Writing a Winning Application—Outline Your Experiments

Funding News Edition: September 02, 2020
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The experiments you design are ultimately limited by the availability of people and resources, as well as the proposed scope of your project.

Credit: NIAID

Now that you have assessed your Specific Aims and feel confident that they are up to snuff, it's time to sketch out experiments to address those Aims. Note that the goal of your experimental design is to convince reviewers that you can reach the objectives stated in your Aims.

As you work, keep the following questions in mind:

  • What are the anticipated outcomes of the experiments?
  • Can the outcomes meet the objectives of the Aims?
  • Is the scientific scope and complexity of the proposed project a good fit with my expertise and/or the expertise of my team as demonstrated by relevant preliminary data and publications?
  • Am I proposing to accomplish more than I have time and funds for?
  • Have I considered potential pitfalls and alternative approaches?

It will help to start a running tab of the following:

  • Who—the research team and collaborators capable of doing the work
  • What—the techniques and results needed to address your question
  • When—timing of experiments, availability of preliminary data to justify experiments
    • Get help from colleagues and experts in your field if you have never planned such a large project before or are unsure how long some of your planned experiments are likely to take. Research usually takes longer than people think it will, so plan your research design with that in mind.
  • Where—available resources, materials, and reagents; technology and information systems
    • Will you need agreements in place to access specific resources?
  • How—estimated costs

This approach gives you a reality check and can ultimately save you time. It may also help to document all the resources and facilities (e.g., access to clinical samples or specialized reagents and animal models) available to you at your institution. Keep in mind that you must include this information in your application.

Use a "Wholistic" Approach

The experimental design—the nitty-gritty of what you will actually do—must enable you to achieve the Specific Aims you describe and test your hypothesis. Optimally, your experimental results should be able to prove or disprove your central hypothesis.

For planning purposes, your Specific Aims and research design work in tandem: your Aims lead to your experiments, which determine your budget and personnel needs.

But the experiments you can design are ultimately limited by the availability of people and resources, as well as the proposed scope of the project.

Following the steps in our Iterative Approach to Application Planning (below) is key to ensuring that all aspects of your application stay in sync and in scope as you plan the various parts.

Iterative Approach to Application Planning

  1. Staying in your niche, propose a project that:
  2. Outline draft Specific Aims and one or more hypotheses.
  3. Outline experiments.
  4. Assess feasibility.
    • See whether you have access to all needed resources and expertise.
    • Make sure the project is not growing too big for your targeted time and budget.
  5. If you hit a roadblock, go back and revise your plans.

Let's say you have an idea for a project that you believe the review committee, i.e., study section, would judge to be highly significant.

You sketch out a reasonable number of Specific Aims, but when you start designing the experiments you find you cannot gather the expertise needed to conduct them.

  • First, talk to advisors and colleagues at your institution to see if there is potential to collaborate with other experts on-site. Also, review the literature and reach out to investigators who conduct similar experiments and request an opportunity to consider a collaboration.
  • Go back to Step 3 (in the list above) and see if there are different experiments that would meet your objectives with the expertise at your disposal.
  • If that doesn't work, return to Step 2. Consider whether the Specific Aims are too broad, create new Aims, or go back to Step 1 and start over with a new project.

Check That Your Skill Level Matches Your Project

How do you know whether your project’s scope is appropriate to your skill level (or, if you’ve recruited collaborators or consultants, the skill level of your team)?

If you are new to grant writing, you may want to reach out to colleagues or other trustworthy sources to obtain advice and guidance.

If you find yourself trying to squeeze too much into the Research Plan, now is the time to step back and reassess. Be realistic about what you can accomplish. Plan your budget based on the proposed work and fully justify costs. Colleagues and experienced grantees can help you estimate costs.

Reviewers may question your readiness to complete the research if your budget is either insufficient or excessive. If the budget exceeds $250,000 in direct costs, you will need to provide a detailed budget rather than a modular one. Your chances of getting funded are not impacted by whether the budget is modular or non-modular, although the reviewers may recommend budget cuts if costs do not seem commensurate with the experimental plan.

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