July 17, 2013Feature Articles
- Sidestep These Application Missteps: Poor Writing and Presentation
- SBIR/STTR Applicants–Don’t Forget to Register!
- Enter the Age of Electronic P01 Applications—NIAID Reissued the Parent FOA
- Take a Look at the Latest Approved Concepts
- News Briefs
- Get NIAID's Permission for Some Changes on Your Grant
- Reader Questions
Sidestep These Application Missteps.
For the final misstep article in our series, we cover poor writing and presentation. Faltering in either could turn your reviewers off from reading the application you've spent much time and effort preparing.
Our contributing program and scientific review officers share the stumbling blocks you could run into and how to steer clear of them.
First, Know Your "Limits" and Other Requirements
Before putting pen to paper, so to speak, get to know rules for page limits, font, margin and font size, and other specifications. That way you'll know how much space you have to convey the essentials of your project and how much you'll have to winnow the amount of information you have.
Both the eRA Commons (for electronic submission) and NIH staff check for page limits and formatting. Learn more at Does eRA electronically enforce page limits? and NIH Checks Your Application, linked below.
NIH may not review your application if you don't meet requirements, so it's best to make sure what you're allowed by reading instructions for your funding opportunity announcement (FOA). For R01s and other grant types that use electronic submission, follow instructions in both the SF 424 Application Guide and the NIH Guide notice. If the two differ, go with the Guide notice since it reflects the most up-to-date information.
For the number of pages you can use for different application sections, also check NIH's Table of Page Limits.
If you're responding to an institute-specific program announcement or request for applications, you must also pay attention to the initiative's objectives and special requirements. Should our program staff determine that your application is not responsive to the announcement, your application will not be reviewed.
One of our scientific review officers emphasizes the importance of reading announcements carefully:
"Applications are sometimes nonresponsive because investigators don't take time to read about the essential components, which results in a lot of time spent writing aspects of the application that may not be relevant or responsive to the initiative. When uncertain about responsiveness, applicants should talk with the program officer listed in the FOA for clarity."—Frank DeSilva, Scientific Review ProgramNo Getting Around Page Limits
You should not attempt to get around page restrictions. Since NIH is on the lookout, you could be penalized.
Alec Ritchie, a program officer in our Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID), has some general advice on what not to do:
"Applicants should not reference extra-application sources of information (e.g., FDA guidance sheet, company press releases, manuals) to circumvent page limitations. They should also avoid including Web links since reviewers are instructed to not click on them. One can argue that no information in the application should be dependent on material that isn't in the application, with the exception perhaps of publications."Don't Misuse the Appendix
If you're contemplating circumventing page limits by including in the Appendix information that doesn't belong there, think again. You run the risk of possibly having your application pulled from peer review and funding consideration.
NIH clearly states the following in an April 2010 Guide notice (find the link below):
"Applicants...are prohibited from using the Appendix to circumvent page limitations in the Research Plan, such as the single page limit for Specific Aims or the specified page limit for the Research Strategy. If inappropriate material is included in an appendix (e.g., an extension of the Specific Aims or Research Strategy section) then the scientific review officer will instruct peer reviewers not to read or consider the material in their review of the application. In particularly egregious cases NIH has the authority to withdraw the application from review or consideration for funding."One of our program officers highlights another downside to getting around page limits using the Appendix:
"Too often investigators will add extra material into the Appendix. Reviewers are often overburdened and not interested in taking that extra step to find what has been added. This leads to frustration for both reviewers and applicants."—Michael Minnicozzi, Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation (DAIT)Rights and Wrongs of Writing
Whether you're a strong writer or not, the following tips should be helpful as you compose your application. For more information, go to Part 3. Write Your Application, linked below.
Know Whom You're Addressing
No matter what you're writing, be it a newsletter article or grant application, you need to know who your audience is so you can address them appropriately by using the right elements like tone and terminology.
The primary audience for your application is your scientific review group, composed of about 20 reviewers. Three people—the primary and secondary reviewers plus an additional reader—will have expertise closest to your field and will read your application thoroughly.
