Writing NIH grant proposals

by David Ozonoff 

My new Pump Handle blog colleague, “Revere”, has posted on NIH’s proposal to limit the Research Plan section of Research Project Grant applications to 15 pages, down from the current 25. He/she/they (Revere’s blog, Effect Measure, is ambiguous as to how many Reveres there are) also gives a peek into the NIH grant review process, something people are often curious about. As Revere says, it’s a bit like seeing how sausages are made. You might not want to know. In any event, since Revere opened up the topic and since this site is more pitched to public health professionals than Effect Measure (which is a public health blog for anyone interested in public health), I thought I’d add my thoughts on things I’ve found to be most important in writing an NIH grant proposal.


Most NIH grant proposals are submitted on the venerable PHS398 Form. I won’t bother to go over all the parts of the application that don’t relate directly to the Research Plan (budgets, compliance statements, bios, other support pages, bios, etc.). You can find plenty of guidance at the NIH website about those. Here I’ll just discuss a few points about the Research Plan section, which has four sub-parts: specific aims, background and significance, preliminary data/progress, research design and methods. Currently there is a 25 page limit on all these parts together and there are recommended page allocations for each subsection (although these are not mandatory).

I have one (obvious) piece of advice about the all the sections. Your goal should be clarity, the most important characteristic of a good grant application. Pretty obvious. You’d be surprised at how infrequently it is manifest. Great ideas that are incoherently or badly expressed may as well be bad ideas. Modest ideas very clearly expressed, however, can often get great scores. How do you get clarity in your writing? Practice helps. Like everything else, writing (and grant writing in particular) improve with practice. Your goal, of course, is to have as little practice as possible because you hit on all your grants. But practice writing in general is useful. Maybe you want to start a blog? OK, enough of that. Another key to clarity is to plan sufficient time for rewriting. The writer’s adage that “writing means rewriting” is true. Your first draft isn’t likely to be a masterpiece. If you have time to put it in a drawer for a few days and come back to it, all the better. Most of us aren’t that disciplined and often are working against tight deadlines, however, so another route to having fresh eyes is to use a colleague. Most people are glad to help and don’t be hesitant to ask. You’ll do the same for them some day (you will, won’t you?). Most of your colleagues won’t do a detailed copy edit but they can flag those areas that aren’t clear to them and can save you making some costly mistakes.

Many years ago (OK, it was many decades ago) I got some great grant writing advice that has stood me in good stead. A colleague told me the most important part of the whole proposal was the part that is usually less than a page long, the first section, Specific Aims. You should work hard on this page. Very hard. It tells the reviewer exactly what you are going to do, and if you are clever, it also tells him or her, why. Your goal is to get immediate buy-in that says, “Yes, this is interesting. I’d like to know the answer to these questions. I wonder what’s going to happen when (s)he does this.” Again, clarity is the key. The reviewer needs to understand exactly what you are going to do. If you can, you should tell them in the first paragraph why you are going to do it, but the elaboration of that comes next, Background and Significance.

The Background and Significance section usually runs about 3 pages, but sometimes longer. It is not just a literature review. It is a teaching exercise. It should be interesting and present things in a way that makes your proposal a natural thing to do. Your goal is to have the reviewer see the problem from your point of view, just as if you were teaching a class. In teaching, it is also my experience that students get pleasure out of understanding things. It won’t hurt you a bit if the reviewer likes reading your application. The obvious corollary is that it won’t help you a bit if the reviewer hates reading your application.

My emphasis on the first two parts of the application is probably counter-intuitive for a lot of people. We have been taught to think that the meat of the proposal is in the Methods section. But I think I am giving you good advice. The first two parts of the proposal are at least as important as the others, maybe more so.

One place applications frequently become bloated is in the next section, Preliminary data/progress. Assuming this is not a renewal, there is essentially only one purpose for this section: to say, “I can do this.” You don’t need to say any more than you need to to establish this. Do it anyway you think effective. This is one place where the premium on clarityh isn’t so urgent. You want to leave an impression, not achieve understanding in the reader. These days having at least some preliminary data is almost essential to success, however. Many people actually have already done the research they are proposing and if funded, will use it to do new research they will propose in the next application. Strange but true. Many of us work one application ahead. It makes the Prelminary Results section easier to write (of course you don’t tell them everything; just enough to show you can generate the rest of it).

Finally, we come to the supposed core of the application, Research Methods. The part that needs to be very clear here is the design. The rest of the stuff is usually “eyes glaze over” material that is well known to specialists in the field. This doesn’t mean you can be careless about it. Make sure you are doing it the right way. Failure here will doom you with a knowledgeable reviewer. But that isn’t a writing issue. It’s an expertise issue.

Grant writing is a mixture of skill, luck and scientific acumen. It’s not a chore if you are used to getting funded. If you face continual rejection it’s not a chore, either. It’s torture.

David Ozonoff, MD, MPH, is Professor of Environmental Health, Boston University School of Public Health.

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