Write Your Application With Two Audiences in Mind

Funding News Edition: January 19, 2022
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When you apply for grant funding, your application goes to an NIH scientific review group for first-level peer review. These review groups, generally referred to as study sections, are made up of mostly academic scientists who meet for roughly two days, three times a year.

Study sections usually have about 20 peer reviewers, at least three of whom are assigned by the study section’s scientific review officer (SRO) to read your application thoroughly, write a critique before the full study section meeting, and assign preliminary scores for each review criterion as well as an initial overall impact score. SROs choose readers such that their expertise is the closest match to your field.

The readers’ initial remarks launch the study section’s group discussion, which is the basis for the overall impact score that reviewers give your application. All reviewers in the panel will score your application—even those who weren’t assigned reviewers and those who are not well versed in your field.

You need to write your application to perform two functions: first, to impress your assigned reviewers so they can act as advocates to the full study section; second, to explain your proposed research clearly and concisely to study section members who may not be experts in your field.

You accomplish this by taking different approaches in various parts of your application, which allows you to accommodate different levels of knowledge about your techniques and field.

For Assigned Readers

Your assigned reviewers will closely read your application, particularly the Research Strategy. They will evaluate your Specific Aims to make sure the research hasn't been done before and is not currently underway, and to consider whether the research can make an impact on its field. They will look at your Innovation section to see if the work is new and unique. They will assess your Approach, the biosketches of your key personnel, and the institutional resources you have available to determine the feasibility of your proposed research.

Give the assigned reviewers the evidence and context they need to confidently explain your project’s goals, significance, and feasibility to the rest of the study section.

For the Full Study Section

As for the rest of the study section, during the roughly 15-minute discussion, members of the group will ask the assigned reviewers questions and skim parts of the application. Expect them to look through the Abstract, Specific Aims, and the Significance section of the Research Strategy.

For that reason, you should write those sections to meet the needs of peer reviewers who are experts in other fields; you need to write at a technical level they can understand while still conveying the overall importance of the project. A grant application is not a scientific review article. It's meant to excite reviewers into valuing your proposal as highly significant and instill among them confidence that your project will be feasible.

Remember that no matter how strong your project concept and experimental plan is, you should still include alternative approaches where needed. This provides confirmation to the reviewers that you understand any inherent shortcomings in the experimental plan and have planned for it.

We cover this topic in much greater detail at Know Your Audience. Head there to learn more!

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