Berkeley Lab

NIH Grant Application Guidance

Below is a consolidation of previously published NIH articles that discussed: the grant application process, useful advice and guidance for the preparation of a successful research application, factors that determine the scientific merit of a research application and other significant considerations.

Abstract

The abstract is one of the most neglected parts of the grant application. Although it should be written last, it needs to be written with care. The applicant should use the abstract to excite the reader’s interest in the work. Keep in mind, this will very likely be the most widely read part of the application.

Budgets

Be honest. Some investigators may budget below their actual need in the belief that this improves their chances for funding. Reviewers have expert knowledge of the funds required to do research in the field. Underestimating your costs can be as damaging as inflating costs and putting in ‘fat’. In many cases, it is wiser to calculate a real budget, and request that amount. Every item on the budget, particularly personnel, must be clearly justified.

Describe the role of all personnel, professional and nonprofessional, regardless of whether salary is requested. Specify each individual’s unique qualifications and role in the project, including percent time (now expressed as months) and effort.

Thoroughly justify all proposed purchases of major equipment. If supplies appear unnecessary or redundant, they will most likely be disallowed.

Biographical Sketches

Biographical sketches should show the competence and availability of project personnel. Each sketch should include the individuals’ publications in the past three years.

Resources and Environment

Facilities and equipment listed should be directly related to the project. Do not list or request equipment that, while state-of-the-art or a status symbol of the “well-stocked” laboratory, are unnecessary to the project. Demonstrate the quality of the institutional setting, staff, lab facilities and unique equipment. Also highlight involvement and collaboration with colleagues that would strengthen the project.

Research Plan

The research plan is the heart of the grant application. A good research plan is usually based on a meaningful hypothesis. The hypothesis should have a subset of specific project aims and scientific questions. The questions and aims, in turn, should have a focused subset of research methods to accomplish or answer them. A creative, exciting, and significant hypothesis is often the first step in a sound and well-received research plan; a sound research plan is necessary to a successful application.

The applicant, in describing their research plan, should not assume that the reviewer will “know what they mean.” While the applicant may assume that the reviewers are experts in the field and up-to-date with current methodology, the reviewers will not make the same assumption of the investigator. In other words, the burden is on the applicant to clearly display their knowledge of methodology by detailing the specific experimental design, materials, techniques, and rational to accomplish the aims of the project.

While writing the entire proposal, but most crucially while developing the research plan, keep in mind the review criteria of the funding organization. The following mandated NIH research project review criteria, announced on May 5, 1997 by the NIH Peer Review Oversight Group, are applicable to most research proposals: 1) scientific, technical, or medical significance; 2) appropriateness and adequacy of experimental method; 3) innovative science; 4) qualifications of the PI and staff; and 5) availability of needed resources. Although these criteria may serve as a guideline, be aware of and address all review criteria of the funding organization, including such points as reasonableness of budget/research timeline and adequacy of human, animal, and environmental protections. These criteria are further detailed in the following discussion of the Research Plan sections.

  • Project Aims. As stated above, the project aims should clearly address a problem or need. If applicable, the project aims should explain how the research eliminates or decreases gaps in the current knowledge in the field. In other words, this section should include a hypothesis and objectives: a concise wording of overall purpose, and statements of intended accomplishments through the project.
  • Background and Significance. The study question or hypothesis should be reiterated in this section. Also include a statement of the importance of the proposed research on the experimental level and in the larger scope of the field. In other words, explicitly describe how your research will advance knowledge or otherwise significantly impact the research area.

This is also the section where the PI can demonstrate their knowledge and assessment of the relevant literature. This section should include a thorough, critically reviewed collection of data/events that justifies the next step: your current proposal.

  • Preliminary Studies. If available, preliminary data should be included. Such data can indicate the viability of the hypothesis and the proposed methodology. It can also reveal the PI’s qualifications by giving the reviewers a preview of the PI’s methods of research and interpretation of results. This section allows an unestablished researcher to demonstrate experience and competence to do the research in the proposed project area. Relate the preliminary study with the proposal at hand, describing the expansion, continuation, or progression of the research from the pilot data. If the research methods are to change significantly, this section provides an opportunity to explain such changes.

The applicant may include preliminary studies published or in-press in the appendix to demonstrate the feasibility of the hypothesis and their qualifications as an investigator.

  • Research design. Good science is paramount to a successful application.

From this section, reviewers judge if the investigator understands the proposal’s methodology and limitations. The experimental design, including technical methodology, should be mapped out clearly for each phase of the project. Each experiment should be tailored to a specific aim within the framework of the entire project. The framework of the project should include a realistic estimate of the work the PI can accomplish during each funding year requested. Justify as well as describe research designs and methods chosen and, if applicable, provide a comparison with alternative methods not chosen. If human or animal subjects are involved, address the characteristics of the subject population and evaluate the risk/benefit ratio. For animal subjects, indicate appropriate care before, during, and after the research period.

Describe the assumptions in the planned research. Along this line, mention likely potential limits or pitfalls and ways to work around such problems. This is particularly key should later experiments depend heavily on results from an initial phase of research.

Demonstrate appropriate and available controls, and a critical assessment of the proposed work. Define the criteria for evaluating whether a given test is a success or failure. Be certain to use correct statistical analyses if applicable. In some cases, the assistance of an expert statistician may be required for demonstrating proper statistical analyses in the proposal write-up, as well as providing assurance of proper statistical analyses of future research results.

  • Literature. Literature cited should be thorough, thoughtful, current, and relevant. In some cases, project hypotheses have been built on misinterpreted literature, an obvious red flag to a reviewer.

Appendices

Appendices are useful for photographs, oversized documents, or other materials that do not reproduce well. The appendix can also include the PIs published manuscripts that are applicable to the proposal topic