All TutorialsArrowArrow

A Reviewer’s Perspective: The Right Way to Approach NIH Grants

As a seasoned grant winner and reviewer, NMHD study section member, Dr. Peter J. Turnbaugh, will share a reviewer’s perspective on what tips will help you win your next grant, in an engaging talk and Q&A session.

Join the BioRender Community


I'm going to show you a couple of examples of figures later in this talk from our lab, and I think it'll really give you a sense for how you really don't have to get this stuff perfect.

You know, not everyone can make the level of quality figures and Daniel said this, but just trying your hardest can really make a big difference in your hands. And so a couple of years ago, my older daughter Hazel drew this diagram, and I think it really highlights what my job is. So, you know, what she said when my dad doesn't work, he writes grants. Sometimes he does not write grants. And, you know, that's really true. Grant writing is really my number one goal and to try to keep the lab well-funded and sustainable. And as you all know, this process is really, really hard. So you have to sort of get a thick skin and really get used to a lot of rejection. These are a couple of quotes from my grants. So the first one, you know, he's clearly very smart, but hasn't been intellectually challenged yet. And then the second one, it seems naive to me to suggest that there's a whole wealth of usable insight to be gained from the culture of individual microorganisms. So, as I mentioned, you know, we work on the gut microbiome. And so the second one really puts a dagger through one of our main methods that we use in the lab. And then the first one obviously takes me down in terms of my brain. And, you know, the other thing that is sort of serious and hard to predict is sort of how your grant is going to be received by reviewers.

And so this is an example of my own attempt, unsuccessfully, to get the New Innovator Award. The first time I applied was in 2012. And for those of you who don't know, NIH grants are scored between 10 and 90, with 10 being a perfect score.

So the first time I got a 34, I was thinking, "This is really great." Trying to get it in two years later with an even more polished, more exciting grant. My score went down to 55. And then the third time, it wasn't even discussed at all. So that shows you that even though you think the grant is getting better, your reviewers may not agree. And so you have probably all heard this quote from Malcolm Gladwell about 10,000 hours. So that translates to working four hours a day on something for 10 years.

You know, hopefully, with the advice you just got from Daniel and what I'm going to share with you, you can get there a little faster. But I think you should rest assured that grant writing is a skill, and it just requires a lot of practice to get better at it.

And, you know, we've all gone through that painful process. And importantly, even though, when you start out in science, you don't necessarily think of yourself as a writer. It's really important. You really have to become a writer to lead a research lab. And to do that, you just need to write all the time. So, you know, both reading and writing are really important and should be part of your routine every day. Okay. So just to walk you through a few basic dos and don'ts. And I think we got some of those from the previous talk as well. So, you know, this is something that really took me a while to sink in, but your goal as a grant writer is really to explain what you're working on, not to try to impress people with how great you are.

Keep your writing Simple

You want to keep your writing simple and try to use as few words as possible. Keep your paragraphs short and add lots of white space to make the grant easier to read and more pleasing to the eye.

Start with a topic sentence

Another thing that, you know, any English major would know that a lot of us scientists hadn't heard about is topic sentences. And so, you know, every paragraph should start with the topic sentence. Your readers should be able to skip the rest of every paragraph and still understand the grant just by reading the first sentence.

Select your words carefully

So things that you should not do as I mentioned, don't try to just blow people away with how great you are. You need that to come out organically from the grant, not by being fancy or making things hard to understand. Really try to avoid jargon or unnecessary abbreviations. These things make it harder to read and they make the reviewer think they're dumb. And don't write random sentences and avoid parentheses and asides, which can really make writing hard to interpret. And so this next slide might seem sort of esoteric, but the words that we use really do matter a lot. And so there are a few words that are really amazing for describing science, such as examine, evaluate, determine, and test.

