scores were helpful for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the application or the problem areas that could be corrected.”
  • Bulleted critiques have improved reviewer efficiency but “few stakeholders rated the bulleted critique format as helpful for communicating information about the pertinent factors that affected the outcome of the review.”
  • Reviewers, applicants, and NIH staff thought the bulleted format did not help communicate to applicants why their applications were not discussed.
  • Reviewers by and large preferred the new system overall, rated both old and new peer review systems as “fair” or “very fair,” and expressed high levels of satisfaction with each system — though reviewers rated the old system more favorably on fairness and satisfaction.
  • Applicants “expressed no significant preference for the new system over the old.”

NIH conducted the survey to assess changes introduced for the May 2009 review cycle only (it did not include, for example, the new application page limits):

  • Nine-point scoring system.
  • Enhanced review criteria (overall impact score, significance, investigator, innovation, approach, environment).
  • Criterion scores.
  • Bulleted critiques.
  • Clustering of new PI applications and clinical trials.

Read the full Enhancing Peer Review Survey Results Report. Use our blog to comment on the report and tell us about your experience with enhanced peer review.

Header: Feature Articles.

Create an Appealing, Blemish-Free Application

This is the fourteenth article in our New Investigator Series.

In earlier articles, we wrote about what it takes to get independent support and how to plan and write your application. Here we focus on how to create an appealing application and what mistakes to avoid.

Summary

  • Make your application attractive and easy to read.
  • Read and follow instructions to the letter.
  • Be aware of potential problems so you can sidestep them.

You may not think it right away, but your grant application has quite a bit in common with a job interview. You want to make a good first impression, put your best foot forward, and come across as intelligent, competent, and confident. And, of course, you want to avoid doing anything that might lead to rejection.

To enhance your application's chances of success, knowing the qualities it needs to pass muster is essential. That includes everything from looking good to having substance so it appeals to its most important audience: your peer reviewers.

Even with these tactics under your belt, you won't get far if you aren't aware of potential pitfalls and how to steer clear of them. With competition so stiff, giving your application a leg up wherever possible could make the difference between getting funded and being passed over.

The Basics: Follow Instructions

One of the most important pieces of advice we can give you when writing your grant is this: read and follow instructions to a tee.

You'll find them for R01s in the SF 424 Application Guide.

For program announcements (PA) or requests for applications (RFA), check the SF 424 Application Guide and the NIH Guide notice, which has additional information for each funding opportunity announcement (FOA). Should the two differ, go with the NIH Guide instructions.

If you're applying in response to an RFA or PA, also make sure your application meets the initiative's objectives and special requirements. NIAID program staff will check that your application does that; if they feel it is not responsive to the announcement, your application will be not be reviewed.

Show Good Form-atting

NIH strictly enforces formatting requirements and may return applications that don't meet them. So be sure to follow guidelines, including those for font and page limits.

Font. When it comes to font, size matters. Resist the temptation to go small to fit more content. Also, be careful what font style you choose since NIH accepts only a handful.

Page limits. Though you can probably talk on and on about your research, you don't have that luxury when writing about it in a grant. You have limited space for various parts of your application, so get to know your page limits, which you can find in the SF 424 Application Guide for your Grant Application Package.

For an R01, the Research Strategy can be up to 12 pages, plus one page for Specific Aims. Don't pad other sections with information that belongs in the Research Plan. NIH is on the lookout for this and may return your application to you.

The biosketches and information about human subjects, animals, literature cited, consortium arrangements, and consultants do not count in these page limits, though some have their own restrictions.

For more advice on formatting your application, read the instructions in the FOA, and contact the GrantsInfo@nih.gov, one of NIH's Help Desks. If that's not enough to get you on your way, reach out to the person listed as the peer review contact in the FOA.

Make a Positive First Impression

As on that job interview, you have just a few seconds to make a great first impression. Initially, peer reviewers' first glance will likely determine whether to anticipate or dread reading your application. All the more reason it should be neat, well organized, and easy-to-read.

Does It Look Good?

Keep in mind that your reviewers have a multitude of applications to evaluate, so they'll appreciate one that's visually appealing and super user friendly. Here's how to do that:

  • Divide into sections. Use headers to create structure and white space. Also, try breaking up text since blocks of uninterrupted text are depressing to look at. See for yourself at Example of Text Without Formatting in the Strategy for NIH Funding.
  • Guide with graphics. Graphics, timelines, and other visual elements help reviewers grasp a lot of information. Be aware, though, that some application parts, i.e., Project Summary/Abstract and Project Narrative, should be text only.
  • Label all materials clearly. Make it easy for reviewers to find information.
  • Edit and proofread. Your presentation—writing and appearance—can make or break your application, so eliminate typos and internal inconsistencies. And, since two or more sets of eyes are better than one, ask other people—including nonscientists—to read your application.

Does It Read Well?

