NIH All About Grants Podcast

Considerations for a Research Plan


From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is "All About Grants".


[ Music Playing ]


>> Kosub: Hello, and welcome to another virtual edition of NIH's "All About Grants" podcast.  I'm your host David Kosub with the NIH's Office of Extramural Research.  And today we'll be talking about a topic that was actually suggested by one of our listeners, and that's a focus on the research plan, strategies, specific aims of an application, and I'm glad to say that we have two program officers with us today to discuss this.  Dr. Lillian Kuo, she is with the National Cancer Institute, and also Dr. Kentner Singleton, he is with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  Thank you both for being with us today. All right.  So we will start with just the framework for this discussion.  It's a big topic and we're going to kind of focus it around like basic research type applications, your R01s, R03s, R21s, and it's also important to keep in mind that the program officers are here to help you, but they're not here to write your application, and it's important to note. 

So with that in mind, I'd like to start maybe with Lillian.  Can you tell us what exactly is the difference between Specific AIMS and a research strategy?


>> Kuo: Great, thanks, David.  The Specific AIMS page is just one page, whereas the research strategy is the full description of the rationale of your research and the experiments that you have proposed. How you develop your Specific AIMS really is prerequisite to writing the full research strategy section, and so we encourage folks to really think about and brainstorm and develop their AIMS page first, because that's what's going to sell your science.


>> Kosub: Great.  And maybe I'll turn to Kent.  What should someone be thinking about as they sit down to kind of write down their ideas and thoughts put on paper?


>> Singleton: Yeah, so it's really helpful if the individual can sit down and really figure out how they want to focus their application.  So for example, if you have a project to study the structure of immune receptor, you know, the application could be reviewed either in a biophysics or immunology focused study section.  For it to go to a biophysics study section, reviewed by biophysicists, where the immunology will be represented but less so, as many of the applications will have an immunology focused.  And similarly, the reviewers of the immunology study section will have some biophysicists, but as a whole, the panel is going to be more interested in the immunology remarks ‑‑ by the immunology, and so the two study sections could also view the significance slightly differently because they come from different angles, from different feels, and different backgrounds.  And so you really want to understand who the target audience is that you're speaking to, which can adjust how you write different terminology or language or some of the assumptions that you can make when writing that application.


>> Kosub: Great, great, great.  Thanks for that.  So now, kind of focusing on the Specific AIMS, what makes for a strong Specific AIM?


>> Kuo: Sure.  A strong Specific AIM, the ‑‑ your AIM should be interrelated but not interdependent, and the AIM should accomplish the goals of the scientific question that you are asking.  It's important to not have the Specific AIMS be like a series of experiments, what you propose to do, because unfortunately that can be perceived as descriptive.  So just focus your AIMS page on building a story.


>> Singleton: I would agree with that.  And I think it's important to understand that the AIMS are really the most widely‑read part of an application.  As a program officer, the AIMS page is the parts that I distribute to my colleagues if I think that another program might be interested in this application or to complement one of our other programs, or if I want to nominate it for outside of Payline Bridge or Select Pay Award, it's really the AIMS that are widely distributed across our community.


>> Kosub: Great.  And actually sticking with you, Kent, and Lillian you can chime in afterwards too.  What would you say makes for solid research strategy?


>> Singleton: Yeah.  So what I find is the applications that do well are those that anyone in the broader field can easily read or immediately understand what the problem is, what the project is doing and how the project addresses the problem.  So for example, if the application is modeling a signaling network with the cell type within the context of disease, you may have the three assigned reviewers where reviewer one is a computational systems biologist who may not be as familiar with the cell type or disease.  Reviewer 2 may be an expert on that cell type but may not have much computational or systems biology experience and ‑‑ or really direct experience with the disease. Reviewer 3, in contrast, may be an expert in the disease, but may be focusing on other cell types and not have as much experience with the systems biology itself. Now, all three reviewers and the entirety of the review panel will be highly accomplished experts in that area, and will have the entirety of the science of the application considered by the reviewers, but each reviewer does not have the experience in the totality of the application, so that's why anyone who is really in that field should be able to look at that application, even if they don't understand, you know, some of the highly‑specific aspects of certain areas of the application, they should be able to walk away reading it, understanding what you're doing, and appreciate the significance of the work that's being done.


>> Kosub: And so a final question before we close out, what kind of pitfalls have you seen in your work as it relates to these sections of the application that someone who is putting one together can try to hopefully avoid?


>> Singleton: Yeah, so three immediately come to mind.  The first is that there's no expectation for reviewers to read the citations or be familiar with your previously published work.  If it's important for the application, it needs to be included in the application. The second is that sometimes people put too much focus on the data acquisition within the Specific Aims, and do not spend enough time about how the data will be analyzed, assessed or used to address the hypothesis. Or how it will be used to move forward. And finally, sometimes applicants will incorrectly assume that the significance is obvious, or that if they are working within the context of a protein or disease, that that alone means that the project is significant, and that simply isn't true.  The significance of the science within the proposal is what's being assessed and how the project will be moving the field forward, and that's different than the significance of the disease to biological, physiological process, or the broader scientific problem.


>> Kuo: I would echo Kent's comments about the significance and the data interpretation.  As you noted, you really need to focus on how you're going to analyze the data, interpret the data, and what it's going to be meaning ‑‑ how it's going to be meaningful toward the overall significance.


>> Wonderful, wonderful.  Well, thank you very much, Lillian and Kent, for this great opportunity to delve into this topic.  We would highly encourage you to reach out to your program staff early and often when you're thinking about your idea and helping to get you started.  They're definitely there to help and a great resource to you.  And if you have any other ideas for future "All About Grants" podcast, please send them our way.  This has been David Kosub with NIH's "All About Grants".  Thank you.