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Common Mistakes in Writing Applications

The five scored review criteria for most NIH grant applications are: Significance, Investigator(s), Innovation, Approach, and Environment. Common problems with each of these criteria are listed below.  Additional review criteria (not scored individually, but considered in the overall impact score) include: Protections for Human Subjects; Inclusion of Women, Minorities, & Children; Vertebrate Animals; Biohazards; Resubmission; Renewal; Revision. To avoid problems when preparing your application be certain to refer to the Instruction Guides for these scored and non-scored criteria at:

Problems with Specific Aims

  • Too ambitious, too much work proposed
  • Unfocused aims, unclear goals
  • Limited aims and uncertain future directions

Problems with Significance

  • Neither significant nor exciting new research (i.e., will not advance science)
  • Lack of compelling rationale
  • Incremental and low impact research

Problems with Investigator(s)

  • Inadequate demonstration of expertise or publications in approaches
  • Low productivity, few recent papers
  • No collaborators recruited or no letters from collaborators
  • Need a more senior collaborator

Problems with Innovation

  • Not clearly addressed in application
  • Not innovative (i.e., new)

Problems with Approach

  • Too much unnecessary experimental detail
  • Not enough detail on approaches, especially untested ones
  • Not enough preliminary data to establish feasibility
  • Feasibility of each aim not shown
  • Little or no expertise with approach
  • Lack of appropriate controls
  • Not directly testing hypothesis
  • Correlative or descriptive data
  • Inadequate consideration of power
  • Experiments not directed towards mechanisms
  • No discussion of alternative models or hypotheses
  • No discussion of potential pitfalls
  • No discussion of interpretation of data

Problems with Environment

  • Little demonstration of institutional support
  • Little or no necessary equipment
  • Little evidence of effective collaboration among institutions, if applicable

Additional Criteria

Problems with Budget 

  • Failure to use the required modular budget format
    • Modular budgets are applicable to certain research grant applications requesting $250,000 or less per year for direct costs.
    • Note: sub-award/consortium facilities and administrative (F&A) costs are not factored into the direct cost limit. Consortium F&A costs may be requested in addition to the $250,000 limit.
    • The modular budget is applicable only to applications for R01, R03, R15, R21, and R34 and their corresponding cooperative agreement activity codes.
    • Guidance is available in Section 5.4 of the application instructions.
  • Failure to include separate sub-award/consortium budgets
    • A complete sub-award/consortium budget form (including the budget justification section) should be completed by each consortium grantee organization.
    • Foreign grantee applications must only include detailed (non-modular) budgets.
  • Inadequate budget justification
    • Use the budget justification to provide the additional information requested in each budget category identified in Section 4.7 of the application directions, along with other information the applicant wishes to submit to support the budget request.
    • The following budget categories always must be justified, where applicable: equipment, travel, participant/trainee support, and other direct cost categories.
  • Failure to explain significant changes from the initial year budget
    • Include a justification for any significant increases or decreases from the initial year budget.
    • Justify budgets with more than a standard escalation from the initial to the future year(s) of support. Also use this section to explain any exclusion applied to the F&A base calculation.
    • Though an organization may ask for any escalation factor it wishes, NIMH may award only up to the set amount.
  • Rigor and Reproducibility:
    • For all grant applications submitted for the January 26, 2016 due date and beyond new instructions and revised review criteria will focus on four areas deemed important for enhancing rigor and transparency: 1) the scientific premise of the proposed research, 2) rigorous experimental design for robust and unbiased results, 3) consideration of relevant biological variables, and 4) authentication of key biological and/or chemical resources. NOT-OD-15-103