Here are some examples of okay words, which are not as good as examine but still good, such as delineate and assess So words like examine, evaluate, determine, test. Very active, sort of strong words. Here's some examples of okay words that define, you know, maybe not as good as examine, but it's still a good one, delineate assess. And then there is a long list. I think that we all could fit together. Of words that you should really not use in your grammar. And so really common ones are characterized and described. These are what we think of as waffle words. So it descends in a weak way like, you don't know what you're doing. You don't have a goal.  This next category analyzed, dissect, identity, quantify. These are great words, but they have a very specific meaning in science. And so, for example, dissect, is how we sort of take apart an organism and look at the different parts. And so you wanna make sure you're using those words in the right context in that and others. Believe, you know, so, you know, scientists really search for truth.

We're not trying to establish a belief system. And so we can kind of avoid that. And then words like novel and innovative, and it might seem like good ideas to put in but you really want to let the reader decide what's new and interesting. And then each scientific field has a lot of words that sort of make reviewers angry. And so in the microbiome field, these are words like dysbiosis and flora. So anytime I read a grant with those words, it just sort of puts me on edge right away. So I'm not going to read through this next slide, and hopefully you guys can get access to the talk later. But these are just a list of 10 writing tips, sort of why each of them matters, why we have a hard time with them, and what you can do to fix them.

Adjust your style of grant writing to match the grant

And so another thing to keep in mind is that you really want to adjust your style to the type of grant writing. And so the last talk really focused on Katz, which is, you know, maybe a little bit more like a foundation grant. These typically are big picture essay style grants. You wanna avoid putting too much detail, so no preliminary data. Or maybe a little bit of preliminary data. And really, one of the main things that you're trying to get across is why are you special? What is your unique skill set? Why is your question important? And here, you really want to know your audience.

Is some of these foundation awards where they're really looking at broad areas of biology, and your grant will not be reviewed by an expert in the field that you're working on. And others, like the one we have from the Parkinson's Foundation, are really focused on one specific disease area. And so you wanna sort of think about who's gonna read your grant and what they might expect in terms of how you write it.

Types of grants

And then I'll just touch on a couple of them. A common mechanism. So our 21s are shorter-term grants from NIH. They only require 6 pages of research plan. And you really do need preliminary data. So, even though technically, the RFA says you don't, reviewers really expect to see that in there. And they require a lot less detail than an R01, but you would still really need to sort of break them like you would for NIH. So you can learn that NIH style. And as Daniel mentioned, you really wanna know your study section so, what type of people are going to read your grant? And I would encourage you to email people at your institution that are in that study section and sort of ask them what they look for and what other people look for in grant proposals.

And so the R01 is really the bread and butter for biomedical research. It's a 12-page-long proposal. It's twice the length of an R21. You need a lot of preliminary data, and you need a lot of detail, but you need to sort of try not to overwhelm reviewers. And make it easy to digest. And it's really important that you spend a lot of time talking through your controls as to why your approach is the right one to take and what the alternatives might be. And so I'll just walk you through a few of the main sections of these NIH grants and with a few key tricks. So, you know, most grants have an abstract. And scientists really expect to see a specific logical series in abstracts. And so I think it's really important that you don't try to get creative and sort of stick to the formula. And we should be good at that because we're scientists so, for an NIH grant, this typically is, blank is an important disease, but we know very little about some aspect of that disease, so that's the knowledge gap. My goal is to determine how something does something. And then, based on the following, we came up.

And so, you know, for an NIH grant, this typically is, you know, blank is an important disease, but we know very little about some aspect of that disease, so that's the knowledge gap. My goal is to determine how something does something. And then, you know, based on the following, we came up with this hypothesis about how this might work. And then we're gonna use the following approaches to study it. And then, typically, about half of a page, is or half of the abstract sort of briefly summarizes the aims, and then you wanna end with 2 to 3 sentences about why this will be really important, not just for the specific area of study you're working on, but for the broader area of science. And so next up is specific aims. This, I would consider the most important part. You should spend the vast majority of your time working on that 1 page. And I think it's really important to start this process early. You wanna find a couple of friends that can really give you critical feedback on that page and really iterate, you know, revise, repeat, send it out again. And try to sort of hone that page until you really feel like it's perfect. And importantly, I think you should, you know, really try to walk your aims before you start the research plan.

