Know Your Audience
The primary audience for your application is your peer review group. Learn how to write for the reviewers who are experts in your field and those who are experts in other fields.
For investigator-initiated R01, R21, and R03 applications, we emphasize the importance of investigating committees and members before you write the application, or even before you pick a project, and how well a review roster correlates with the actual membership of the committee that will review your application.
Your Reviewers Are Your Audience
Your scientific review group is the primary audience for your application.
NIH scientific review groups—also called study sections in the Center for Scientific Review (CSR)—are made up of mostly academic scientists who meet for roughly two days, three times a year.
The primary reviewer presents your application's topic, strengths, and weaknesses to the group, and other assigned reviewers may comment.
Study sections usually have about 20 peer reviewers, but all do not play equally critical roles. Three act on your behalf: your primary and secondary reviewers plus at least one additional reader.
They are chosen by the group's scientific review officer (SRO)—a federal scientist—because their expertise is closest to your field. You should not expect the other members of the study section to be experts in your field or familiar with your science.
Your assigned reviewers read your application thoroughly, write a critique before the meeting, and assign preliminary scores for each review criterion as well as an initial overall impact/priority score.
These initial remarks launch the group discussion, the basis for the overall impact/priority score that each of your reviewers gives your application. More than anything else, that score determines your application's funding fate.
Write to Your Audience
As a writer of an NIH grant application, your audience is small. 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.
As is noted above, the primary and secondary reviewers (plus at least one reader)—we'll call them assigned reviewers—act on your behalf at the meeting by taking the following actions:
- 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/priority score.
- The primary reviewer presents your application's topic, strengths, and weaknesses to the group, and other assigned reviewers may comment.
Note that all 20 reviewers will score the application—even those who didn't read it or are not well versed in your field.
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 to try to get as many people excited about your project as you can. You'll do that by
- Writing and organizing the entire application so your assigned reviewers can readily grasp what you propose and be well poised to explain it to everyone else.
- Not neglecting the others by writing at a level they can understand.
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. Addressing all your reviewers is key if you're proposing highly innovative research.
Think of an application as being in a relationship with the review committee.
As with all relationships, you have to take other peoples' perspective into account. The relationship is as much about them as it is about you. For that reason, you have to learn about your reviewers and what they are looking for, as we describe below.
If your reviewers are at the top of your field, they will know where the opportunities are and have strong views about what research should be conducted to move the field forward. By looking at their research and talking to other experts in the field, you should have an idea of how to meet your reviewers expectations of your choice and execution of project.
Play to the House
Tell your reviewers why the Institute should fund you and why they should give you the best score by describing how your topic is high impact and your objectives worth pursuing.
Fire up your reviewers by convincing them of these key points:
- 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. It's more of a conversation that excites its participants into valuing your proposal as highly significant and worthy of our investment.
Besides stimulating enthusiasm and being persuasive, you will need to focus your reviewers' attention 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.
Target 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 explaining your research easy by including lines they can deliver 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 closely. 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 following:
- Specific Aims
- Significance section of your Research Strategy
So you'll write those sections to meet the needs of those reviewers who are experts in other fields. 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.
You’re Also Writing To Meet the Review Criteria
Remember the review criteria as you write your application. Learn more about the criteria and how reviewers use them at Scoring and Summary Statements.
Think of your application as an integrated whole; reviewers mostly focus on the Research Strategy, but other sections count too.
Your overall impact/priority score will reflect reviewers' judgment of two broad concepts: importance and likelihood.
- Importance—the significance and innovation of the research problem—its ability to move the frontier of knowledge forward.
- Likelihood—the ability that you, the principal investigator, can achieve your ends, as judged by your experimental design, the expertise of your team, and the resources at your disposal to execute the project.
Together importance and likelihood form impact. It may help you to remember these relationships using this simple formula.
impact = function (importance, likelihood)
Here's an expanded formula that shows the relationship of these concepts to the five review criteria. Keep in mind that, though the criteria do not add up mathematically to yield the score, reviewers do take them all into account.
impact = function (importance (significance, innovation), likelihood (approach, investigator, environment))
Your citations and other references in your Approach should highlight your expertise and that of your colleagues. You may want to point out the project's significance and to a lesser extent innovation in several places to meet the needs of the full reviewer audience.