Note that not all members will have the same expertise or knowledge of your science. Therefore, it's best to write in such a way that all reviewers will understand your project's objectives.
For more on this, read Know Your Audience in the Strategy for NIH Funding, linked below.
Frank DeSilva has additional tips:
"Being concise is important. Spoon-feeding is optimal. Repetition is good but do not overuse it. In addition to the Specific Aims and Research Plan, make sure to follow guidelines for the biosketch, letters of support, resource sharing plans, and other items since these in sum will generally leave an impression of good grantsmanship and a well written application."And Susan Brobst, a program officer in our Division of AIDS (DAIDS), offers this advice:
"Applicants should include key take-home messages in the application after presenting (or citing) preliminary data. That way a reviewer who is less familiar with the field can better understand the rationale for the study. This is critical for multidisciplinary applications."Avoid Typos, Grammar Mistakes
When it comes to spelling and grammar, dot the i's and cross the t's—literally and figuratively. Having typos and bad grammar can interrupt the flow of your text and trip up readers. And when those readers are peer reviewers, you want to make sure nothing gets in the way of their perusing your application with ease.
Be careful not to submit an application riddled with spelling or grammatical errors. Two program officers tell you why:
"Typing and grammatical errors and similar 'minor' issues imply an insufficient attention to details that leads many reviewers to question the quality of the research being conducted in the applicant's lab. Therefore, proofreading for style, grammar, and formatting is crucial."—Wolfgang Leitner, program officer, Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation (DAIT)Provide Explanations or Justifications
"Improper spelling and grammar in an application tend to reduce reviewer enthusiasm and perceived potential for success, likely resulting in a score comparable to one of lesser technical merit and likely outside the competitive funding range."—Alec Ritchie
You can also make life easier for reviewers by spelling things out for them, for example, if your research involves human subjects. Here's what we mean:
"When applicants believe their human subjects research is 'exempt,' they should clearly provide up front a justification or any human subjects information relevant to review. They should not leave it to reviewers to determine or agree that the research is exempt."—Alec RitchieSusan Brobst gives another human subjects-related example:
"Applicants often provide insufficient information for the use of human data or biological specimens that doesn't meet the definition of human subjects research. It's not sufficient to indicate 'No Human Subjects Research Proposed.' Applicants must explain why the proposed studies do not constitute research involving human subjects."It's (Almost) All in the Presentation
Looks aren't everything, but they're definitely something when it comes to your application. Make your reviewers want to read it by making it visually appealing: neat, well organized, and easy-to-read. They'll appreciate the effort, especially since they have so many applications to evaluate.
Here's how to help your application make a good impression.
"Make effective (but judicious) use of bold, CAPITALS, and underlining as well as headers to clearly define sections. Insert figures and flow charts to explain experimental design where appropriate in the application."—Frank DeSilvaIn addition to figures and flow charts, use other visual elements like tables to clarify potentially confusing points, as Susan Brobst says:
"If research proposed in the grant application is for a substudy of work supported under another mechanism, consider the use of a table to illustrate which aspects are supported by the grant application and which are supported otherwise. This reduces the chance reviewers will be confused and indicate your application is overly ambitious, has an inadequate budget, etc."Wolfgang Leitner has a tip for investigators who may have a lot of data to share:
"Rather than squeezing countless multi-panel figures into the application, publish first before submitting. It frees up space and increases the 'credibility' of the proposal. The added benefit frequently justifies skipping a submission cycle in order to get your papers out."Investigators who are resubmitting have additional details to pay attention to:
"For resubmissions, allow time to go through and update numbering for references, figures, and tables. Reviewers get annoyed when hunting for a Figure 4 that no longer exists or when Reference 75 does not contain the experimental details that the Approach section indicated. Ensure the letters of support are updated to reflect the revised application. It causes confusion when a letter of support refers to work that is no longer proposed. Likewise, review the budget and budget justification to ensure they reflect the revised application."—Susan BrobstFind more information on presentation in Master the Application, linked below.
To keep your application appealing, give it "breathing room." That is, don't try to fit too much in the allotted amount of space. Doing so will result in pages that are filled to the brim with text or figures, which makes them user un-friendly and could ultimately be a strike against you at peer review.
