The new NIH grant format

by morgan · 10 comments


Why is the format changing?

Starting in January, NIH is implementing a shortened grant format for all of the main grant types, including R01’s and K awards.  This came from very long and involved deliberation with many members of the research community, spanning years. The key message that prompted the NIH to do this was that everyone felt like the whole grant writing and grant reviewing endeavor was wasting far too much time. On that point I am in complete agreement!

Whether or not the new format will fix this problem remains to be seen.

What is the new format?

First, the length is much shorter.  The old R01 format was 25 pages for the research plan, whereas the new one is 12 pages. That is a significant change. (See Page I-15 of the new PHS 398 forms for details on the new length requirements for various grant types.)

But there is another change that is also important, the reformulation of the “Research Plan” from the old format into a “Research Strategy” in the new format.

The research plan in the old format consisted of the following subsections: Background & Significance, Preliminary Studies and Progress Report, Research Design and Methodology.

The rules for the new format ask for a different set of subsections: “Significance, Innovation, Approach” (see page I-41 of the phs398 guidelines).  This is an important change. I discovered this when I attempted to write a few proposals using the new format for ARRA grants.  My old methodology for putting together a proposal had to be significantly revamped to make it work.

Perhaps the most important attribute of this change is that the “Preliminary Studies and Progress Report” is gone!  All preliminary studies and progress are wrapped into the approach section.  So, this one little section must convey, in about 5-6 pages, what 15 or more pages would have conveyed in the old format.

In my submitted proposal using the new format, I got hammered for “lack of detail” provided.  But apparently, everyone else must have been hammered for that, too, because I got funded.

Another important difference is the inclusion of a complete subsection addressing “innovation”.  In the old format, while “innovation” was supposed to be there, it wasn’t made so explicit as this.

This seems like an experimental gambit on the part of NIH, to try to force the system to provide more funding for truly novel and innovative work.  It attempts to address one of the biggest critiques of the NIH review process in the past, which is its rampant conservatism.  The saying has always gone something like: “You can’t get funding to do the work until you’ve already done most of the work.”

Will the inclusion of an “innovation” subsection help with this?  I think it is a baby step in the right direction, but I doubt it will overcome the overall conservatism of the NIH review process.  Nonetheless, in formulating a proposal, it will be important to start out with a clear picture of “what is innovative” about your work from the start.  I suspect that proposals lacking a clear statement addressing this won’t do too well.

Perhaps the most minor change is the switch of the subsection “Background and Significance” into just a “Significance” section.  This can be boiled down to the NIH saying something like: “We want to hear more about why the work is important than we do about the history of the science leading up to it.”

Given the low available page count, that makes sense.

How will it impact you?

There was a recent article in The Scientist about concerns that the new format would harm young investigators:

Specifically, some critics say the new, shorter forms — down from 25 to 12 pages for R01 grants — will favor better writers, making it more difficult for younger investigators to compete for NIH funding.

The argument of this article is that if you are a young scientist, then you aren’t as capable of writing a concise, focused proposal, and so you are less likely to succeed.

I’m not sure that I agree with that viewpoint.

On the one hand, young scientists seem to often have a harder time conveying the big-picture value of their work to the audience (which is one of the main reasons for this blog and the book I am writing).

On the other hand, the old format allowed for sometimes excruciating experimental detail and methodologies.  I believe that benefitted established investigators who already had this stuff worked out (i.e. “who had already done the work”).

The first few major proposals I submitted were rejected, until I submitted one where I had already made the major innovative leap (i.e. done the most important work), and the proposal was just to fill in the details around it.  The old format allowed me to describe in quite gory detail how we had made it work, and how we would extend that.

This new format wouldn’t allow this.  With its combination of much shorter length, and focus on an “innovation” section, it will make it much harder to take work that has a long history and provide a bunch of impressive detail about that work.  This should actually remove some of the traditional advantage that experienced investigators have had over their newer colleagues.

Further, there is some benefit for young investigators in not being habituated to the old format.  My first ARRA proposal in the new format was a lot harder for me, because I am so habituated to the old format that I first attempted to write that proposal the way I would have written a regular R01.  After writing 15 pages of stuff, and still having a lot more to go, I realized that I had to completely re-think my approach.  I ended up rewriting a lot of it.  In this sense, a new investigator has little disadvantage over someone like me, because we are both new to the format.

So on balance, I don’t agree with The Scientist that this new format harms young investigators disproportionately.

Being a stellar writer is a key to science career success

I was somewhat offended by the article’s implication that young scientists weren’t as capable at writing as their more senior counterparts.

Any young scientist who wants a successful scientific career must absolutely learn how to write well, regardless of the whims of the current grant formatting requirements.  This is a vital foundation for nearly all scientific career success.

To imply that this is only something that can be gained after many years of grant writing experience is silly.  It can be learned – if you pay attention to learning it and focus your efforts on doing so.  The reason most people don’t learn this until later in their careers is because nobody teaches it to them.  Most seem to go into new positions not realizing that their lack of training in critical skills like this is a problem, and so they have to learn about their own deficits in training the hard way (e.g. grant rejections).

I am a good example of that.  When I wrote about my experiences with my colleague giving me major critical feedback on my specific aims, there was a key point I was making, without being explicit about it: that the experience with my colleague forced me to realize that I had a lot of learning to do, and that I needed to get my butt in gear to do it.

And so I did.  Since that single decision I made, my proposals have had much better track record than before.  I was able to learn how to do it, simply because I decided that I needed to learn how to do it better. I sought out a mix of resources, some of which I’ll be talking about in future posts.  But the key is in wanting to learn to improve.

The first step is acknowledging there is a deficiency.

But for young scientists who acknowledge their own limitations with respect to writing well, and who work hard to overcome them, I don’t think that senior scientists will have an advantage over them. I’ve seen some not so great writing from many senior scientists (perhaps because things weren’t so competitive when they got started).  On a skill as important as this, it is better to start learning earlier than later.  The brain seems a bit more flexible when young.

Additional resources

First, if you are about to prepare a proposal, have a look at the new phs398 forms and documents earlier rather than later.  Writing to the new format requires a different approach.

Second, I’m offering some of my best ninja tricks on grant writing in the box below this post. Check it out below.

If I run across any other good discussions of the new format, I’ll send them out to my newsletter list members or post them here.

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