Sharpening Your Focus: Tips on Grant Proposal Preparation

This is a series of tips published in UMMS Research News (our office's monthly newsletter) about writing proposals.

 

PRE-PROPOSAL PLANNING

Teaming with Possibility (May 2018)

As modern research methods become increasingly specialized, collaboration becomes critical for addressing complex questions. Research teams can leverage the strengths and expertise of members trained in different fields. Innovations and advances can emerge from cross-disciplinary and collaborative teams that may not have developed in a single independent lab. Over the last decade, research funding opportunities also have reflected a necessary shift to team science to solve big problems.

Think of team science as a spectrum:

Level of Interaction and Integration
LOW MEDIUM HIGH
  • Work largely independently with lab members
  • Team members bring specific expertise
  • Work on separate parts of research problem, integrate later
  • Data sharing and/or brainstorming among lead investigators varies from limited to frequent
  • Team members bring specific expertise
  • Team meets regularly to discuss goals, individuals’ objectives & next steps
  • Team shares leadership responsibility, decision-making authority, data & credit

 

Current trends suggest that most researchers will be asked to participate on or lead a research team at some point in their careers. Whether contributing or steering, it’s helpful to assess your readiness for tackling team science:

  • Can you thrive as a member of a highly collaborative team? To what extent?
  • What would you gain? Do you have anything to lose?
  • Are you willing to share data and/or credit with team members?
  • Are you willing to accept/provide constructive feedback from team members?
  • Can you openly discuss issues and concerns with your collaborators?

And if you’re interested in leading a team, consider the following:

  • Are you able to clearly and decisively communicate?
  • Can you clearly articulate your vision?
  • Are you prepared to model a collaborative process and inspire team members toward a shared goal?
  • Are you willing to support team members and delegate roles and responsibilities?
  • Are you willing to manage expectations?
  • Can you choose team members who will thrive in the team’s culture?

Adapted from Bennett, L. Michelle, et al, “Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide,” NIH, August 2010.

Other resources:

Demystifying RFPs (March 2018)

At research institutions across the country, there is a push to diversify funding portfolios - i.e., to pursue foundation or industry funding that would allow universities to better weather downturns in federal research dollars. Reading Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for different sponsors, however, may feel disorienting when many grant writers are used to writing for federal agencies, accustomed to criteria of Significance-Innovation-Approach (for NIH) or Intellectual Merit-Broader Impacts (for NSF).

A 2016 article called "How Do I Review Thee? Let Me Count the Ways" hacks the RFP challenge. The authors argue, in essence, that all sponsors evaluate grant proposals based on the same criteria, they just use different wording to ask for it. While sponsors have the general goals of funding research that 1.) supports their organizations' missions and 2.) will have great impact (or return on investment), they largely want investigators to answer the same basic questions. For instance:

KEY QUESTION POSSIBLE REVIEW CRITERIA TERMS
Why does it matter? Significance
Importance
Intellectual Merit
How is it new? Innovation
Creativity
Novelty
How will it be done? Approach
Research Plan
Strategy
Objectives 
Aims
What's the ROI? Impact
Broader Impacts
Value
Relevance

 

That doesn't mean you can submit the exact same proposal to NIH, or NSF, or the American Cancer Society, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Pay attention to preferences (or requirements) for format and organization that are often spelled out in RFPs. And importantly: take pains to understand who your readers are (subject matter experts? board members? patients?) and which writing style is most appropriate (technical language? plain language?).

Peer Up! (September 2017)

The positive effects of peer mentoring are well documented, indicating mutually beneficial outcomes for both mentors and mentees. Senior faculty find fulfillment in sharing expertise, promoting scholarly values, and nurturing a new generation of researchers. Junior faculty gain emotional support, expanded knowledge, professional guidance, and, oftentimes, earlier successes.

Toward the goal of increasing NIH R01 success rates for early career faculty, the U-M Medical School has leveraged the benefits of peer mentoring via R01 Boot Camp, now entering its fifth year. Participants (mentees) are grouped into teams led by senior faculty coaches, as well as matched 1:1 with subject matter experts (SMEs). While developing R01 proposals over the 10-month course, mentees get much direction and several rounds of feedback-via Chalk Talk presentations within departments; from team peers and coaches; from SMEs, and from external reviewers.

Since "graduation," the first three Boot Camp cohorts have brought in almost $100 million in new research funding, including 37 R01s and nine other R awards. On average, 35% of mentees who submit R01s will be awarded those grants within 12 months of program completion.

R01 Boot Camp is currently accepting applications for mentees and coaches for the 2018 program, due October 16, 2017. The program will begin January 18 and run through October 2018.
Additional mentorship options at UMMS include:

R01 Boot Camp
Competition Space (applications)

Impactful Factor (July 2017)

National Science Foundation grant proposals require researchers to highlight two criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. It is often easy for investigators to describe Intellectual Merit (e.g., What gap in knowledge am I addressing? How does my work move the field forward?). Broader Impacts, however, might prove more challenging, requiring a compelling plan for how your work will advance science (or promote its benefits) beyond academia.

The agency defines Broader Impacts: "the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired, societal outcomes." This may be accomplished through the research itself, through activities that are directly related to the specific research projects, or through activities supported by and complementary to the project.

NSF is particularly interested in the full participation of women, underrepresented minorities and persons with disabilities in STEM fields, as well as improved STEM education and increased scientific literacy and public engagement. Examples of Broader Impacts might include collaborations with K-12 schools, summer workshops for educators, or partnerships with local museums or non-profits.

Broader Impacts should never be a hasty addition to proposals; meaningful impact requires thoughtful planning and, often, contacts in the community. Several resources exist on campus to inspires ideas and provide assistance, including MICHR's Engaging Communities group, the U-M Center for Educational Outreach, and Michigan Outreach.

NSF: Perspectives on Broader Impacts
NSF: Broader Impacts Improving Society (examples)

Assessing your Fundability (June 2017)

When preparing to go after research funding, it's important to position yourself for success by both assessing your skills and identifying your research niche (i.e., considering how crowded and competitive a field is already). 

