How To Write an NIH Grant in the “New” Format

I put “new” in quotes because the revised NIH grant format went into effect last January, 2010. We are now into our fourth grant cycle with this format. In addition, we have seen pink sheets for two of those cycles, so we know what’s getting funded, what isn’t, what reviewers love and what they hate. I still get asked all the time about the new NIH grant format—it’s the most common question after funding rates (see blog entry from January 10.) So what do you need to know as you embark upon writing an NIH grant in the new format?

It’s all about impact. If you remember nothing else, please remember to emphasize the impact of your work. Remember the NIH mission statement: to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability. Make sure the reviewers are abundantly clear how your work will reduce human suffering or improve health. Talk about it in the Summary, in the Specific Aims, and in the Significance section. Highlight it with formatting (bold, italics, underline—but please only one of these, not all three!)

The format aligns with the review criteria. Yea! It seems like a no-brainer that the two ought to be parallel. But the old format was not aligned with the review criteria. What are the review criteria, you ask?

1. Significance . Does this study address an important problem? If the aims of the application are achieved, how will scientific knowledge or clinical practice be advanced? What will be the effect of these studies on the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?

2. Approach . Are the conceptual or clinical framework, design, methods, and analyses adequately developed, well integrated, well reasoned, and appropriate to the aims of the project? Does the applicant acknowledge potential problem areas and consider alternative tactics?

3. Innovation . Is the project original and innovative? For example: Does the project challenge existing paradigms or clinical practice; address an innovative hypothesis or critical barrier to progress in the field? Does the project develop or employ novel concepts, approaches, methodologies, tools, or technologies for this area?

4. Investigators . Are the investigators appropriately trained and well suited to carry out this work? Is the work proposed appropriate to the experience level of the principal investigator and other researchers? Does the investigative team bring complementary and integrated expertise to the project (if applicable)?

5. Environment . Does the scientific environment in which the work will be done contribute to the probability of success? Do the proposed studies benefit from unique features of the scientific environment, or subject populations, or employ useful collaborative arrangements? Is there evidence of institutional support?

Less real estate. The page length has been halved in the new format: R01s are 12 pages and R03s and R21s are a mere six pages. That means you need to get to the point. This shorter page limit together with the switch to only one resubmission means that you have fewer opportunities to be convincing. But one’s best, most persuasive writing ought to be brief anyway.

Lose the exhaustive literature review. One of the casualties of the shorter format is the lengthy lit review. Save that for your publications.

Ditto the extensive experimental detail. You simply do not have enough space in a 12-page R01 to go on at length about every single solitary detail concerning your methods. Save that for your publications.

Publish in peer-reviewed journals as much as humanly possible. Given the two aforementioned items, one can see that it is now more important than ever to publish in peer-reviewed journals. To a certain extent, you need to demonstrate your grasp of the literature and your experimental expertise in peer-reviewed journals rather than in NIH proposals. For these reasons, I feel the new format favors established investigators over newbies.

Write carefully the narrative overview in the biosketch. That’s right: your NIH biosketch no longer can sit in an obscure file on your computer desktop, ready to be dusted off when you submit a proposal. Now you must write the four-page biosketch anew with each submission. Of particular importance is the brief personal statement in the beginning, where you state how you are uniquely qualified to contribute to this particular project; and the publications, which are limited to 15 and must be chosen to reflect your qualifications for this particular project.

Choose your mentor(s) carefully. If you are a newbie with few publications, it is critically important that you choose a stellar mentor(s). If you are not writing a mentored (K-series) proposal, be sure to bring someone more experienced on as a consultant or key personnel, but not as a multi-PI, or their credentials will eclipse yours and defeat the purpose of writing your own R-series grant. Choose someone with an extensive publication list in solid peer-reviewed journals. Preferably, the person will have a track-record of landing grants at the NIH institute to which you are applying. This mentor’s endorsement of you as a new investigator serves in essence as another type of “peer review” in the eyes of the reviewers.

Still feel overwhelmed and confused? You can always hire yourself an experienced grantwriter!

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