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Strengthen your research plan for a better score – Dos and Don'ts

Dallas Anderson
Program Director,
Division of Neuroscience (DN)

As an NIA program officer for 11 years and counting I have the rare privilege of monitoring many study section meetings devoted almost exclusively to R03, R21, and R01 applications. (Don’t know what these numbers mean? Start here.) One thing that leaps out of this experience is that a perpetually changing cast of peer reviewers raise the same basic criticisms over and over again.

What are these pitfalls? Of course, I can’t list every possible thing that reviewers can find wrong in an application, and my experience is limited to observational studies of aging human populations. Still, the list below is general enough that some or all may apply to you even if your research if far from this field.

Most importantly, simplify your research plan.

When applicants come to me for advice after receiving a disappointing score, the most common recommendation that I make is to simplify the research plan. In fact, I have the word “SIMPLIFY” posted on my office wall in large letters. It’s good advice for all of us.

Scientific justification, writing style, page limits


  1. Justify the proposed research scientifically, including theoretical motivations, relevant published data, and pilot data if appropriate.
  2. Obvious potential overlaps with existing grants should be thoroughly addressed.


  1. Don’t skip the literature review entirely or ignore large chunks of the relevant literature in order to save space.
  2. Don’t use a writing style that is dense and confuses the reviewers. Not sure if your style will annoy reviewers? Ask someone you trust to take a look. Employ a reader, someone who is not in your scientific field but can read your draft and advise you about what is not clear. That person can really help with presentation. And, look over our science communication advice.
  3. Don’t place critical information in an appendix in order to get around the page limit.

Specific aims


  1. Applications become stronger by reducing complexity and eliminating poorly developed aims from the proposed research. How many aims should an application have? With current page limits, it’s difficult to adequately defend more than three or four.
  2. Select aims that are novel or fresh, and are capable of substantially advancing the field.


  1. Don’t include untestable aims. Aims must be testable to make it into your application. If you lack equipment or knowledge to test an aim in this application, then plan it for a future one. Don’t include it in this one.
  2. Don’t include aims devoted to building research infrastructure if the infrastructure is not essential for the work you propose. Don’t assume that reviewers highly value an application just because it builds research infrastructure. We have research infrastructure opportunities. If you want to write one of these then talk to your program officer. Do not include that in an R01.
  3. Don’t include aims that lack specificity or suggest a fishing expedition. Write a “tight” set of aims. Like a good story, the parts connect, and the conclusion follows from them. (Of course, you don’t know the ending yet!)

Key personnel


  1. Key personnel must have appropriate expertise and experience, specific to the stated aims.
  2. Keep in mind that the expertise and experience of the key personnel, even if outstanding, cannot offset weak aims.


  1. Don’t assume that it’s irrelevant whether key personnel have a history of successful collaboration together. It really does help if the key personnel can show that they have worked together successfully.

Data collection


  1. When it comes to data collection activities and the analytic plan, they need to be linked to the stated aims.
  2. Using multiple sites for data collection? The scientific need for using multiple sites must be clearly justified.
  3. Use preliminary data to show feasibility of aspects of the research design—it’s important!
  4. Be clear about the exact number of participants expected to be enrolled in the research project.


  1. For competing renewals, don’t add new participants if the stated aims can be adequately addressed without them.

Have I covered the most common pitfalls? Are there others you would include? Or, do you have questions about those I’ve shared? Please get in touch with me by commenting below.

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