Careful self-evaluation is critical for new investigators, but also for established researchers looking for a new direction. In R01 Boot Camp, we use the Research Roadmap, a list of questions to gauge "readiness" for pursuing big grants. It prompts researchers to assess goals, abilities, resources, and needs as they begin proposal planning.

Additionally, pay attention to your research niche - that specialized corner of your field where you have the greatest potential for impact and to advance knowledge. Get a broad view of the field and players, then find the most promising angle for you (and remember that some niches are untouched because they are insignificant).
Toward assessing your viability, consider:

What is the gap in knowledge that you want to address? Have you begun to fill the gap? 

  • Is your question significant? Innovative? Of interest to sponsors? 
  • Research is a team effort. Select appropriate collaborators to supplement your expertise. 
  • Get advice from people you respect on research opportunities and priorities, and on the scientific direction you want to take. 
  • Be critical, and receptive: look at yourself through the eyes of reviewers, and ask others to do this for you.

Additional Resources:

First Contact: A Program Officer Primer (March 2017)

Every time I see a Program Officer (PO) speak at a conference or seminar, one message is clear: they want to help. POs have an interest in funding the best science, so want to help foster your good ideas leading up to proposal submission. They can discuss the fit of a scientific concept with an agency's priorities; give advice regarding funding mechanisms, budget and scope; offer feedback on project design; answer questions about guidelines, and clarify the sponsor's review process.

Experienced investigators know to contact POs early in the planning process, and a PO's reaction to a proposed project may be the best indicator of success. They want to fund the most relevant and high quality proposals.

Use these strategies for reaching out:

  • Analyze the sponsor. Do your homework. Be familiar with the agency's website and grant guidelines, so you don't ask about what is publicly known. First impressions are critical, so be prepared!
  • Email first. Explain what funding opportunity you're interested in. Ask if you can set up a phone meeting to discuss the programmatic relevance of your project. Include any specific questions. Attach a 1-2 page summary. If you have not heard back in a week or so, follow up with a phone call or short message. (Note: PO response rates vary, so be patient. Email allows you to keep a record of contact.)
  • Your summary. The attached abstract should briefly: explain significance; review aims, methods and expected outcomes; describe the potential impact of your work. Avoid jargon and too much detail.
  • Developing a relationship. Good working relationships with POs can be further developed at professional meetings, where discussions may be more informal. Plan to visit with POs when you're in the DC area or their home city (arrange visits in advance and come with questions). POs often can give insight beyond what is found online.
  • Be gracious. Tell them how much you appreciate the advice and feedback they have to offer (even when it may not be what you want to hear).

Resources:

Optimus Time (August 2016)

One of the perennial challenges of writing proposals is finding time to write proposals. Researchers are inundated by competing obligations: meetings, labs, patients, teaching, publishing, mentoring, conferences, family, friends and so on. Because writing is an activity that can often be done flexibly, it's frequently one that is postponed or otherwise compromised.

Sally Schmall, a U-M faculty member in the School of Social Work and founder of Academy Coaching, recently spoke to R01 Boot Camp mentees about strategies for protecting time for writing. Her tips include:

  • Use your calendar for more than meetings: Schedule time for handling email and other office tasks, for personal activities like going to the gym, and for writing. Block off travel time for getting to and from activities. Treat your calendar as your actual plan for your time-if it's on the schedule, stay committed to that activity.
  • Consider the need: Classify activities by degrees of urgency and importance. Avoid getting sidetracked by urgent things that are not that important.
  • Customize: Plan your schedule according to your personal rhythms, work style and goals (e.g., if you write better in the morning, preserve the early hours for crafting proposals).
  • Plan ahead: Allow adequate time for thinking through the demands of a new project.
  • Be proactive: Investing adequate time in advance planning improves discipline, balance and control, and minimizes the crises that infringe on scheduled activities. Spend time on important things before they become emergencies.
  • Reflect: Are you setting the right priorities? What activities are (or are not) a valuable use of your time?

Much Ado About Funding (July 2015)

Find Funding icon with magnifying glassResearchers know that grants.gov is the best source for big federal funding opportunities, but where does one explore alternative funding options? Seed funding for new ideas? Foundations and non-profits? Crowdfunding? 

Resulting from a collaborative effort, the U-M Library has launched a new Research Funding & Grants Guide that is
a comprehensive resource -- whether you are looking for:

  • Internal awards
  • Foundations supporting your field
  • A refresher course on searching databases
  • like COS Pivot
  • Discovering the buzz about RocketHub. 

The portal is a response to a faculty survey and the needs expressed therein, including a desire for a central site with campus-wide resources and requests for more tailored services. It compiles all the internal funding opportunities available to faculty on campus, from bridging support to pilot funding to subvention. 

Additionally, faculty indicated interest in learning about crowd sourcing -- turning to social media to solicit money from a number of people for a specific project or cause. The library site links to six such services and briefly explains how each is used. 

Perhaps most importantly, the site can be used for learning how to make the best use of the available resources. Sign up for a consultation with an Informationist who will walk you through the funding databases, help you set up personalized RSS feeds from various sites, and ensure you are registered for relevant research listservs

If you can't find time to meet, explore database tutorials from your laptop or check out training events coming up on campus.

SWOT's Up, Doc? (June 2015)

SWOT analysis is a method of evaluating factors that are favorable and unfavorable to achieving some set objective. Applied during the planning phase of proposal writing, this method helps identify both the strengths and the challenges that may affect your pursuit of research funding.

The model is a 4-block matrix (see image below) that groups elements of a project into internal factors (strengths, weaknesses) and external factors (opportunities, threats) on one axis; internal elements represent the specifics of the project and people, while externals denote the attributes of a larger environment (e.g., field of study, sponsor, or funding climate).

The other axis groups positive factors (strengths, opportunities) and negative ones (weaknesses, threats) that affect the potential for success. Evaluating these qualities can pinpoint which strengths to highlight within a proposal and which opportunities to maximize. Moreover, it can help investigators recognize snags, allowing time to mitigate or counter those possibly detrimental impacts.

