Ask any experienced NIH reviewer about their experiences in reviewing NIH grant applications and they’re likely to provide you with a spectrum of answers in the way that they think about proposals (and the applicants who have written them). Nevertheless, it is remarkable how many of the very fundamental issues that reviewers identify as positive, are relatively common among all reviewers.
In fact, in results from a recently published survey sponsored by the NIH CSR (Center for Scientific Review), a number of current and recent Chairs of NIH Study Sections (Review Panel) were asked to share their own personal insights on what applicants can do to make a positive impression. A recently reported summary of their various responses: “Insider’s Guide to Peer Review for Applicants – NIH Center for Scientific Review” can be found here.
Of particular importance to this issue, we suspect that, in reading this relatively brief series of suggestions, you will conclude that virtually all of these issues identified by the NIH Study Section Chairs make perfect sense. Moreover, most of them don’t specifically relate to NIH applications, but rather are of direct relevance to virtually any grant application to any funding agency. In spite of this fact, it is rather remarkable that relatively few applicants whose proposals we have reviewed over the past forty years (and collectively, the members of our organization, conservatively estimating, have reviewed and critiqued ~6,000 applications to multiple funding agencies) actually consider these issues when they prepare their grant applications.
Of direct relevance, in this respect, many of the issues identified by these Study Section Chairs are not directly related to the central idea of the proposal (that one would intrinsically think should serve as the primary focus for a reviewer). In fact, probably half of the fifteen issues identified are more closely related to good “grantsmanship” and how to make an application “reviewer-friendly” than they are to the idea itself. It is our hypothesis that most of our readers who have actually served on grant application review panels will immediately identify with the majority of the ideas and issues presented in this brief report.
If you would find the information in this article to be useful and would like to learn exactly how to address the issues in order to improve your proposal, we would strongly recommend that you consider an investment in the newly revised and extensively updated series of The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook (NIH, NSF, USDA and Any Agency versions). These workbooks provide detailed insights into how exactly to incorporate each of the issues identified in this article into a grant application. That this would be the case would not be particularly surprising, since both of the authors of these workbooks previously served for many years (two terms each as members of standing NIH Study Sections, as well as serving as ad hoc members of multiple additional grant application review panels). In addition, each author was successfully funded by federal funding agencies for his entire academic career.
If you’re currently experiencing difficulties with getting your grant applications funded, or if you’re planning your first grant application, you may well want to consider obtaining a copy of one of our workbooks. Sample pages for each workbook can by found by visiting our Workbooks page and clicking on the workbook of interest to you.