And so, you know, my goal when I write your hands is that, I really only want the research plan. So it's 12 pages long. You don't want to get in a cycle of rewriting 12 pages. But at times, you'll spend the rest of your life writing that crap. And so that means that you really should not be changing your aims after you move from the aims page to the research plan. And I'll say just as an aside, you want to avoid the dependencies between aims to make sure that each aim could be done in parallel. That they don't require one of the other aims to be completed first. And it's good to put your hypothesis in bold. And I would also caution you to limit the use of bold in other sentences and bolding and italics and underlines can be really distracting and they sort of rob the reader of the ability to choose what words they think are important. Remember to have lots of white space and use figures and are really important. And so the research plan really has 3 main sections. I'll just share a few key pieces of advice for each 1. So for significance, Really, the point of this is to provide essential background information.

So you don't need to review the entire field But you do need to tell the reader all the information they would need to understand your aims. You wanna avoid the use of sort of death stats. So it's really not important how many people die a given year from your disease. It's really more important what the project that you're proposing will teach you about that disease. You don't wanna load down the grant too much of these numbers. And really avoid overstatements and a common thing in NIH grants is that people promise new drugs or other products. And you need to acknowledge the realistic view that that might take many decades to achieve. It won't happen within the context of a single grant. And then the main deployment of the significance section is to really focus on knowledge gaps and the conceptual importance of what you're working on.

In terms of the next section innovation, you want to explain both conceptually what's unique about your approach and also methodologically, what types of new methods are you using that other people have not used in the past? And this is a good section to talk about you know, if it's relevant, the interdisciplinary nature of your research. And it's also okay for innovation to be relatively brief soon. This doesn't have to be, you know, more than half a page or maybe a 3/4 of a page. And then, really, the bulk of the grant is spent on the pitch So you wanna really convince the reader that you have the right expertise, and this is definitely going to work.

So you probably heard of this rigor in prior research. You want it's important to really emphasize what we know based on the literature. You're really on firm ground based on what people have done in the past. And then also provide your own preliminary data supporting your aims. And it's important to avoid sorting the data down. So just just sort of choose the data that really supports your hypothesis or addresses your hypothesis one way or another. Don't just show them all the data that you've generated in your lab. And here it's okay if there's problems or challenges that you're going to face. You just want to be upfront about this and talk about the caveats of your approach, talk about its limitations, and then talk about alternative hypotheses. So really what the reviewers are looking for is that you're sort of realistic? Is that your own limitations? And that you have ideas for how you might address those limitations? So as we heard from Daniel, you know, BioRender and other tools are great for really improving the graphics in your grants. And I do think this matters a lot. This is just a couple examples from our labs. So this is an F32 Postdoc fellowship application from Cecilia Noecker, which scored a 15/90.

And the grant really walks through sort of a very focused analysis of the metabolism of 1 particular gut bacteria named E. lenta in aim 1, and then she zooms out to look at an interactions with other micros in aim 2, and then in aim 3, analyzing that at the population scale, looking at different and so I thought that really conceptualized the overall goal of the grant really nicely.

And then another example of something is from Than Kyaw student in the lab and got 1 of our only perfect scores on a grant. And this is a little bit more complicated, but sort of walks through all the various ways that bacteria may potentially be affecting a transporter. And sort of walking through the different stages of P-gp expression and activity and then its degradation.

And so to recap, you know, great writing just requires a lot of practice. So you should learn to enjoy writing and do it as much as we can. Really focus on clarity and my graduate adviser always talked about the lazy reader. So you wanna make the reading process as easy as possible for whoever's reading it. 

And remember that you're a teacher. You're not trying to impress people. And fortunately, for me, you know, you don't have to use all sorts of fancy language. You're just trying to keep things really simple and focused on science. And, you know, try as a real attempt to put one simple and pretty graphic on each page.

Due to continuous improvements in BioRender, the application may appear slightly different in some of our videos.
Video idea succesfully submitted