This diagram can help you get started on analysis:

SWOT Analysis diagram

Getting Guidance for Patient-Centered Research (February 2015)

There is much buzz about "patient-centered outcomes" in healthcare research. In the U.S., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act created the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) in 2010; the nonprofit organization grants hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding annually.

Internationally, conferences and journals are including patients as speakers, delegates, reviewers or board members in an effort to integrate their important perspectives in research processes; when certain criteria are met, entities can adopt the Patients Included logo (pictured below), an endorsement from advocates.

PCORI explains their engagement expectations online; they encourage stakeholder involvement even in the nascent phases of a project, suggesting Principal Investigators (PIs) get patient input on research questions and design.

Patients Included Logo from PCORIThese ideas were further delineated in The Journal of the American Medical Association, explaining that PCORI makes funding decisions based on "the belief that incorporating the patient perspective into healthcare research is inherently valuable and that including the end user of research in the research process enhances usefulness and speeds the uptake of research into practice. Patient-centered outcomes research is poised to substantially change how clinical questions are asked, how answers are pursued, and how those answers are used."

Want to enhance the patient-centeredness of your research?

Some internal resources help bring patients and science together:

Should I apply for an R21? (April 2014)

Click here to view the PDF.

Find your Research Niche (June 2013)

Click here to view the PDF.

PROPOSAL DEVELOPMENT

The Art of Persuasion (February 2017)

NIH reviews more than 80,000 proposals each year. Peer reviewers will often read about 10 proposals each, and, of those, only one is likely to get funded. When grants are so competitive, what can writers do to make their own proposals more persuasive? Some elements of persuasion are in language and mechanics of the writing, but others are in investigator preparation. Here are some tips: 

Impact statement: Remember that grantmakers will only fund research to support their missions, not yours. In other words, NIH doesn't exist to fund great research, it exists to improve human health. Clearly state how your research supports that mission, and include it on your Specific Aims page. It is imperative to describe who your will research impact, and how-even when the payoff may be down the road.

Assessment: Have you done enough legwork and literature review to ensure that your question is significant? That it fills a gap in knowledge? That it advances the field? Have you explained this well enough?

Preparation: Much of persuasion is convincing reviewers that you are the right investigator to do this research. Do you have enough experience in your field or with your chosen methodologies? If there are weaknesses in your expertise, have you chosen collaborators to complement you?

Sell Yourself: NIH changed biosketch formats in the last few years to put less emphasis on publications. While dissemination of results is still important, the "Contributions to Science" sections of biosketches are especially advantageous to early career investigators, allowing junior researchers to showcase activities other than articles.

Homework: Read examples of funded proposals, to see how others have been successful in persuading sponsors to fund their research. UMMS keeps a password-protected Proposal Samplerwith examples that have been donated by our faculty.

Critical: Always have your proposal reviewed BEFORE it gets to study section. Feedback from peers and editors is essential to success.

Resources:

Graphic Report (January 2017)

Whether for proposals or publications, posters, or PowerPoints, researchers need to convert data into easily consumable information. Because human brains process visual objects more efficiently than text and numbers, graphics prove a vital tool for communicating sizable or complex data to readers. Used effectively, they draw attention to key messages or patterns that are not always quickly discerned from text alone.

When thinking about visuals to accompany text, determine what you want to convey. Different models serve different purposes:  bar charts are effective for comparison, but scatterplots might better illustrate distribution, and line charts can trace trends. Your graphic should tell a story and have a point.

Abundant software and design programs have made it increasingly easy to mock up visual representations of your work... and just as easy to make a misstep. The following tips will help you maximize impact:

  • Use color, but use it purposefully; color should be integral to the message, not just beautification. Consider using colorblind-friendly palettes.
  • Keep it simple (but not simplistic); carefully consider how much information to include.
  • Know your audience! Your reader should be able to grasp your graphic's import in 5-10 seconds.
  • Avoid pie charts, 3D figures, and hard-to-read fonts.
  • Don't omit data - it will weaken readers' trust. If you remove outliers for a more effective scale, for instance, then explain that decision.
  • Avoid telling the wrong story - some graphics inadvertently mislead readers. Have a colleague review the figure to ensure it conveys what you intended.

Resources:
UMMS Communicating Science Series: Intro to Data Visualization 
U-M Library: Data Visualization Services 
Misleading Graph
Coursera course
Flow Chart for Charts
Tableau at U-M

No Plain, No Gain (December 2016)

Since the Obama Administration passed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, there is a mandate for federal agencies to use clear communication that the public can understand and use. It's also part of NIH's mission: to provide Americans with health information they can use and to communicate in ways that help people easily understand research results.

Plain language consists of accurate, grammatically correct sentences that are simplified, but not dumbed down. Your audience should be able to understand it after reading it one time. Researchers are required to use plain language for some parts of grant proposals, but may also use it for presentations, blogs, media relations, patient communications, and some journals.

Consider these strategies for revising your technical writing for a broader readership:

Audience: Identify the target group of readers. What do they need to know, and what will they do with that information? What is their existing level of knowledge?

Active voice: Passive voice can be confusing and often awkward; active voice is more direct and interesting to read, and it cuts down the number of words needed to convey an idea.

Common words: Define any technical or medical terms that may be unfamiliar. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations. Use terms consistently.

Figurative language: Metaphors are often effective in connecting something strange to something familiar. Analogies such as "a cell is like a factory" or "building a protein is like building a house" make scientific concepts more accessible to general readers. 

Test it: Ask a non-scientist to read your draft. Did they understand the main ideas? Do they have unanswered questions?

Resources:

Avoiding a Slippery Scope (June 2016)

Reviewers often cite "overambition" as a pitfall for early investigators. Junior researchers commonly propose to take on too much for the budget or time period allowed by a grant, and that inclination suggests inexperience or overconfidence-neither of which positively impresses readers.