While appearance will get reviewers' attention, readability will keep it. Your writing should be streamlined and organized, so information can be gleaned easily. If writing is not your forte, get help.

Checkpoint. Once the initial draft is finished, check that:

  • I have a topic sentence for each main point.
  • Each paragraph has only one point, which I state clearly as a topic sentence.
  • I keep it short and simple, use short paragraphs, and start with basic ideas, progressing to more complex ones.
  • I state key points as nontechnically as possible.
  • I use short sentences with a basic structure: subject, verb, and object.
    • I break up long, involved sentences, avoid introductory phrases longer than six words, and keep sentences to 20 or so words or less.
  • I include transitions.
    • At the beginning of a new paragraph or concept, I have a transition to my next point by relating it to my previous one.
    • I use statements such as "furthermore," "additionally," "in another area," "in contrast," and "following the same path," to show relationships between ideas.
  • Related ideas and information are together, e.g., I put clauses and phrases as close as possible to—preferably right after—the words they modify.
  • I use strong, active verbs. For example, "We will develop a cell line," rather than "A cell line will be developed."
  • I turn dull abstract nouns ending in "ion" and "ment" into gerunds. Use "creating the assay leads to..." rather than "the creation of the assay leads to..."

Head Off Problems

Having good presentation and readability is important, but it'll get you only so far. As extra insurance, cover your bases by anticipating potential hiccups that could stymie your application's path to funding. Here are some general hurdles you may have to clear.

Reviewers May Not "Get It"

Peer reviewers are knowledgeable, experienced scientists, but they don't know everything. Make your application as clear as possible so they understand what you're getting at.

Problem: They may not get the significance of your proposed research.
Solution: Write a compelling argument.

Problem: They may not be familiar with all your methods.
Solution: Write to the nonexpert in the field.

Problem: They may not be familiar with your lab.
Solution: Show them you can do the job.

Problem: They may get worn out from reading many applications.
Solution: Write clearly and concisely, and make sure your application is neat, well organized, and visually appealing. Leave out anything that is not absolutely critical.

Avoid Common Missteps

Who better than peer reviewers to point out mistakes applicants make? Among the most common reasons for application failure:

  • Study not likely to produce useful information.
  • Studies based on a shaky hypothesis or data.
  • Alternative hypotheses not considered.
  • Methods unsuited to the objective.
  • Not significant to health-related research.
  • Too little detail in the Research Plan to convince reviewers the investigator knows what he or she is doing, i.e., no recognition of potential problems and pitfalls.
  • Over-ambitious Research Plan with an unrealistically large amount of work.
  • Direction or sense of priority not clearly defined, i.e., experiments do not follow one another and lack a clear starting or finishing point.
  • Lack of focus in hypotheses, Specific Aims, or Research Plan.
  • Lack of original or new ideas.
  • Investigator too inexperienced with the proposed techniques.
  • Rationale for experiments not provided, i.e., why they are important or how they are relevant to the hypothesis.

Find Head Off Problems in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Related Links

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NIH Tosses the Error Correction Window Out the, Er, Window

Hasta la vista—that's what NIH said to the two-day error correction window on January 25, 2011. eRA Commons now rejects all applications that have errors or warnings that stop your application from becoming final.

With no correction window, you need to keep even closer watch for the following:

  • Errors: inaccuracies, inconsistencies, omissions, and some formatting problems.
  • Warnings: potential issues that might keep your application from moving forward. Even if a warning isn't serious enough to derail your application, it can reflect a major problem that you should correct.

It's more important than ever to apply with enough lead time—at least two days before the deadline is the minimum. You may want to submit even earlier since you may need several days to make corrections and get the corrected version through before the deadline.

NIH does not accept applications that are late because you needed to correct errors or address warnings. So if you miss the deadline, you'll have to apply for the next submission date, assuming there is one (most requests for applications, for example, have a single receipt date).

Related Links

Header: Reader Questions.

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

“Under NIAID's institutional training grants (T32), how much is allowed for travel above a postdoctoral trainee's salary?”—Idia Thurston, Ph.D., Children's Hospital Boston

We usually allow $1,000, but you should request what you need and have a strong justification. For more information on what training funds pay for, visit Institutional Research Training Grants in the Advice on Research Training and Career Awards.

"What happens if a PI leaves a small business after receiving an SBIR award?"—an anonymous reader

If a PI leaves, NIAID would approve a new PI through a standard process. For information, go to our Change of Principal Investigator SOP.

As with all NIH grants, SBIR awards are made to the PI’s institution. If a PI wants to switch organizations but remain PI on the grant, the original and new institutions must agree to the transfer and have prior approval from NIAID.

Keep in mind that the new institution would have to qualify as a small business to receive funds under the award. For more on requesting approval, see the Prior Approvals for Post-Award Grant Actions SOP.

Header: New Funding Opportunities.

See these and older announcements at NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

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Last Updated August 24, 2011

Last Reviewed February 02, 2011