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Making the scientific case for your research aims: it's vital!

Dallas Anderson
Program Director,
Division of Neuroscience (DN)

For scientists writing NIH grant applications, the aims are THE THING.

The applicant calls the program officer: “What do you think of these aims?”

The program officer listens and senses the enthusiasm. Later, however, when the aims get stated in the language of the grant application, the enthusiasm has been drained away, and the importance of the aims has been obscured by a wordy style of writing and a lack of focus. The program officer tries to be helpful by suggesting that it is important to make the reviewers enthusiastic about the proposed work.

“But I am a scientist, not a salesman!” The applicant is in disbelief.

“Yes, but there is a reason you want to spend years of your life on these aims. You need to infect your reviewers with that same enthusiasm.”

This scenario happens too often. Sometimes, in my program officer role, I ask the applicant to practice communicating the aims to me: “Give me the two-minute version.” That may set off another episode of disbelief: “How can I possibly explain my aims in two minutes?” This is one way to encourage the applicant to get to the point as quickly as possible. Some applicants need to get back to me later because they are not used to thinking in this way.

The aims are indeed THE THING. Every aspect of the application relates back to the aims. Sooner or later the skillful applicant comes to understand that making a strong case for the aims is essential, and defending the aims is critical, too.

What is required in making the case for the aims?

Basically, if your research will move the field forward in a substantial way, you must convince the program officer and the reviewers of this. What about moving the field forward in an incremental way? If the research is incremental then make the case that this incremental step is a critical one. If the proposed work is in an active research area, where many other scientists are also conducting investigations, the challenge will be greater to show that your research is novel or innovative.

Take every opportunity to convey the merits of your work—in the title, in the abstract, in the body of the application. Show a mastery of the relevant scientific literature and point to important research gaps that will be the focus of your proposed project. Argue that your proposed project is what the field has been waiting for.

Don’t let the wording of the aims trip you up. Stay focused. Avoid vagueness. Avoid fishing expeditions. (Not too long ago, I had another blog post describing some of these dos and don’ts in greater detail.) Choose aims that relate to one another, and keep the number of aims to a minimum. Many successful applicants choose to state broad aims and then, to achieve specificity, they provide one or two hypotheses to be tested under each aim.

What is required to defend the aims?

Because the aims interconnect with the rest of the project, you must defend them by anticipating and minimizing vulnerabilities wherever they arise. Here are some areas where your aims might be vulnerable:

  • Does the research team have the right expertise and experience to address the given aims?
  • Are the preliminary data relevant to those aims?
  • Do the preliminary data show that the research plan is feasible?
  • For a given aim, are the outcome measures appropriate?
  • Is the analytic plan strong for each aim?
  • Is the timeframe realistic? Obviously, you don’t want to propose 10 years of work to be accomplished in a 5-year project.

Always remember:  The more aims there are, the more defending is needed, and that’s a problem when you consider the space constraints of R03, R21, and R01 applications.

Does defending the aims include the disclosure of weaknesses in the proposed research? You bet! Will that disclosure cause the reviewers to think poorly of the applicant and the aims? Maybe yes. But reviewers are good at finding weaknesses anyway. If you are the applicant, it is definitely better to admit that you are at least aware of the weaknesses. And better yet if you can propose ways to address the weaknesses. Don’t let the reviewers conclude that you are naïve. That never goes well.

I’ve tried to highlight the central importance of the research aims to NIH grant applications. If you have questions for me about conveying the importance of aims or defending aims, or you would like to share some insights of your own, I encourage you to offer your comments below.


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

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