Reviewers will assess whether your approach matches your aims, but also consider if that work is realistic. As you develop your plan, think about the following:

  • How much time will it take to complete each step (e.g., subject recruitment, animal protocols, agreements for material transfer or data use, purchasing, experimentation, replication, data collection, analysis, etc.)? What happens to your timeline if any of these things is delayed?
  • How much will your research cost? Work with an experienced research administrator to discuss things like personnel effort and equipment. Toward the new NIH Rigor & Reproducibility guidelines, consider costs associated with replication or authentication of key resources.
  • How feasible is your plan? Do you have a back-up plan in case of snags, and what are the time/cost implications for alternative strategies?
  • What other resources will be obtained with grant funding (e.g., consultants, subcontracts, etc.)?

Evaluate these angles early in the proposal development process and be realistic about what can be accomplished based on project period and budget.
If you're uncertain about what an appropriate scope comprises, solicit advice from your program officer, mentors, or colleagues. Other resources include:

For more information:

The Breakdown on Biostats (October 2015)

Especially in this age of Big Data, researchers may want to explore how they can collaborate with biostatisticians to enhance grant proposals and projects.

Biostatistics is the field of statistics that interprets the data generated by biomedical sciences. Biostatisticians use mathematics, computer science, and computational biology to help make sense of experimental outcomes. They can help distinguish whether variations are caused by chance, measurement error, or other factors; they often can provide an element of objectivity to scientific observation.

Investigators engage biostatisticians in a number of ways, including to:

  • Assist with the study design of clinical trials and biomedical research
  • Help prepare protocols that consider sample sizes, power calculations, and data analysis plans
  • Provide methodological expertise
  • Help conduct experiments
  • Provide appropriate mathematical framework
  • Use statistical theory for real-world applications
  • Collect, summarize, and analyze data for scientific evidence.

If you're not sure how you might incorporate biostats to improve the methodology or competitiveness of your proposal, U-M has several resources that can help:

Preliminary Data? How much? (April 2014)

Click here to view the PDF.

NIH

Introducing Your Resubmission: Beware of the Snark Side (February 2018)

NIH resubmissions (A1s) require a 1-page introduction that carefully summarizes changes in the revised proposal. Demanding precision, confidence, and tact, the letter is a balancing act - and arguably the most important section of a resubmitted application.

Scientific clarity is often the easy part; being politic can be the challenge. If you disagree with your reviewers' critiques, you must still be gracious in your response. If the tone of your introduction can be read as insincere, incredulous, obstinate, or dismissive, your proposal will not likely be re-reviewed favorably.

Suggestions for drafting an effective introduction:

  • Acknowledge reviewers' efforts and how your project will benefit from their insight
    • E.g., "We want to thank the reviewers for their many positive comments...," "We are pleased the reviewers recognized..."
  • Summarize substantial additions, deletions, and changes in the revision
  • Organize points by section, if appropriate (e.g., from Specific Aims to Significance to Innovation to Approach, etc.)
  • Respond point by point to reviewers' major comments; you can paraphrase or condense original comments for reference
    • If you agree with reviewers: change your proposal accordingly and refer to that section in your revised proposal
    • If you disagree, explain why (be respectful, not defensive or flippant) and/or provide additional rationale
      • E.g., if the critique states, "There is a lack of established collaboration between members of the research team," respond, "Research collaborations are now highlighted in Personal Statements of the biosketches."
  • Have an objective reader vet the introduction for tone and clarity prior to resubmission!

For further examples and information:

NIH & ORCID: Connecting Productivity (December 2017)

The non-profit organization ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor Identification) has been working to help researchers streamline the collection and connection of their professional activities for application, manuscript, and biosketch purposes. The system creates a "personal digital identifier" that distinguishes researchers from those with similar names, links investigators to their specific outputs, and ensures researchers get credit for their work. More than 7,000 journals currently include ORCID in their workflows, and ORCID's user base is now 10 times larger than NIH's eRA Commons system.

To further reduce the burden of curating the same biographical and professional data in many places, NIH has expanded its partnership with ORCID. While researchers have been able to link their ORCID with SciENcv (Science Expert Network Curriculum Vitae) to create a biosketch, they can now use a real-time link to associate ORCID with their eRA accounts. 

The functionality of this connection is intended to grow, eventually allowing ORCID to populate NIH applications and reporting requirements, and allowing public data on NIH grant awards to populate ORCID.

The two organizations also will partner on ORBIT (ORCID Reducing Burden and Improving Impact Tracking), an effort to expand the ORCID hub to include all products and activities found on typical CVs, such as grants, teaching, presentations, etc.

More information:

New Opportunities from NIH (October 2017)

Next Generation: Toward addressing a hypercompetitive funding climate and increasing chances for young researchers to stabilize their career trajectories, NIH has released policies to support the Next Generation of Researchers Initiative (PAR-17-101). These steps are intended to help early stage investigators achieve independence and help them maintain funding in their early careers. Junior scientists have been able to claim Early Stage Investigator (ESI) status to have funding priority for R01-equivalents, but NIH is allotting more money for ESIs and plans to fund 200 more in FY17 than in FY16.

Additionally, NIH has added priority for EEIs, or Early Established Investigators. EEIs are defined as a PD/PI who is within 10 years of receiving their first R01-equivalents as an ESI. An EEI may be prioritized for funding if the EEI has lost or is at risk for losing all NIH research support, or if the EEI is supported by only one active award.

Team Science: NIH's National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) has announced the new RM1 funding opportunity for highly integrated teams of researchers - the Collaborative Program Grant for Multidisciplinary Teams (PAR-17-340). The RM1 grant is aimed at highly integrated teams of three to six PD/PIs who have "considerable synergy." The mechanism differs from a P01 in that the goals should not be achievable by a collection of individual projects, but advances a significant, far-reaching objective that can only be accomplished with an interdependent, multidisciplinary team of collaborators.Deadlines for this opportunity are January 25 and May 25, 2018.

To assist with planning complex projects like the RM1, the UMMS Office of Research offers up to $10,000 for preparation of large-scale proposals.
 

MIRA: A Funding Model to Maximize Innovation and Impact (April 2017)

In 2015, NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) began piloting an R35 funding mechanism called the Maximizing Investigators' Research Award (MIRA). After assessing MIRA for 2 years, the institute is broadening the program and intends eventually to shift most of its R01-type awards to renewable R35 MIRAs.

