The Shortened NIH Application is ON, baybee!!

Sep 16 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Here we go people. A recent Notice from the NIH (NOT-OD-09-149) is somewhat sneakily titled "Restructured Application Forms and Instructions for Submissions for FY2011 Funding".
There is table which specifies when the new forms will be available and which due dates will require them which may lull you. Note that this new form is for the Feb-March 2010 submission dates for our traditional R-mech grants.
You have to page down a bit to see that the shortened application is a go, go, GO!

Shortened Page Limits. The page limit for the new Research Strategy section will be 6 or 12 pages, according to the chart below. One additional page will be allowed for Specific Aims. As always, if the FOA requires page limits that differ from the application instructions, the FOA page limits should be followed. For resubmission and revision applications for most programs, the Introduction will be limited to one page.

If the current limit for the Research Plan is 25 pages (e.g., the R01) then we will now have 12 pages. If less than 25 pages, the new limit will be 6 pages.
There are some other restructuring changes that are sure to cause headaches so pay attention. The idea is to match the application with the new review criteria.

Alignment of the Application with Peer Review Criteria. To coordinate with the enhanced peer review criteria, changes will be made to the following sections of the application forms and instructions: 1) Research Plan, 2) Resources, and 3) Biographical Sketch.

  • Research Plan. Three sections of the current Research Plan (Background and Significance, Preliminary Studies/Progress Report, and Research Design and Methods) will be consolidated into a new single section within the Research Plan entitled Research Strategy. The new Research Strategy section (a single PDF upload in the PHS 398 Research Plan Component of the SF 424 (R&R)), will be sub-divided into three parts: Significance, Innovation, and Approach. The Approach sub-section will include both Preliminary Studies for New Applications and Progress Report for Renewal/Revision Applications.
  • Resources. The Facilities and Other Resources section will be changed to require a description of how the scientific environment will contribute to the probability of success of the project, unique features of the environment, and for Early Stage Investigators, the institutional investment in the success of the investigator (e.g. resources, classes, etc.). The Facilities and Other Resources section is part of the R&R Other Project Information in the SF 424 (R&R) application, and part of the Resources Format Page in the paper PHS 398 application.
  • Biographical Sketch
    • A new Personal Statement will be incorporated as Part A, changing the parts formerly called A, B, and C to Parts B, C, and D.
    • Applicants should limit the list of selected peer-reviewed publications to no more than 15. These 15 publications should be chosen on the basis of recency, importance to the field, and relevance to the proposed research.

I'll be honest with you DearReader, I have not really considered very carefully how I am going to approach my grants under the new page limits. I've written 15 pagers before but those were just scale-downs of the usual 25 page description of the research plan.
This will be an interesting challenge.

32 responses so far

  • gnipgnop says:

    I think especially for resubmissions because you started with a 25 pager, it got reviewed based on that, and now it has to be reformatted and shrunk down. Geepers.

  • BKProf says:

    Um. Okay. I just submitted a new A0 with 11 pages of Preliminary Studies (>20 figures). How are we expected to include all the preliminary data required by study sections these days and still have room for the rest of the Research Design? I guess the key is to get most of the preliminary data published first.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    How are we expected to include all the preliminary data required by study sections these days and still have room for the rest of the Research Design?
    I think the point here is to try to break study sections of their obsession with copious preliminary data. To force them to focus on innovation and significance (the ideas, duh) rather than on trying to predict "the successful outcome of these studies" or some such *nonsense.
    *there just aren't that many total chumps applying for NIH grants. They have chops. And even the ones that are indeed going to turn out to be useless mostly can't tell this from the CV anyway.

  • I am in part excited about the shorter page limit, in part nervous. What is going to happen to the n00b investigator who is trying to show that they can "do the shit" if they don't have room for all their preliminary findings? Will prelim data have to go to publication to prove you can do the stuff?

  • BKProf says:

    Drugmonkey, I imagine you're right in that study sections will eventually have to break their reliance on mass preliminary studies. However, I think that the transition period is going to be a big mess. I've already seen some strange goings-on with the new scoring system (e.g. scores not reflecting written comments), and I think that adding a new wrinkle for study section members to work through will cause even more confusion in review.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    hellaz yeah, Isis. PP and I have been complaining about this ever since the trial balloons were floated.
    I believe the more junior investigators are going to take a hit on this, especially at first.
    This is why I am so ticked about these bloody indirect band-aid solutions to the problem (the review bias against junior applicants) which NIH clearly recognizes (ESI special paylines). My choice would be to go after the (imo flawed) reasons powering the bias, try to train reviewers away from this explicitly and to use the power of reviewer diversity to swing things back.