Investigate Committees and Members
The text below this point is relevant only for investigator-initiated R01, R21, and R03 applications.
NIH encourages you to choose a study section you feel would appreciate your ideas. Find study sections on CSR's Integrated Review Groups. Find roster links at the top of the study section pages.
You may request a study section using the PHS Assignment Request Form. Don’t request reviewers by name—if you do, they could be disqualified!
Being reviewed by a group that appreciates your ideas is critical to your success. The more they are in sync with your research, the less application space you will need to describe its significance—leaving more space to convince them that you and your team are able to get the job done.
After you have chosen a study section, determine how its membership may affect your writing.
Being reviewed by a group that appreciates your scientific perspective and project is critical to your success.
Your grant application makes the case that you are a scientist who is competent to lead an important research project. But as with anything, beauty is in the eye of the beholder: your reviewers must agree.
Be In Sync With Your Reviewers
First and foremost, your reviewers need to share your perspective that the topic you chose is vital to your field.
The repercussions of not having the right reviewers are great, e.g., they may see the field as having other priorities (you chose the wrong project) or believe that the research you proposed is too far out of the mainstream (the project is too innovative).
So it's critical to choose an NIH review committee that would embrace both your field and the direction in which you are planning to take your research.
Here's how to find the committees and people:
- After homing in on a few study sections, assess whether the members would appreciate the significance of your field and project and whether they would likely share your scientific perspective. If not, rethink the project.
- Identify the three to five people who would most likely be your assigned reviewers. For each one, answer this question: would this person be enthusiastic about my project?
- Then conduct some research of the committee members—visit their websites and read their publications so you can choose the study section that's right for you.
- While you can't know for certain who your reviewers will be, you can identify people who would either serve as your assigned reviewers (primary and secondary reviewers and readers) or who have similar expertise.
Spending time exploring the perspectives of different review committees and their members will help guide you at all of these steps:
- Choosing a project
- Evaluating your choice of project
- Writing the application
How To Proceed With the Search
Look at 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 important 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.
Next, 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.
Forge ahead, following these guidelines:
- Find a study section you feel would applaud your topic and the direction in which you are taking the research.
- 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.
Keep looking until you find the right audience for your application. Go to NIH RePORTER to search for funded projects, experts and their grants, and the study sections that reviewed their applications.
Note that in the following situations, your application will be assigned to a special emphasis panel, so you may not be able to find a roster in the Commons or elsewhere online until close to 30 days before the review meeting.
- One or more standing study section member has a conflict and no other study section has the expertise to review your application fairly. For example, CSR may balk at assigning your application to a review panel that has any members mentioned in your application—even consultants who contribute materials only.
- You're eligible for continuous submission.
- You apply for a fellowship or small business award.
When CSR does post the rosters, it often aggregates several panels into one list to ensure reviewer confidentiality. Contact your scientific review officer with questions about your assignment, such as the review date and areas of expertise on the panel.
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 those reviewers who are experts in other fields.
Gauge the Effect on Your Writing
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 (or others who may be present at the meeting with comparable expertise). To learn more about their research, go to their Web sites, and read their publications.
Ask these questions:
- 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 about the significance and innovation of the research.
Ask investigators working in a different field from yours to read your application and give you feedback on readability.
Note Any Competitors
Look for reviewers who cannot give your application an impartial review.
This is not to say you should categorically avoid competitors. If you can trust them to stay objective, they may actually help you since they already know your field and appreciate the significance of your research.
However, if you believe the study section has appropriate expertise but you're concerned about a particular reviewer, you can inform your scientific review officer when you apply. NIH will make sure your application receives a fair review.
In your PHS Assignment Request Form, you will request the study section you've selected. You'll also have an opportunity to note what expertise is needed to understand your research and mention any reviewers who should not review your application.
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.
- I understand who my audience is so I know what they're looking for.
- I realize that although only a few reviewers read my full application, the entire study section will score it.
- I spell out why I should be funded by describing how my project is high impact.
- I make it easy for assigned reviewers to grasp the goals, significance, and feasibility of my project.
- My Abstract, Specific Aims, and Significance can be understood by my assigned reviewers and the rest of the study section.
A program officer in your area of science can give you application advice, NIAID's perspective on your research, and confirmation that NIAID will accept your application.
Find contacts and instructions at When to Contact a NIAID Program Officer.