The MIRA award differs from an R01 because it funds an investigator's research program instead of a single years-long project. The MIRA is meant to increase efficiency and efficacy of NIGMS funding by increasing flexibility for investigators-the stability of funding allows them to follow new research directions as opportunities arise in the lab (rather than binding them to proposed specific aims)-i.e., they can go where the science takes them. NIGMS hopes this mechanism will increase innovation and important breakthroughs as investigators take on more ambitious, high-risk, and creative projects. The R35 will more widely distribute funding among talented and promising researchers, and enable investigators to devote less time to writing grants and more time to conducting research and mentoring junior scientists.

PAR-17-094 is restricted to investigators who have at least one R01 equivalent from NIGMS; upcoming deadlines are May 17, 2017, and January 17, 2018. Applications may request up to $750,000 direct costs per year (up to 5 years); awards generally will be commensurate with a PI's average NIGMS research funding over the past few years. 

The FOA for early career investigators is PAR-17-190; the annual deadline is October 3. Budgets are capped at $250,000 direct costs per year (up to five years). In August, NIGMS reported a 29.1% success rate for early stage investigator MIRAs.

More information: MIRA R35
MIRA Webinar with NIGMS Director
NIGMS: overview of research divisions

Appendix-ectomy (November 2016)

A new NIH policy will eliminate almost all appendix materials for proposals submitted to NIH, AHRQ, and NIOSH on or after January 25, 2017.

Appendices have not been prohibited in the past, but investigators were instructed not to use appendix materials to circumvent proposal page limits, i.e., append details that should have been included in the Research Plan. This new policy aims to enhance fairness in peer review and limit the burden on reviewers; eliminating most appendix materials is "intended to rectify inequities...that can arise from submission of inappropriate or excessive appendix materials."

Beginning January 25, 2017, only the below appendix materials will be allowed.

For applications involving clinical trials:

  • Clinical trial protocols
  • Investigators' brochure from Investigational New Drug (IND), as appropriate

For all applications: 

  • Blank informed consent forms 
  • Blank surveys, questionnaires, data collection instruments 
  • FOA-specified items

Per NIH guidelines, always defer to individual FOA instructions, the details of which override general notices. In other words, if appendix materials are required per FOA instructions, applications that are missing those documents will be considered incomplete and will not be reviewed.

NOT-OD-16-129

New NIH Rigor Standards: Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources (May 2016)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)'s 2016 Rigor & Reproducibility criteria require a new attachment to the updated SF424 form (soon to be FORMS-D). This document, called "Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources," asks researchers to detail plans for authenticating resources that are integral to the proposed research -- resources that may differ from lab to lab (or over time), or have qualities that might influence results. Those resources include (but are not limited to) cell lines, specialty chemicals, reagents, antibodies, or other biologics.

According to NIH instructions, the document should be brief -- a page or less -- and should be limited to an investigator's plans to authenticate during the course of the project (not the actual results or data of resources already authenticated). Examples include plans to use flow cytometry or immunohistochemistry to identify primary cell lines, or using western blot analysis for antibody specificity.

Study section members will be asked to review this document, but at this point it will not affect impact scores. They may follow up with questions if more information is needed on meritorious proposals.

The challenge, NIH has acknowledged, is that there is a lack of standards and best practices for authenticating some of the relevant resources. It is a hope that this push toward transparency and detailed reporting of practices will build a consensus in the research community around best practices for authenticating critical scientific resources.

For more information:

Rigor & Better: Implementing NIH's New Standards for Reproducibility (February 2016)

There are many questions regarding how to address the National Institutes of Health (NIH)'s enhanced attention to rigor and reproducibility in new grant applications. Updated proposal requirements aim to strengthen scientific foundations and foster integrity of research, ensuring that investigators provide enough detail that other researchers can replicate and build on results. In other words, if outcomes cannot be successfully reproduced, how sound was the scientific premise?

The NIH defines scientific rigor as "the strict application of the scientific method to ensure robust and unbiased experimental design, methodology, analysis, interpretation and reporting of results." There is an expectation of transparency in reporting experimental details so that others may reproduce the findings under controlled conditions.

How to incorporate these new criteria into proposals:

  • Significance: Describe the strengths and weaknesses of prior research being cited; consideration of strengths and weaknesses might include attention to rigor of previous experimental designs, as well as a discussion of relevant biological variables and authentication of key resources.
  • Approach: Be as detailed as possible when describing research design and proposed methods. Address how 
  • you will achieve robust and unbiased results. Provide enough detail that the research could be replicated.
  • Biological Variables: Toward rigor and transparency, research plans should address sex and other biological variables, including strong justification from literature, preliminary data, or other sources for studying only one sex (or which biological variables are tested/controlled). Justify any exclusion of variables that may be relevant but are not considered in the research plan.

For more information on this and Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources:

NIH Grant Application Changes - Phase II (December 2015)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced several changes to 2016 grant application policies, instructions and forms. The changes will take place in two phases:

  • Phase I will apply to proposals submitted on or after January 25, 2016;
  • Phase II will apply on or after May 25, 2016.

For Phase I details, please see the November 2015 Sharpening Your Focus article (listed above).
 
Phase II implementation further extends changes, incorporating updated application forms (FORMS-D). The current application packages (FORMS-C) will expire after the May 7 AIDS due date.
 
Towards "Rigor and Transparency" -- the effort to enhance reproducibility of scientific findings -- updated application forms will include an attachment for the new "Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources" document. Additionally, PHS 398 Research Training Program Plans will require a new "Plan for the Instruction in Methods for Enhancing Reproducibility."
 