  • Jason Dick says:

    Well, if there's one thing I've found, it's that being concise can be incredibly helpful in getting your point across effectively. It may be difficult for young researchers to fit within these guidelines, but at the same time by forcing them to be more concise (while at the same time they feel strong pressure to get as much information about their work across as possible), it may force them to actually do better.
    In any case, I do hope some people are working on some studies to assess the impact of these new guidelines.

  • Beaker says:

    The first round of reviews following Feb 2009 submissions will be the wild west. Good or bad, better or worse, fair or unfair--I'm jumpin' on that wild bull and riding!

  • Greg R. says:

    "Any good idea can be stated in fifty words or less"
    [Stan Ulam]

  • BKProf says:

    Beaker, I'm jumping in too for Feb 2009. Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!

  • Beaker says:

    Obviously, I meant Feb, 2010. Feb 5 to be exact.

  • Am I right in thinking that the NIH 12 pages will include all figures but not the (max of 15) references? I just submitted a proposal to the Canadian equivalent CIHR - the limit was 11 pages but they allowed unlimited pages for an appendix of references and figures.

  • (Following on from Rosie's comment)
    The reviewers of CIHR grants are under no obligation to look at the appendix, though - far better to put essential figures and tables into the body of the application (11 pages for applications with 1 or 2 investigators, 13 pages for applications with 3 or more investigators) and just put supplemental data into the appendix.

  • Orac says:

    I don't know. I think I like the idea of a shorter application. Most of the grants I've been writing have been for other mechanisms. For instance, I've written a whole boatload of DOD Idea Awards, which are only six pages. Unfortunately, I've only had two of them funded. I've even written DOD Concept Awards, which are one page grants, no preliminary data allowed.
    Of course, it would figure that this change would be going into effect on the very cycle I was planning on submitting my competitive renewal for my R01. Should be interesting. Personally, I think it will probably be a good thing, as it will eliminate the temptation to pad the application with excessive detail in experimental methods and to focus on the concepts and overall concept and experimental strategy.

  • antipodean says:

    If only they would do the same for ethics applications. They only get longer...

  • Anonymous says:

    Cath, if you carefully read the instructions that CIHR provides you'll see that they explicitly state that the 11 pages must be TEXT ONLY. I ignored this rule (my 11 pages have 10 little explanatory figures) because I think it's very stupid and because I think reviewers appreciate the in-text illustrations.

  • Oops, the above comment is from me.

  • juniorprof says:

    I, for one, think its great. I have an R01 cycling through right now but my second one is ready to go. I am putting off submission until Feb due to concerns about trying to revise for reviewers on top of revising down to 12 pages.

  • Another biomedical researcher says:

    What I find to be most laughable about this implementation is that the explicit intention is to reduce reviewer burden. But since the grants are shorter, it seems certain than the vast majority of PIs will submit more grant applications. So the # of applications per study section will go up significantly as the grants get shorter, while the total $ remains the same (-ish), so the payline will drop further, requiring finer and finer distinctions beyond those that already cannot be made - and at the same time increasing the number of grants each reviewer needs to review! The only way around the problem would be to significantly cut the $/grant. Well, this is shorter than an NSF-length grant, so why not cut an NIH grant down to NSF-size $? (Note: a dumb idea IMO)
    At 12 pages, the application is short enough that it almost makes sense for a PI to require each grad student to write an application up as part of their training (with submission after massaging by the PI). Sure, it's good pedagogy, but it will be viewed more like a lottery, where you just need to buy more tickets. Hmmm, which labs are most likely to benefit here, established labs or younger labs?

  • bsci says:

    Another biomedical researcher,
    I really don't see it as much less time to write a 12 page grant than a 25 page grant. Figuring out what to include and exclude is the time-consuming part. Anyone with a PhD could crank out 25 pages of fluff text in a day or two. At for grad students, any PI who doesn't make their grad student submit a grant (for example an NIH NRSA fellowship) is failing their students.
    I'm also glad they are decreasing the number of section headings. In my limited grant writing experience, I hated how I had to repeat some of the same facts in each section because a review might skim a section or two looking for specific things and complain if they aren't there, even if they are somewhere else.

