Tips for Great Grant Writing

From Extramural Nexus, NIH Office of Extramural Research
Published 2009

Part 1: What is NIH Looking For in a Grant Application?

Because NIH is comprised of 24 different grant-awarding Institutes and Centers (ICs) which provide funding, there is no simple answer to this question. However, if you are talking to an NIH Program Official about your idea or potential research project, you are already on the right track to receiving NIH funding.

While NIH awards many grants specifically for research, we also provide grant opportunities that support research-related activities, including: construction, training, career development, conferences, resource grants and more. Specifically, we encourage projects that have the three following qualities:

  • NIH looks for grant proposals of high scientific caliber that are relevant to public health needs and are within NIH Institute and Center (IC) priorities. ICs highlight their specific research priorities on their Web sites. Applicants are encouraged to contact the appropriate IC to discuss the relevancy and/or focus of the proposed research before submitting an application.
  • NIH strongly encourages investigator-initiated research across the spectrum of our mission. We issue hundreds of funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) in the form of Program Announcements (PAs) and requests for applications (RFAs) to stimulate research in particular areas of science. Some PAs, called “Parent Announcements,” span the breadth of the NIH mission in order to ensure we have a way to capture “unsolicited” applications that do not fall within the scope of targeted announcements. The majority of NIH applications are submitted in response to parent announcements.
  • By law, NIH cannot support a project already funded or pay for research that has already been done. Projects must be unique. Although you may not send the same application to more than one Public Health Service (PHS) agency at the same time, you can apply to an organization outside the PHS with the same application. If the project gets funded by another organization, however, it cannot also be funded by NIH.

Part 2: Get to Know the Projects and Activities of NIH-funded PIs

Learning more about projects already funded by NIH can be a great help when you are preparing your grant proposal. Using the Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool (RePORT), you can craft a comprehensive search of all NIH funding activities according to your specific interests. This search will result in a list of funded projects, for each of which you will be able to view an abstract and statement of public health relevance, as well as contact information for the project’s PI.

Connection to NIH funding activities is just a few clicks away. Head to the RePORT homepage and click on NIH CRISP. Here you can filter your search according to key words, general topics, sponsoring Institutes or Centers, geographical locations, and fiscal years. As you read through project descriptions, keep in mind that one of NIH’s primary goals is to develop, maintain, and renew biomedical resources that will improve our nation’s health. Think about how your work might build upon projects that NIH has already funded, and highlight in your proposal how your scientific work will be relevant to public health. You might also consider using CRISP to locate potential collaborators or mentors.

Part 3: Organize Your Research Plan

Help reviewers find exactly what they are looking for in your research plan by breaking your proposal down according to the primary review criteria: significance, investigator(s), innovation, approach, and environment. Begin each section with clear, descriptive headers that effectively frame your research plan.

A succinct introduction should address the significance of your project, weighing its impact on your field and related fields, as well its impact in the greater context of public health. Consider the following questions from the Enhanced Review Criteria chart:

  • Does the project address an important problem or critical barrier to progress in the field?
  • If the aims of the project are achieved, how will scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice be improved?
  • How will successful completion of the aims change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?

Next, address how PD/PIs, collaborators, and other researchers are suited to the project. Outline appropriate experience and training, and highlight any accomplishments that have encouraged advancements in the field(s). If the project is collaborative or multi-PD/PI, show that investigators have complementary and integrated experience.

Now reflect on the innovation that project offers. Keep in mind that even if a project not, by nature, innovative, it may nonetheless be essential to advancing a field. Discuss how your work will challenge or improve current research or clinical practice paradigms by utilizing novel theoretical concepts, approaches, or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions or by refining the use of these concepts, approaches, methodologies, or instrumentation.

A thorough description of the approach you will take is critical. Show how well-reasoned and appropriate your overall strategy, methodology, and analyses are to accomplishing the specific aims of your project.

Following the details of your approach, include a profile of the environment in which the work will be done. Consider the adequacy of resources such as institutional support and equipment. Also take into account how the project will benefit form any unique features of the scientific environment, subject populations, or collaborative arrangements.

Finally, add a section that addresses items of ethical concern applicable to your project-for example the use of vertebrate animals or human subjects (including gender and minority representation or the inclusion of children).