Other policy and application changes are as follows:

  • The Vertebrate Animals section will add questions regarding euthanasia and will apply to all proposals in Phase II. (NOT-OD-16-006)
  • The "Data Safety Monitoring Plan," required for clinical trials proposals, must be attached separately in the new forms.
  • Research Training tables will be reduced from 12 to 8 tables, individual-level reporting will be minimized, and tracking of trainee outcomes will be extended to 15 years; NIH's new xTRACT system will help applicants prepare the new tables. (NOT-OD-16-007)
  • Applicants will make assignment and peer review requests through the new PHS Assignment Request form. (NOT-OD-16-008)
  • Clarification of some biosketch instructions include: URLs for publication lists must link to government websites (e.g., My Bibliography); publications may be cited in both Personal Statement and Contributions to Science; graphics, figures, and tables are not allowed in any section.
  • New NIH flexibility on fonts. (NOT-OD-16-009)

Review these resources for more information:

NIH Grant Application Changes - Phase 1 (November 2015)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced several changes to 2016 grant application policies, instructions, and forms. The changes will take place in two phases:

  • Phase I will apply to proposals submitted on or after January 25, 2016;
  • Phase II will apply on or after May 25, 2016. 

The most significant Phase I changes address "Rigor and Transparency" of research strategies for NIH and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) proposals. In order to enhance reproducibility of scientific findings, investigators must augment two standard sections of the research plan as follows: 

  • Significance: "Describe the scientific premise for the proposed project, including consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of published research or preliminary data crucial to the support of your application."
  • Approach: "Describe the experimental design and methods proposed and how they will achieve robust and unbiased results. Explain how relevant biological variables, such as sex, are factored into research designs and analyses for studies in vertebrate animals and humans. For example, strong justification from the scientific literature, preliminary data, or other relevant considerations, must be provided for applications proposing to study only one sex."

Additionally, a new PDF attachment, called Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources, will be required. Because key resources may differ between labs or over time, have qualities that influence research data, and are integral to proposed research, researchers should describe methods that identify and validate these resources (examples include, but are not limited to, cell lines, specialty chemicals, antibodies, and other biologics).
 
Reviewers will be asked to assess these additional requirements after January 25, 2016. Research Performance Progress Reports submitted after that date should also "emphasize rigorous approaches taken to ensure robust and unbiased results."
 
Other Phase I changes include:

Review these resources for more information:

Don't Underestimate the Significance (August 2015)

The Significance section of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 proposal is critical to the probability of funding -- after Approach, that section correlates highest to successful impact scores. Significance is up front; it makes your case; and it has the potential to win or lose the attention of reviewers.

NIH uses the following questions to spur thinking about Significance

  • Does the project address an important problem or a 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? 

In simpler terms, Significance answers the "So What?" of your proposed work. Why is it important? What is the impact? Whom does it affect? How does it advance your field?

For an R01 proposal, aim for 1-2 pages for this section. Describe the field as it stands; indicate that you are familiar with current research in the field, and aware of existing gaps, opportunities, and roadblocks. Include your preliminary data and long-term research plans.

Take time to scan the roster of your study section members and customize content accordingly. Consider citing their work, when appropriate. Conversely, the further removed reviewers are from your field, the more basic (and clear) information you need to provide on the science, importance, and latest findings relevant to your research.

Finally and importantly, strive to point out your work's significance throughout the application.

For more information check out these helpful resources:

A0 or A1? Outlining Options for NIH Resubmission (May 2015)

Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) updated its resubmission policy in response to researchers' fears that too many meritorious proposals were deemed ineligible by a two-strike system; until 2014, applicants were forced to overhaul ideas significantly before submitting new proposals.

The updated policy essentially allows for unlimited resubmissions: if an A1 (revised, resubmitted) application proves unsuccessful, researchers may resubmit the idea as an A0 (new application) without substantially changing content or scope. NIH hopes that increased feedback means increased strength, feasibility, and fundability of proposals.

It also means options. Read summary statements carefully. Minor revisions and clarifications warrant an A1 resubmission, but extensive overhauls may justify an A0.

Duplicate or highly overlapping applications are still prohibited; additionally, researchers may not submit A1s before A0 summary statements come back. But, A1s are not required before resubmitting (improved) ideas as A0s.

Compare options below:

A0 A1
Does not require introduction Requires introduction to summarize changes, address reviewer comments
Reviewers instructed to respond to application as "new," even if they've seen it previously Reviewers can see effort put into revision, addressing critiques
Should not refer to previous submissions Should include revisions (but no longer requires changes marked in text)

May be submitted to new Study Section

May request change in Study Section via cover letter (discuss with PO or SRO to see if this might be appropriate)

N/A

Must be submitted within 37 months of A0
Success rate for new R01s is at around 15% Historically, success rates for A1s higher than A0s


For more information, please visit the NIH's Resubmission Frequently Asked Questions page.

Anticipating the New NIH Biosketch (January 2015)

Starting Monday, May 25, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will require a new Biosketch format that uses short narratives to highlight what researchers have specifically accomplished in their fields.

Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, notes in her blog that the new qualitative format provides researchers -- especially early investigators -- "a platform for describing and framing the significance of their contributions" that will allow reviewers to better understand bodies of work.

What's New?
Under the section "Contributions to Science," investigators may describe up to five ways their work has influenced and advanced their fields. Each narrative may be annotated by up to four publications. Investigators should detail their most significant contributions and respective impacts, as well as what role they played in the research. The format also allows links to online bibliographies, and a new five-page limit.

What Now?
Reviewers will use "Contributions" to identify candidates with the strongest potential for success. This is a vital opportunity to showcase the highpoints of scientific résumés and emphasize capabilities.

Start crafting yours today:

  • Take inventory of your publications/projects. Group and rank them by significance.
  • Consider constructing titles for each entry that summarize/highlight importance and leave good first impressions.
  • If applicable, note in narratives how many citations publications have received to show who has been building on your work.
  • Have colleagues (mentors, staff) review/edit the section before your next proposal submission! 

Review the SF424 Application Format Pages to learn more. 

NIH Innovation Section (March 2014)

Click here to view the PDF.

Specific Aims Tailored (November 2013)

Click here to view the PDF.

NIH Renewals: Know When to Hold’ em (May 2012)

Click here to view the PDF.

Writing the Research Approach (October 2011)

Click here to view the PDF.

REVIEW PROCESSES

Cite the Good Cite (April 2018)

The NIH Center for Scientific Review recently set out to measure the impact of references cited on proposal review - in other words, do peer reviewers look at references cited while evaluating proposals and, if so, do they affect the score of an application?

