February 27. 2021
An NIH SBIR/STTR grant application is a hybrid document- a combination of scientific manuscript, research proposal and business pitch. In the end, the final document needs to clearly convey your company’s value proposition with enough science to convince reviewers that your proposal addresses a significant problem or unmet healthcare need and has a high likelihood of success. During grant preparation, there is much attention paid to the written content of the proposal, but the accompanying grant proposal figures have an important role in increasing readability, clarifying a message, and engaging the reviewer in a positive way.
Keep Your Audience in Mind
Although a grant application contains scientific data similar to a research manuscript, there are important distinctions between the review procedures and the ultimate audience for each. A research manuscript is most often reviewed by two academic experts who are highly familiar with the topic at hand, and the final published paper can have readers from an audience with wide-ranging interests. In contrast, the initial reviewers of a grant application are limited to a small group of scientists, and grant preparation should focus on conveying your company’s message to this narrow group. The first stage of a grant application review involves selected members (usually three) of the Scientific Review Group (SRG), composed mostly of scientists with expertise in some aspect of the broad SRG area. Each reviewer will prepare a written critique with a preliminary impact score (see link for NIH Peer Review Process) that will set the stage for a wider discussion by all SRG members. In contrast to a manuscript review, it is unlikely that all of the preliminary grant reviewers will be closely familiar with your research area. In general, your grant needs to provide sufficient background and context for a reviewer from a wider audience compared with a research paper. Additionally, as each SRG member is
assigned several applications along with a firm review deadline, the grant reviewer has limited time to read and analyze each one. It is essential to make your application engaging, informative, and convincing, yet not be difficult to read. The effective use of figures allows the reviewer to quickly grasp concepts, facilitates an understanding of the proposal, and leads to an informed review.
Draw the Reviewer In
As grant reviewers are scientists and curious about new ideas, they are likely to focus on the Research Strategy section and may initially flip through those pages of your application. Figures help to set the stage for review and contribute to the “eye appeal” of your grant. If the concepts and results are neatly presented with legible figures, they are an invitation for the reviewer to learn more from the text.
Tips for Effective Figures
Well-constructed grant proposal figures that supplement the text can be extremely helpful for reviewers, while inadequate ones lead to frustration and confusion. The following list highlights ways to avoid some common pitfalls.
– A grant proposal figure can be a graph, chart, graphic, photo, or instrument output. Keeping in mind strict NIH page limits, make sure that each figure efficiently enhances your narrative. If the results in a figure can be stated in one or two sentences, it is not a good use of limited space. A diagram of a biochemical pathway or a flow chart for a multi-step development strategy conveys a complicated idea much more effectively than text alone, and also provides an easy reference for the reviewer.
– Grant proposal figures are a great way to visually break up long sections of text that no reader enjoys. Alternatively too much data gives the appearance of a “data dump” demonstrating a lack of focus and thought. To avoid confusion, arrange figures in the order they appear in the text. Try to place the figure near the place it is first mentioned so there is no need for the reviewer to flip pages or scroll on a computer screen to locate the item.
– All figures should have a caption that includes a concise title. The caption title can be descriptive but a declarative statement of the conclusion will directly get your point across. The text in figures and captions can be smaller than the 11pt font limit for the body of the grant, and NIH guidelines state that it should be legible when the page is viewed at 100%. Non-serif fonts such as Ariel or Helvetica are good choices that have high contrast with a white background.
– Graphs and charts should have labels for each axis, and a caption that includes a title, an explanation of all symbols (unless they are in a legend) and how many samples (n). Since the application has a page limit, save space in the caption by not repeating information or experimental details that are already in the text. It is helpful to label a graph directly so the reviewer doesn’t have to repeatedly refer back to the caption or legend. At the same time, avoid a cluttered appearance.
– A graph or chart can demonstrate the robustness and statistical significance of data. Show values with either the standard error of the mean or the standard deviation, and state what statistical analysis was used to derive a given P value in the caption.
– Color in charts and graphs can be helpful, but keep in mind that about 4% of people have a decreased ability to see color differences. Although applications are handled electronically, the reviewer may be reading a black and white printed copy.
– Keep graph and chart colors/shading, sample names, symbols and abbreviations consistent throughout the application, and consistent with the text. If an open circle corresponds to the control for one graph, don’t change it to a filled triangle in the next figure.
– Use arrows to highlight areas of importance to the reviewer for image based data such as
histological tissue sections.
Check the Details
Grant proposal figures and accompanying captions are often “recycled” from other documents and may need additional editing to maintain consistency with the text and to fit in with the grant narrative. Lastly, before the final application is submitted, review the final pdf versions of documents to be sure that the figures are clear and did not deteriorate in the pdf conversion process.
Small Business and Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Study Section (SRG)
NIH SBIR Peer Review Process