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NIH Applications: The Art Behind the Application

Once upon a time, there was a scientific experiment…
We talk a lot in grant writing about storytelling, showing the program, and pulling on heart strings. That's great advice, unless your audience is the National Institute of Health (NIH).
The NIH funds a variety of grants aimed at scientific research. From small career development awards to huge scientific collaboration grants, each grant follows a highly standardized format that requires strict adherence. Deviating from this format will make the reviewer's job more difficult. So does that mean you can't tell a story?

According to Otto O. Yang, author of the Guide to Effective Grant Writing: How to Write a Successful NIH Grant Application, 2nd ed. 2012. “Research progress is very much like an ongoing story, with plot twists and surprises.” But NIH storytelling is very different from the usual common grant story. The application won't talk about how Jimmy's family moved out of poverty, but it should create a cohesive plot that interests the reader and prompts them to wonder what will happen next.
Federal grant reviewers often review stacks of proposals, heavily laden with scientific data, in a single cycle. The more interesting you can make your proposal, without embellishing or digressing, the more likely it is to stick out as a positive venture. While on first glance the science itself may seem cumbersome, the way the problem is addressed, the future goals of a career scientist, or the suggested healthcare innovation described in a proposal can be very interesting.
How do you gather these elements of a story? If the investigator you're working with has not clearly conveyed the potential for exciting outcomes to you, ask them to present it to you in their own words. Ask:
  • What is it you find most exciting about this research?
  • What do you see happening as a result?
  • How will this research change things?
If you're new to NIH funding, take a look at several proposals to get a feel for the tone and the format. The NIH proposal format varies significantly from the usual common grant application. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease recently posted several examples at Otto Yang's book, mentioned above, is also a great resource, as is where you'll find detailed instructions on how to write and submit an application. 


By: Jeffrey Lischin
On: 12/08/2015 15:36:52
While everything you say is correct I'd broaden it to say that federal grantwriting is virtually always dominated by facts aligning with scoring criteria. Foundations are more influenced by a good story. I'm a decent foundation grantwriter and an excellent federal grantwriter because of the differences.

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