The resounding answers are yes and yes. CSR received 615 responses to a survey distributed in late 2017 (respondents were almost equally split between permanent and temporary reviewers), focusing on the last proposal for which they served as primary reviewer.

Looking up references: 88% of reviewers claimed to look up references cited within a proposal, and 65% reported looking up external references not included in a proposal, to help them understand application content. The majority indicated that internal (89%) and external (93%) references affected their understanding of applications.

Affecting scores: Around two-thirds of reviewers reported that both internal (60%) and external (68%) references impacted the score, positively or negatively. Wrote one respondent, "I look up references to judge the quality of the [PI's] work in relation to the rest of the field, to learn about the field in general, and to delve into specific questions that might be key to evaluation of the application. This could result in changes to the score in either direction." References cited within applications often lead to reviewers' improving their scores.

Open Mike: "Do Reviewers Read References? And If So, Does It Impact Their Scores?"

Choosing Study Sections ARTfully (November 2017)

When submitting grant proposals to NIH, it's critically important to choose the most appropriate study section. Why? You want your science to be understood, and choosing the right committee increases the chances that your reviewers will appreciate (and champion!) your research and its significance.

NIH's Center for Scientific Review recently launched a new tool to take the guesswork out of selecting study sections-no more scrolling through committee acronyms and poring over countless rosters. The Assisted Referral Tool (ART) allows investigators to "paste" the text of specific aims or a proposal summary into a search field. The system matches the fingerprint of the application text to a database of applications actually reviewed by each study section. It then generates both strong and potential study section recommendations with direct links to study section descriptions and rosters of reviewers.

Your query is confidential. None of the entered text or search results will be retained after the query is completed.

More information about NIH peer review:

Maintaining the Integrity of Peer Review (May 2017)

One of the most critical responsibilities of peer reviewers on NIH study sections is to respect the confidentiality of submitted proposals and the review process. Conversely, applicants must respect the integrity of the process and the reviewer role. While professional interactions between applicants and reviewers can continue during peer review, discussions regarding applications are prohibited. Infractions are rare, but as a reminder:

Reviewers should NOT:

  • Disclose contents of applications, critiques or scores
  • Disclose review discussions Associate a specific reviewer with a written review
  • Use information contained in a proposal for their personal benefit

Applicants should NOT:

  • Contact reviewers on the study section to request information about your application or its review
  • Attempt to influence the review in any way
  • Send information or data directly to a reviewer on the study section evaluating your application

It is crucial for the entire research community to support this process, writes Dr. Richard Nakamura, director of the NIH Center for Scientific Review, because "[attempts] to influence the outcome of the peer review process through inappropriate or unethical means result in needless expenditure of government funds and resources, and erode public trust in science." Damage to scientific integrity hurts the entire community. In the event that a review is compromised, NIH may withdraw an application and has the option to take additional steps, including notifying institutions or pursuing a referral for government-wide suspension or debarment.

All participants in the application and review process have the responsibility to report potential breaches of peer review integrity. Participants should contact your Scientific Review Officer, or email csrrio@mail.nih.gov

More information:

Requested Development: Cover Letters (July 2016)

NIH previously accepted study section requests in Cover Letter Attachments. With the new SF424 Forms Version D, researchers must now use the PHS Assignment Request Form to communicate review requests to the Division of Receipt and Referral (DRR) in the Center for Scientific Review (CSR). Making assignment requests is optional, but recommended - it's vital to ensure that your proposal gets to the peer reviewers who will best understand and appreciate your research.

It is critical to match your area of research with the areas reviewed by specific study sections. Start by reviewing rosters of study sections that seem appropriate for your proposed work. You may also search NIH RePorter to find similar projects and to see which institutes funded them and which study sections reviewed them.

The new Assignment Request Form requires Funding Opportunity numbers (PA or RFA) and titles. It asks for your preferred institutes and your preferred study sections (as well as which should not be used). This also is the form to use to specify reviewers who might have a conflict of interest (e.g., former students, direct competitors, etc.); be sure to provide sufficient information. Additionally, investigators may list up to five scientific areas of expertise that are needed to review the application.

Cover letter attachments should still be used for the following issues: resubmissions; continuous submission; late applications; reasons for changed/corrected applications after due date; explanation of subaward budgets; explanation of any agency approval documentation (e.g., for applications >$500,000); intent to submit a video; and details regarding genomic data.
Assignment requests are only for internal use and will not be shared with peer reviewers.

Further resources:

Review Criteria for New NIH Rigor & Reproducibility Standards (April 2016)

In the next cycle of study sections, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reviewers will newly assess four areas of proposals for attention to rigor and reproducibility as described in these updated instructions. The first three have the potential to affect scores in Significance and Approach.

New reviewer instructions are described below:

  1. Scientific Premise is a measure of the strength of the body of evidence supporting your proposed research questions. Your Significance section should include analyses of published research or preliminary data crucial to the support of your application (e.g., the rigor of prior experiments, methodology or interpretation, biological variables, and/or authentication of key resources). 
    Reviewer instructions: "Is there a strong scientific premise for this project?"
  2. Scientific Rigor is the strict application of scientific method to ensure robust and unbiased experimental design, methodology, analysis, interpretation, and reporting of results (i.e., full transparency and reproducibility); rigor should be reflected in Approach. 
    Reviewer instructions: "Have investigators presented strategies to ensure a robust and unbiased approach, as appropriate for the work proposed?"
  3. Relevant Biological Variables: For basic, preclinical and clinical research in vertebrates and humans, explain how relevant biological variables (e.g., sex, age, weight, etc.) are factored into research design and analyses. Studies using only one sex should provide strong justification from scientific literature or preliminary data. This should appear in your Approach section. 
    Reviewer instructions: "Have the investigators presented adequate plans to address relevant biological variables, such as sex, for studies in vertebrate animals or human subjects?"
  4. Authentication of Key Resources: Key biological or chemical resources are generally those that may differ from lab to lab or over time, have qualities that could influence results, and are integral to the proposed research (e.g., cell lines, specialty chemicals, antibodies, other biologics, etc.). The new attachment should transparently report how you will authenticate these resources. 
    Reviewer instructions: "Comment on the brief plans proposed for identifying and ensuring the validity of key biological and/or chemical resources."

