A grant application consists of several sections such as Abstract, Goals, Proposal, Methodology, and Design, etc., but the most important section is Specific Aims. Specific Aims are the crux of the application; they summarize hypothesis, methodology, scientific basis as well as the literature gap of the research proposal. This section makes the first and lasting impression on the reviewers. In fact, the majority of the panelists read this section first and make an opinion about the application as a whole. For this reason, it would not be wrong to call ‘Specific Aims’ the Jewel in the Crown of a grant application.
In order to understand the Specific Aims and its significance, it is important to understand it in depth so that a grant writer – trainees, early-career investigators, and veteran physician-scientists – can optimize the section to maximize chances of success.
What is a Specific Aims Section?
Specific Aims are the capstone of a proposal. It is the synopsis of the whole application and therefore deserves most of your attention and dedication. You should begin the grant application with this section. A well-written Specific Aims sections make constructing rest of the application simpler and easier.
Specific Aims is the introductory page of the application that provides reviewers with the “Big Picture,” or to put it simply, the goals of your research. It is the statement of the central hypothesis. It provides a brief discussion of the proposed study and how it will tackle the scientific question or fill the literature gap.
Why is it Important?
The Specific Aims section is your chance to quickly gain the attention, favor, and confidence of the reviewers. Here, you have an opportunity to convince them that your research is worth funding. In this section, you assert that you and your team are the best bet of accomplishing so-and-so research, which is fundamental to biomedical research.
Anatomy of Specific Aims
Specific Aims section of the grant application has no specific structure, but it consists of several paragraphs; each signifying something specific; such as research, a solution to the challenging problem, and your aims.
Here is how you can/should construct each paragraph.
First Paragraph – Introduce Your Research
Here, you ought to introduce your research and describe the literature gap that makes it absolutely crucial. Remember, the first paragraph is your chance to grab the reviewers’ attention; it is your bait to entice the reviewer – begin by briefly describing your research proposal, and why it is urgent, e.g., you might be working on a new device to detect cancer earlier or prevent it altogether. The reviewer should be instantly hooked by the originality and novelty of your research.
Then tell “what is already known” about the disease, treatment, drug, etc., in the literature in about 3-5 lines. Update the reviewers of the current status in your research field. Do not go into lengthy details; just provide the necessary information. Be concise and focused.
Then educate the reviewers – albeit they are highly knowledgeable and experienced themselves – about the gap in knowledge that needs to be addressed in the field of your focus. Stress that your research – with the help of the funding – is capable of filling this gap. The reviewers want to see a conviction from you that you are confident about your research and its criticality for healthcare. This is followed by your plan to improve healthcare.
Second Paragraph – Offer Solution
Provide the solution that you believe will fill the literature gap. Briefly explain your proposal here. Technically convince the reviewers that you possess the knowledge, expertise, and skill to accomplish the task. However, avoid tall claims and impossible promises. Keep the language simple and focused.
The second paragraph basically answers three Ws:
- What – do you want to do?
- Why – do you want to do it?
- How – will you do it?
Compared to the first paragraph which has to be strictly focused, the second paragraph has somewhat flexibility. This paragraph adapts per your research technique and proposal structure, i.e., you may want funds to develop a diagnostic or evaluation tool or your research may be a randomized clinical trial (RCT). The paragraph will shape accordingly. However, it has some basic components that must be included such as:
- Rationale: Explain the reasoning and rationality of your study.
- Hypothesis: Specifically and clearly state your project and its criticality. Reviewers do not like ambiguity.
- Goals: Here you will state that your goals – both immediate and long-term – are in line with the NIH’s mission.
- Credentials: Provide yours and your team’s qualification building the reviewers’ confidence in your professional background.
This is the heart of the Specific Aims section. Here, you explain all the aims that you will use during the study. You can have more than one aim for a specific proposal. Experts advise highlighting 2-4 aims to make the case stronger. All aims should be related and revolve around the central idea of your proposal.
In this section, you will describe the experimental approach and how each aim will help meet it. Discuss the potential outcomes of each aim. If needed, you can give a heading/title to each aim to signify its importance as well as to separate it from the rest of the aims. Aims can also be mentioned in bullet points. The idea is to provide understanding and clarity to the reviewers.
Here are a few things to keep in mind while writing the aims:
- Aims should be related but not completely inter-dependent.
- Make sure each aim is data- or hypothesis-driven.
- Ensure clarity throughout the section; use subheadings to separate one aim from the other.
- Explicitly highlight the outcomes of each aim.
