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Grant Writing

New NIH Requirements for Research Grant Applications

NIH has begun a new initiative designed to improve the rigor of experimental design in research, and to increase the reproducibility of scientific experiments. This is required for all grants and progress reports due on or after January 25, 2016. Learn more and view tips from the NIH.

Summary (Abstract)

The NIH limits this section to 30 lines of text; other funders typically have length limits as well. Consider the Summary as your “elevator speech” to reviewers and the funder. Stress what you really want them to know about your proposal – the need for answers to a scientific question, public-health importance, or timeliness of a particular opportunity, for example. Try not to merely repeat what the Specific Aims are, since those are explained in detail elsewhere. 

Be sure to mention each point you consider a strength, such as strong preliminary data, a unique animal model, or a strong investigative team. The Summary is read by all reviewers, including those not expert in the field. Keep abbreviations to a minimum and use as little jargon as possible.

Specific Aims

This page is read the most carefully by reviewers – repeated revisions are worth the trouble Remember that if the proposal changes, the Specific Aims page needs revision too Make sure you allow time for that critical polishing phase The budget and justification also should match the Specific Aims 

Writing Style

Some people like sentence fragments: “Aim 1: To examine the prevalence of X in a hitherto understudied group” 

Some like the topic sentence format: “The primary aim of this proposal is to examine the prevalence of X in a hitherto understudied group. X is a high predictor of disease Y, and…” 

But there is no one “right” approach. Writers should focus on 3 key aspects: 

  • Clarity 
  • Consistency with subsequent text 
  • Is it a “preview of coming attractions”? Does it whet the reader’s appetite for more? 

Writing Tips

  • Use the full page for the Specific Aims 
  • Include a paragraph of “Background” information – it will put the Aims into a broader context for the secondary reviewer 
  • A well-designed figure on this page (e.g. logic model or proposed mechanism of action) can be effective 
  • The context (e.g. gaps in knowledge, hypotheses) can precede the Aims, or follow them to segue into the “Significance” section 

Significance and Innovation

Keep “Significance” and “Innovation” brief – about ¾ page together. Review Tips on Significance and Innovation from the NIAID.

What’s the difference?


  • Explains the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses. 
  • Explains how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields. 
  • Describes how the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved. 


  • Explains how the application challenges and seeks to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms. 
  • Describes any novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s) to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s). 
  • Explains any refinements, improvements, or new applications of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or interventions.
  • It is reasonable that a pilot or proof-of-principle project (e.g., NIH R03 or R21) can have 2 or 3 points of innovation. More than that will strain the reviewers’ credulity. 

Research Plan or Approach

Aim for 4/6 pages (NIH R03 or R21), or 10/12 pages (NIH R01), to be the “Approach” section. The NIH offers phenomenal guidance that is germane to any proposal topic. 

Reviewers decide a proposal’s fate based on details in the Approach. Make sure you have enough room to satisfy their curiosity. 

Research Feasibility

The CTSI's Research Toolbox provides information and resources that may be required for determining the feasibility of research protocols. You can also review common feasibility questions from the sponsor for an idea of the information needed. 

Remember to always read protocol inclusion and exclusion criteria carefully. For questions, please contact Nancy Lawlor, nlawlor@wakehealth.edu.


Resource Sharing Plan

Your application may need to include a Resource Sharing plan if you are creating model organisms, plan to have a repository of final research data, or will generate data or other information related to genome-wide association studies. If so, describe your plan or plans in this section. It does not count against the page limits for the Research Strategy section, and is uploaded separately when you submit your application.Review the NIH policies on resource sharing

Samples of Other Sections of Applications