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 (no longer available) 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.


    10 replies to "The new NIH grant format"

    • Robert

      Well, the advantage of a seasoned investigator is always there. They are more experienced in the field, has a more credible track record, and, most of all, they have a much better grasp of the science and how to communicate it. As a new investigator, I felt that the short version created new challenges in terms of how to be selective in presenting preliminary data and how to focus. Regardless of the length requirement, the significance and quality of preliminary data will still be judged carefully by the reviewers. That said, I agree with Morgan that being new investigators obviates the need for adjustment from the “old-fashed” NIH grant format.

    • Irina

      It will be more difficult for new investigators to show feasibility. However, it helps to stay more focused and clear.

    • Bob

      All the talk about the advantage to senior investigators seems to overlook that there should be some advantage to being a senior investigator. Experience should count for something. On the other hand, the junior investigator has some advantages, too in not being so wedded to the current groupthink. I will also say that if one cannot write well, one should find a career other than science. Being a scientist is far more than being someone who works in the lab. Communicating those findings is an essential skill because until that is achieved successfully, one might as well have not done the lab work.

      The new format certainly is a new experience for me, a senior investigator. I am finding that while I can think outside the box, writing outside it is another matter entirely. My first one of these new grants was the most difficult one I have ever written.

    • datodato

      Writing in science is important. But the emphasis on how to communicate and how to present has been exaggerated. You could be a very good scientist no matter how lousy your communicative skills are. As a matter of the fact, study section member is no fool. We look at two facts: your credential and your work, which counts for 90% of the score you would get. Presentation is a trivial part. There are lots of foreign scientists writing a very bad English, but still got funded. Keep in mind, NIH funds the best science performed by one of the best scientist, no a best salesman.

      • morgan

        Nice rhetorical trick of saying “we study section members” – yes, I’ve been on study section before too.

        You are missing the point on so many levels, it is hard to know where to begin.

        You obviously think you’re smart, and can “see through” good or bad writing to the “truth.”

        Good for you, but it is not true.

        For example, interpret the science in the following poorly written sentence:

        “ENasdh eqydsal amass ditiem cped f klight skared”

        There is a famous scientific axiom embedded in that sentence, but it is so obfuscated by poor typing that it will take you a lot of work to figure it out.

        Maybe you have infinite patience and don’t mind trying to understand what “someone really meant” even when they don’t know what they meant.

        Writing is a tool that helps clarify thinking, as a symbolic system. If the writing is unclear, often the thinking is unclear.

        I know many senior scientists doing very great, ground breaking science (including a Nobel prize winner in Medicine) who often can’t get funding from study sections with people like you.

        One last point: if presentation “is the trivial part” then why did you bother to write ~10 complete, mostly correct sentences? Why didn’t you just write “you suck and you’re wrong?” Why bother with all the fluff of making “logical” arguments, if you could just call me names and make pretty much the same point?

        Oh, yeah, it’s because “presentation matters.”

      • reply to datodato

        There are two fundamentally different types of study sections.

        The first is composed of everyone in the “field”. In this case, the study section members all go to the same conferences and publish in the same journals. In this case, the experiments are obvious. The questions are who is the appropriate person to conduct the experiments. There is little disagreement over the significance over proposals. Most of the scoring comes down to the approach and whether the investigator can execute the approach. If the applicant is not part of that clique, or was not educated in that clique, there is no hope and datodato is correct.

        The second type of study section is one composed of all types of people. These are a mixture of chemists, engineers, computer science, physics, with a few weirdo basic biomedical scientists thrown in. In this case, the reviewers don’t know the applicants and their credentials. Here, communication is absolutely key and the Significance of the work is important.

      • Spindoc73

        so if a genius with a world-changing idea was credentialed from a school that you felt was inferior, and had only published 5 papers, the fact is that you would fail i suppose. and by inference, the fellow from yale with 15 second author papers but not a fresh idea in sight, would succeed.

    • Antje Daub

      This webpage was exactly what I was looking for. I needed a brief summary of the new grant version on what has exactly changed compared to the old version! Thanks!

    • Antje Daub

      The new version seems more efficient. The focus needs to be on the innovation anyhow which is often cluttered and lost in the background (if the literature review was thorough and precise enough..)The old version invited confusion.

    • dominios en venezuela

      I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good.
      I don’t know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

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