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YoungOn June 8, 2018, Dr. Martin Young, Professor and Jeanne V. Marks Endowed Chair of Cardiovascular Disease at UAB, presented his advice on how to write a successful NIH R grant at our June Training Interdisciplinary & Emerging Research Scholars (TIERS) session. He drew from his experience writing several funded R grants as well as serving as a reviewer on numerous NIH study sections. 

His top tip? Let the science lead the way! “Applications must focus on a significant area of research and address impactful questions,” he said. Grant writers should focus on new or paradigm shifting concepts and avoid proposing incremental “follow-up” work. 

We list several other tips below.

Align your research with NIH and IC-specific missions. NIH comprises 27 Institutes and Centers (ICs). Begin by looking at their missions to determine which best fits with your research idea. Then contact a scientific research officer (SRO) there to discuss how to pitch your research and ask for advice on the best possible study section that would fit with those ideas. Then talk to UAB investigators who have served on that study section and/or seek out examples of grants that were scored well by that section 

[Editor’s note: Start with the CCTS Grant Library, we have numerous examples of funded NIH R grants!]. 

Spend time on the specific aims page, it should be a “work of art.” First impressions last, and you want to excite reviewers, make them want to read the rest of your application. Don’t get hung up on cramming it all in to one page. Both layout and content matter. Write using plain language so that all members of the study section can grasp the science. Focus primarily on Significance, Rationale, Hypothesis, and Impact. Address the “Big Picture”—what is the relevance of your work to human health? What gaps in knowledge will your research fill? 

Do not propose too many aims. Two to three aims is typical for an R01. Try to make the aims appealing to a broad audience, including basic scientists, clinicians, and other translational researchers. One way to approach specific aims is to address what is normal with Aim 1, what is broken in Aim 2, and a way to fix it with Aim 3. Include at least two of these three foci. 

Write with your reader in mind. It is easy to lose readers with verbose or meandering passages. Construct a clear and logical pathway from thought to thought. Each sentence should have one major concept, key concepts should be given ample explanation, and paragraphs should end with a summary, direction, or question. “Tell a story that is interesting, accurate, and easily understood,” Young said. 

Images convey more than words. Make a reviewer’s life easier by breaking text up with appropriate figures, which should be easy to grasp without a legend. This is especially appreciated in the methodological section, where a chart showing feasibility data results or a flow diagram can go a long way to communicate the details of your approach. Just be careful not to include so many figures that they overpower the narrative. 

Take advantage of internal review panels. Ask multiple colleagues to review the application well in advance of submission. Provide enough time to receive and incorporate feedback. 

[Editor’s note: CCTS offers several scientific review panels for wherever you are in the grant development process. Our panel recipients enjoy a success rate that is three times the NIH funding line.]

Young also provided a list of “recurrent, avoidable, potentially fatal flaws.” These included aims that are interdependent and insufficient preliminary data. His conclusion offered several additional “tricks of the trade,” such as how to make basic science appear translational. 

To hear Dr. Young’s entire talk, visit our CCTS YouTube channel.