The secret to not overpacking is to determine what you absolutely need to include; in other words, focus on the essentials, as Alec Ritchie describes:
"Applicants can put too much information within the required page limits. They must prioritize the material and consider how efficiently a reviewer will get through and appreciate the information presented. An overly dense application will not fare well at review."Wolfgang Leitner also speaks to the "density" issue:
"A frequent criticism of reviewers is that applications are 'too dense.' This is the result of applicants trying to pack too much information into the proposal, which makes it difficult to read. Consequently, much of the densely packaged information gets lost during review."He continues with a warning for those thinking about making room for content by using a work-around that ultimately doesn't work:
"Do not decrease the font or shrink the size of figures to be able to make the proposal fit! Reviewers will not appreciate such tactics. If the figure is too small and difficult to read, the information it contains may end up not helping you make your case."On a related note: frequently, in an attempt to crowd even more text and figures in an application, investigators leave out figure legends and axis labels for graphs. The undesirable result: reviewers who are frustrated and left guessing.
Get Others to Read and Review
After you've finished writing, ask people—including nonscientists—to read your draft, especially if you are new to grant writing. Getting their fresh perspective is invaluable since they may spot issues you missed.
Alec Ritchie points out why getting readers is important:
"Having colleagues and collaborators review and critique an application before submission is essential. It's fairly obvious when this has not occurred and will not bode well for the applicant."While you should get readers who are part of your project, it's a good idea to also recruit people without ties to your application. Wolfgang Leitner states:
"Ask colleagues who are involved in the project as well as those who aren't (and ideally know little or nothing about it) to read the proposal. However, keep in mind that people who are intimately familiar with the project may not notice flaws in arguments or that the proposal is hard to read."Related Links
- Strategy for NIH Funding
- Does eRA electronically enforce page limits? in NIH's Applying Electronically—Frequently Asked Questions
- April 15, 2010, Guide notice: Policy Reminder Concerning Appendix Materials for All NIH/AHRQ/NIOSH Grant Applications
- May 27, 2011, Guide notice: Reminder: Compliance with NIH Application Format and Content Instructions
The registrations listed below must be completed before you submit your application. Since registrations can take six weeks or more, we encourage you to start the process early:
- Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS)–You must obtain a DUNS number first. After you get one, you can begin the System for Award Management (SAM), Small Business Administration (SBA) Company registry, and eRA Commons registrations. Use the same DUNS number for all registrations, as well as on your grant application.
- System for Award Management (formerly Central Contractor Registration (CCR) system)–You need to register and maintain an active registration, and you must renew it annually. Keep in mind the renewal process may require as much time as the initial registration. SAM registration includes the assignment of a Commercial and Government Entity (CAGE) code for domestic organizations that haven’t already been assigned one.
- SBA Company Registry–New requirement, referenced in our May 1, 2013, article “SBIR/STTR Size Rule Expands FOA Eligibility Requirements.” This applies to all small businesses, including those that are majority-owned by venture capital operating companies (VCOCs), hedge funds, or private equity firms. Check your funding opportunity announcement for how to register and how to attach proof of registration to your application package. Again, you must have your DUNS number to complete this registration. However, this registration is not required before SAM, Grants.gov, or eRA Commons registration.
- eRA Commons–You must have an active DUNS number to complete this registration. Your organization can register with the eRA Commons as it works its way through the SAM or Grants.gov registration. For eRA Commons, organizations must identify at least one signing official and at least one program director/principal investigator account in order to submit an application.
- Grants.gov–You must have an active DUNS number and SAM registration to complete this registration.
To qualify, your damaged facility must be located in a FEMA-declared "major disaster" state. Get a list of states and other qualification information in the July 3, 2013, Guide notice. The applicant institution must be located in one of these states—if only a collaborator’s (or subcontractor’s) site in an eligible state was damaged, then you are not eligible.
Since there are rules for what equipment qualifies and more, we advise that you discuss your application plans with the program contacts listed at Section VII. Agency Contacts.