Additional recommended training resources:

NIH Paylines & Percentiles (August 2012)

Click here to view the PDF.

WRITING TIPS & OTHER GUIDANCE

Fact & Furious: Science in the Age of Misinformation (June 2018)

The omnipresent Internet has fundamentally changed which individuals or institutions get to be the arbiters of truth. Anyone can publish anything with a few key-clicks, and news consumers increasingly believe only the information that aligns with their existing worldviews. When people are inclined to follow feelings before facts, science faces an existential crisis.

Scientists have to adapt to this new reality, wrote Professor Andrew Hoffman, U-M Ross School of Business, in The Conversation in March. Universities often consider public outreach part of their mission, and academics should embrace it as part of their professional roles. Scholars risk irrelevancy if they neglect to combat the skepticism and outright misinformation that is propagated online. Institutions also should be enabling these activities, both by giving scientists the tools and skills they need to communicate to lay audiences and by creating incentives to do so.

The good news: it’s easier than ever to communicate your work to the public. But you’ll want to consider the most effective ways to do it, given the number of digital options, your time constraints, and readers’ short attention spans.

Michigan Medicine’s public relations expert Kara Gavin offers several strategies for connecting with non-scientists, including:

  • Work with Michigan Medicine’s Department of Communications to create a PR plan for major events like publications, grants and scientific breakthroughs; they will act as liaisons between faculty and the press and can advise on interviews, etc. They also will help put your news in places where other sources may pick it up (e.g., www. michiganhealthlab.org).
  • Researchers can engage directly via social media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Doximity and ResearchGate. These are good for connecting with people in your field, sharing findings, promoting publications, and other activities. Be sure to use lay language, be discrete, and enhance posts with visuals whenever possible.
  • Join The Conversation, a platform that helps academics reach the public on timely topics, often republished by major media outlets.
  • When hiring for your labs, consider students and post-docs who are social media savvy and have strong communications skills; they may be able to help your work get a foothold online.

Resources

Project Outcomes, Public Interest (January 2018)

As part of ongoing efforts to increase both transparency and public interest in science, NIH has begun sharing reported project outcomes in its database, NIH RePORTER. Since October 1, 2017, the Outcomes section submitted by grantees in their annual and final Research Performance Progress Reports (RPPRs) have been made available to the public online.
"Reviewing reported outcomes is part of our stewardship of the public's investment in research," writes Dr. Mike Lauer, NIH's Deputy Director for Extramural Research, in a November blog. "Publicly posting grant outcomes provides transparency and lets the taxpayer understand what they have paid for."

To that end, it's critical for researchers to write the Outcomes section appropriately. Use plain language (aim for Grade 10 readability). Keep descriptions clear and concise. Avoid proprietary or confidential information and trade secrets. 

NIH will publish the Outcomes exactly as they are submitted in the web form, so write the text exactly as you would like it to appear in RePORTER.

More information and tools to help:

Science You Can News (October 2016)

It is incumbent upon researchers to share the results of their work, and they do so regularly to peers via scholarly dissemination, including publishing in journals and presenting at conferences. But researchers have a vested interest in communicating the outcomes and impact of their work to a broader audience - particularly when researchers depend on public funds to do their work (i.e., taxpayers like to know there their money goes).

The good news: it's easier than ever to communicate your science to the public. But you'll want to consider the most effective ways to do it, given the prevalence of digital options, your time constraints, and readers' short attention spans.

In our first Communicating Science Seminar on September 15, "Public Relations and External Audience Communications," UMHS public relations expert Kara Gavin offered several strategies for connecting with non-scientists. The UMHS Department of Communications can assist on many of these options:

  • Work with UMHS Communications to create a PR plan for major events like publications, grants, and scientific breakthroughs; they will act as liaisons between faculty and the press and can advise on interviews, etc.
  • The Communications office will help put your news in places where other sources can use it, such as on U-M outlets (e.g., UMHS headlinesmichiganhealthlab.org).
  • Researchers can engage directly via social media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Doximity, and ResearchGate. These are good for connecting with people in your field, sharing new findings, promoting publications, and other activities. Be sure to use lay language and enhance posts with visuals whenever possible.
  • Join The Conversation, a platform to help academics reach the public on timely topics, often republished by major media outlets.

Resources

Are We Share Yet? (March 2016)

In January, editors of leading medical journals proposed a significant change to scientific publication -- to require researchers to publicly share the data gathered in clinical trial studies as a condition of publishing results in these journals. The move is much in line with a growing consensus of sponsors, including foundations and government agencies, who increasingly mandate data sharing in this field of research.

Currently, investigators can publish findings without releasing the data upon which conclusions are based, and only a few of the top journals have tried to require data sharing as a condition of publication. Now, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) claims that there is "an ethical obligation to responsibly share data generated by interventional clinical trials because participants have put themselves at risk." Sharing data, they argue, augments scientific integrity and facilitates scientific progress, allowing others to provide insight and analyses.

The shift to data sharing is not without controversy. Researchers often justify their decisions to keep data close by pointing to how much time, effort, and money is spent in gathering and analyzing (their data). They can publish at their own pace, and exposing their data feels risky -- what if someone finds an error? On the other hand, keeping data inaccessible can protect the work from scrutiny but may impede science.

Widespread, responsible data sharing will change how clinical trials are planned and conducted, and how data are used. Full details of the ICMJE proposal are available here.

Are you Fuzzy about Clear Writing (July 2013)

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Basic Budget Blunders (May 2013)

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Know your Audience (December 2012)

Click here to view the PDF.

Federal Contracts vs. Grants (June 2012)

Click here to view the PDF.

Proposal Title (December 2011)

Click here to view the PDF.

Letters of Support (August 2011)

Click here to view the PDF.

Questions?

Contact us at 734-615-1332 / (Fax 734-763-4936)

2800 Plymouth Road, Building 520, 3rd Floor, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2800

Contact Jill Jividen, Ph.D., Assistant Director for Research Development, at jjgoff@umich.edu or 734-764-3634. 

A full list of Research Development staff is available in the Personnel Directory.