The Final Paragraph – Summarize the Proposal
This is where you wrap-up the Specific Aims. Briefly discuss the benefits of your research, how the funds will help fulfill the research gap, enable you to bring innovation in the biomedical field, and help expand the research methodologies. Also mention the patient demographics that will benefit from the development, i.e., cancer or diabetic patients, pediatrics or geriatrics, etc.
Also, mention your expectations and plans once the funded project is finished.
General Principles of Writing Specific Aims – Do’s and Don’ts
Specific Aims constitute the most important sections of the application; most reviewers critically evaluate this page, it is the roadmap of your proposal that highlights the novelty, preliminary study results, rationale, and potential outcomes. It should be written with great care. There are several points to keep in mind while writing this page:
- Make sure the study/research you propose is founded on existing research body and backed by scientific plausibility.
- Specifically, mention the gaps in research to inform the reviewers of the importance of investing in your project. Explicitly state your conviction to bridge the scientific gap by repeatedly citing literature. This will show you have done sufficient research to make a claim.
- Clearly, present the hypotheses as specific aims you will test in your study. Back it up with pilot study/preliminary data.
- Mention how your study will contribute to healthcare and is not just a phishing venture. Lay out your plan.
- Describe the applications of your research findings, i.e., the patient demographics, research laboratories or diagnostic modalities, etc. that will make use once the hypothesis is verified.
- Try to gain the confidence of the reviewers. The panel wants to see your conviction, determination, and potential. Don’t shy away from exhibiting your colors where need be. However, be aware of your limits; where you should inspire the confidence of the reviewers, you do not want to sound overly-ambitious.
- The tone and language of the section should be such that it drips knowledge. It should show that you have done a profound research and have the capacity to comb and evaluate existing data.
- Where your proposal carries a novel research idea, mention it with great peculiarity and confidence. Reviewers are particularly taken to biomedical advancement and novelty. Describe the novelty of your project in an impressive way. Own your original brilliance.
- Your Specific Aims section should end with a conclusive statement that reflects the pros and cons of the proposed work as well as the totality of the application.
Do’s and Don’ts of Specific Aims
- Develop Specific Aims carefully. These are the central idea of your proposal. Outline the experiment and provide a roadmap.
- Combine aims with good ideas and reliable data.
- Make Specific Aims a guide for the reviewers by providing research objectives, experimental approach, and significance of the proposal.
- Address a highly significant healthcare challenge.
- Make the section strong, specific, brief and well-focused
- Discuss ‘Aims’ with colleagues and mentors in advance. If possible, get a review from an NIH awardee. Gauge their response; if they look excited, the reviewers will probably too. Reconsider your Aims in light of critique, suggestions, and feedback.
- Keep the language simple, understandable yet convincing and firm.
- Contact the NIH staff for help. Seek guidance from the Scientific Review Officer about the specifics of the section.
- Make sure the Specific Aims meet the mission of the NIH funding institute. For instance, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has a mission to end sufferings and deaths due to cancer with the help of biomedical support researches; The National Eye Institute (NEI) conducts researches concerning eye diseases, blindness, visual dysfunction, etc.
- Specific aims should neither be too ambitious nor too naïve.
- Specific Aims should not lack clarity, cohesion, and focus.
- Avoid giving descriptions. The reviewers want hypothesis and its testing, not a description of what is already established. This is called phishing venture.
- Do not make claims that are not backed by preliminary or scientific data.
- No specific aim should depend on the result of the earlier aim. Each aim should be coupled with the expected outcome before you move on to the next.
- Do not present outdated ideas or concepts.
- Do not submit a haphazardly written Specific Aims section. Organize it properly.
Impact & Importance of Specific Aims
Specific Aims carry a weight of their own; they make a lasting impression on the reviewer. In fact, the entirety of the application pretty much depends upon this section. If the reviewer is intrigued by the Aims, chances are they will be more excited and less critical of the rest of the application. The aims, reflecting novelty and significance, should be crafted in a way that incites interest and excitement of the judges. Write positively, strategically and avoid pitfalls mentioned above. Formulate a plausible hypothesis that presents mechanisms and roadmap to fill the knowledge gap.
- Couch, M.E., Liu, J.C., Pynnonen, M.A., Rosenthal, E.L., Schmalbach, C.E., St John, M. (2016, February). Grant-writing pearls and pitfalls: maximizing funding opportunities. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg, 154(2), 226–232. http://dx.doi.org/ 1177/0194599815620174
- Myers, N., Riley, H., & Wisdom, J.P. (2015, December). Recommendations for writing successful grant proposals: an information synthesis. Acad Med, 90(12), 1720–1725.
- Barrowclough, O.J., & Hjelmervik, J.M. (2016, May) Interactive exploration of big scientific data: new representations and techniques. IEEE Comput Graph Appl, 36(3), 6–9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/MCG.2016.53