Applications are due August 30, 2013. For more details, see the July 3, 2013, Guide notice.
This opportunity is one of a Sandy-related set that we wrote about in our May 15 article, "Sandy-Related Opportunities Can Help Get Research Back On Its Feet." If you need a non-construction administrative supplement instead, there's one with a due date of September 27; see that article for details.
You can use the database to access information on over 200,000 compounds and over 15,000 abstracted papers, patents, and posters.
Refine your search by using one of three main search portals: chemical, biological, or literature. You can also use the Boolean search function to look for any combination of terms.
The database is continually updated with information extracted from published literature on the structure and activity of compounds that have been tested against HIV, HIV enzymes or opportunistic pathogens.
For more information and to use the database, go to the ChemDB HIV, Opportunistic Infection and Tuberculosis Therapeutics Database.
For instructions, read the reissued NIAID Investigator-Initiated Program Project Applications (P01) funding opportunity announcement.
P01s are awards for research bringing together multiple projects that share resources, facilities, and a common theme. For more information, go to:
- NIAID Investigator-Initiated Program Project (P01) Applications questions and answers
- Guidance for Preparing a Multiproject Research Application
As a reminder, concepts represent the early planning stages for initiatives, including program announcements, requests for applications, and solicitations. Not all will necessarily become initiatives, but they can provide insight into NIAID’s high-priority research areas. See how you can make the most of them at Use Our Concepts List, Blend Approaches in our Strategy for NIH Funding.
To read up on approved concepts from all three NIAID extramural program divisions, see Concepts: Potential Opportunities. For more details on the process of approving concepts, see Concepts May Turn Into Initiatives.
FAQs on Short Courses RFA. NIH's Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research has posted FAQs about its R25 funding opportunity Short Courses on Innovative Methodologies in the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Because that opportunity allows applicants to propose courses related to big data, we also covered it in the May 29, 2013, article "OBSSR Can Boost Your Big Data Education."
Coming Soon: PMS for All Grants. NIH plans to pay all new and noncompeting FY 2014 grant awards using subaccounts in the Payment Management System (PMS). For more information, read the July 3, 2013, Guide notice.
Here are examples of actions that require prior approval:
- Changing the scope of your research. For example, expanding or significantly revising your Specific Aims.
- Adding or removing PIs and key personnel.
- Deviating from any term or condition of award.
- Taking a second no-cost extension.
- Rebudgeting more than 25 percent in any budget category.
- Moving to a new institution. Note:
- Your current institution must agree to relinquish your grant to your new institution.
- Your new institution's business office requests approval to accept your grant by responding to the Change of Grantee Organization (Type 7 Parent) announcement at least two months before your planned arrival.
Feel free to send us a question at email@example.com. After responding to you, we may include your question in the newsletter, incorporate it into the NIAID Research Funding site, or both.
"Is there a way to know how much funding NIH grants through R01s for a specific disease?"—anonymous reader
You can get this information from NIH RePORT. Select your own parameters such as disease keyword and funding mechanism (e.g., R01) using the advanced NIH RePORTER Query form.
It also offers a report of funding by disease area, Estimates of Funding for Various Research, Condition, and Disease Categories (RCDC), but that information doesn't differentiate between research supported by R01 and other funding mechanisms.
"I am working on an R01 renewal application. We are instructed to attach a Progress Report Publication List. Is this list included in the 12-page limit for the overall Research Strategy section?"—anonymous reader
No, it's not. The SF 424 (R&R) Application Guides state that the Progress Report Publication List should not be included in the Approach part of the Research Strategy. Therefore, it’s not part of the 12-page limit for that section.
Instead, the Progress Report Publication List is a separate attachment for the PHS 398 Research Plan, item 2.5. The application guides don't specify a page limit for that attachment.
- RFP-NIAID-DAIDS-NIH-AI2012156, NIAID Specimen Repository
- BAA-NIAID-DMID-NIHAI2013174, Development of Vaccine Formulations Effective Against NIAID Priority Pathogens
- PAR-13-252, Improvement of Animal Models for Stem Cell-Based Regenerative Medicine