  • (my apologies to the on-topic commenters who don't care about CIHR grants)
    Rosie, right you are! Heh! I've worked on (counts) 8 CIHR grants in the last couple of years, for 4 different PIs, and every single one of them has figures and tables in the main body of the grant. Not one reviewer has ever mentioned this...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I, for one*, care to hear about non-US scientific grant processes. Quite a bit as it happens. It is not off-topic at all.
    *and some are more equal than others šŸ™‚

  • pinus says:

    Can folks from outside of Canada apply for CIHR grants?

  • Pinus, you have to be affiliated with a Canadian institution. AFAIK, the NIH is unusual among government funding agencies in allowing foreign applications.

  • antipodean says:

    Both the NHMRC (Australia) and the HRC (NZ) both have tables and figures inside the main body of the grant applications. I think it's pretty universal.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    I am psyched for it. Since I am not terribly bright, I like to reduce things to easily digestible baby bites of data. Will it result in better science? No. Will it be easier on me? Maybe. Will it net me more funding? Hope so. Bring it on Suckahs!
    Doc F

  • Steve says:

    Seriously, in regards "any PI who doesn't make their grad student submit a grant (for example an NIH NRSA fellowship) is failing their students."
    I look all the damn time. There is little joy to be had in this department. Has anyone found a grant my non-disadvantaged, non-underrepresented biology/immunology graduate students can apply for? Most institutes only offer the NRSA for underrepresented groups, much unlike when I was a student. The HHMI fellowships are dead. Anything new on the block these days? It seems like the students might benefit from experiencing the writing process as much as I would form the dollars...

  • qaz says:

    Steve #27 - You don't know what you're talking about. The NRSA is not for disadvantaged/under-represented students. I was on an NRSA study section for the last three years and I can guarantee you that the question of the student's (or the advisor's) minority status never once came up. (And, although I can't say for sure that the students were not disadvantaged since we never talked about that issue, I'm pretty sure most of the NRSA students were actually preferentially advantaged rather than disadvantaged.) From the other side, students in my department have something like a 20-25% chance of getting an NRSA (measuring number gotten by total number of students in our program - it'll be higher if we assume that only the students who think they've got a shot apply). NRSAs are for up-and-coming scientists with good potential.

  • Rudy says:

    I think that this limit will hurt junior investigators. You are asking for a (relatively) substantial amount of funding, and you have to say what you are going to do for five years. You have to demonstrate that you have the technical expertise to pull it off, so the funding is not wasted while you try to learn the techniques. You also have to show that you have reviewed the literature and have a good understanding of the state of the field and unresolved issues. Since you cannot really do this in 12 pages, the reviewers will be left to fill in the blanks. For filling in the blanks, the track record, university affiliation and pedigree will become very important. One can tempted to assume that someone with a long publication record, or someone working at a prestigious university or lab has thought about all the relevant methodological issues not mentioned and has the necessary expertise. Junior investigators with a short record who are not at a well-known place will be at a distinct disadvantage, when they have an equally good idea and expertise similar to others.
    The emphasis on potential impact of the project, at the expense of methods, is also disconcerting. As if the impact of the project has little relation to what was actually done. The format promotes making grandiose claims and waxing poetic, where as the devil is usually in the details. Evaluating such claims is also far more subjective, which again leads to (subconscious) emphasis on irrelevant factors such as affiliation.

  • Monado, FCD says:

    I thought this might be a little like the Short Income Tax Return:
    1. How much did you make?
    2. How much do you have left?
    3. Send it.

  • Steve says:

    Dear Qaz #28,
    What area of biology do you work in? What you describe sounds wonderful, and if my research was relevant to these study sections, I would gladly take advantage of them. Would you mind specifying?
    At NIAID the primary pre-doctoral training award, the F31, is only available in a format that is explicitly restricted to students meeting the following criteria: "predoctoral students from groups that have been shown to be underrepresented. Such candidates include individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, individuals with disabilities, and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds." (from and from
    I have an unusually talented pre-doctoral student, whom I think would be a good candidate for an award, and would benefit from the writing of such a proposal. However, he does not meet these criteria. For which awards can he apply? In my area, the primary mechanism for funding such students is the institutional training grant (T32), but that does not have any component pertinent to individual students.
    Best regards,

  • Larry Povirk says:

    What the new format means is a further concentration of money in the big-name labs. If decisions are no longer made on the basis of the details of the experimental plan, then what can reviewers possibly go on except reputation and high-profile publications. Smaller labs, especially those that don't qualify for ESI status, are going to be decimated by this system.

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