Developing a Successful Grant Application: Lessons from an NIMHD Reviewer

Recently, Dr. Kimberly Littlefield, Assistant Vice President for Research Development and Learning at the University of South Alabama, was the featured presenter for the Health Disparities Research Group (HDRG) where she shared the knowledge she gained through her experience as a member of a Special Emphasis Panel reviewing proposals on community-based participatory research projects submitted to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. She described the reviewer’s role in ranking proposals and provided a general overview of common strengths and weaknesses of the proposals that she reviewed.

Dr. Littlefield explained to the group that along with scoring the 5 main criteria identified in RFAs–Significance, Investigator(s), Innovation, Approach, and Environment, NIH reviewers assign an Impact scores to each proposal they review. She emphasized that in preparing strong proposal applicants should:

  • Draft a proposal with clarity and specificity so that the reviewers assigned to the application can easily describe the proposed project to the larger panel.
  • Thoroughly and thoughtfully respond to all the requirements of the request for applications.
  • If appropriate, identify and address important cultural issues unique to the community and the partners that will be involved in the CBPR Use the biosketch as a tool to communicate the research team’s unique strengths and attributes.

Following a lengthy and interactive discussion with meeting attendees, Dr. Littlefield concluded her talk with the following detailed list of helpful tips to assist researchers in preparing successful, high scoring applications:

  • Conduct a PubMed search of the program officer in order to understand their scientific background and orientation.
  • Talk to the program officer to discuss ideas and determine whether your project is on-track.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to complete the proposal.
  • Tailor biosketches to the specific application and use them as an opportunity to highlight the applicant’s strengths as they relate to the project.
  • Only include needed personnel/roles in the proposal, personnel who are obviously unnecessary or unlikely to truly contribute detract from proposals.
  • Fully address all of the review criteria.
  • Include unique letters of support from partners that reflect the roles expected in the project and also, if possible, the relationship between the organizations (for CBPR this is critical).
  • Avoid undefined acronyms, typos, or text meant for another application.
  • Remember that a well-designed figure, chart or table is worth 1000 words.
  • Learning through reviewing is an invaluable experience–apply to be a reviewer and take advantage of the opportunity to participate in the process

Slides from Dr. Littlefield’s presentation will be distributed to the HDRG members. Please contact Shannon Shelley-Tremblay for more information.