Workshop on Writing a Winning NIH Proposal

On November 5, 2013 by Grad Forum
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Dr. Dant presents his advice for writing NIH research grant proposals at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

On Monday, October 28, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center hosted a workshop led by Dr. Christopher Dant on writing research grant proposals for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Workshop participants included graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, professors, and other research grant hopefuls.

Dr. Dant is a faculty instructor at Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center with appointment at Dartmouth’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. His PhD work was concentrated in cellular and molecular biology. Early in his postgraduate career, he apprenticed with a Senior Editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and went on to work as a biomedical writer for life sciences investigators in academia, private industry, and government agencies. Before coming to Dartmouth, Dant was a Projects Director at the Stanford Medical School for grants and manuscripts and served as the Director of Medical Publications at Genentech in San Francisco. At Dartmouth, he works with investigators in developing grant proposals and programmatic initiatives, and educates faculty in grant and manuscript writing skills.

The workshop focused on the aspects of writing an NIH research grant such as the R01 or R21. However, Dr. Dant’s advice and insight could be applied to different aspects of K and F type proposals (career development and fellowship awards, respectively), as well as foundation grants, which contain many similar requirements for writing a strong research strategy. As explained by Dr. Dant, the goal of writing a proposal is to drive home why the proposed research is important to human health and disease, what aspects of it are novel, and how it will advance medicine.

When describing one’s research, it is critical to put forth a testable and explicit hypothesis that can be verified through the specific aims detailed in the proposal. The specific aims page of the proposal should clearly put forth why the research is important (significance), what gaps in knowledge for the stated problem are being addressed (hypothesis and aims), and, if successful, how it will change research going forward (impact). Dr. Dant emphasized that strong proposals are ones that are aligned with the specific research priorities of the NIH funding institution; this increases the proposal’s significance. These priorities are listed on the NIH websites for each of the 27 NIH institutions. Investigators planning to submit a proposal should examine both the research priorities of the funding institution, as well as the institute’s requests for applications to determine if their proposed research aligns with these priorities.

Ultimately, the NIH uses five review criteria to determine the overall impact score of an application: significance, innovation, approach, investigator, and environment. Employing clear, straightforward language to convey relevance, impact, originality, and feasibility, as well as the investigator’s knowledge and background is, in the opinion of Dr. Dant, the best way to ensure the research proposal is well-received.

In today’s competitive NIH funding environment, in which scientists must often score greater than 90 percent of other applicants to be awarded the grant, every opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of other scientists should be pursued. Dr. Dant’s seminar was certainly a benefit to all who attended, and any individual with the intention of applying for a research grant is urged to seek a similar workshop or form of guidance.

by Jacqueline Andreozzi

photo by Jacqueline Andreozzi

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