Specific Aims Page- Behold Your Reviewer!
November 17. 2020
As you navigate NIH’s grant submission system, you will quickly realize that your proposal’s fate lies in the hands of three reviewers assigned to your application by the specific institute, for the expertise they have to evaluate your grant. The roster of participants in your study section is public knowledge and should be available to you once your application moves to the specific NIH institute. Although you won’t know the names of people that reviewed your grant, you should go through that roster and try to take an educated guess who is the closest in scope to your scientific field.
Each reviewer gets on average 6 to 10 applications per NIH submission cycle. One of the three reviewers, designated as the primary reviewer, is tasked with presenting their assignment to the rest of the study section. In general, the NIH study section members are academic scientists with full-time jobs and little time allocated to reviewing grants. In scanning through their workload, the first page they come across is the Specific Aims page. Hence, the initial subconscious decision about potentially funding your proposal comes after reading this very first page of your application.
The Specific Aims page should be written as a stand-alone executive summary of your invention, therapeutic application, and commercialization steps. For example, a competitive Specific Aims page for SBIR Phase I and II fast track application in a broad category of biologics (antibodies, vaccines, modified recombinant proteins, oncolytic viruses, mRNA, etc.) can have the following flow:
- In the introductory paragraph, clearly state your project’s goal and explain the gap it fills in the context of unmet medical needs. Spend 2 to 3 sentences introducing the significance of the proposed work and put it in a broader perspective of your research area. The first paragraph’s punchline should articulate how your project, if funded and completed, will further the scientific enterprise and benefit society.
- In the second paragraph, summarize your invention in terms of technology, innovation, and commercialization potential. Introduce scientific concepts in lay terms and present preliminary data that support the efficacy of your technology/biologic in a disease-relevant animal model. Use a diagram or other graphic media to illustrate concepts and make them easy to comprehend. Transition to the third paragraph by stating why you are asking for funding and how it will help move forward with your biologic commercialization.
- Start the third paragraph with the hypothesis to be tested in the proposed specific aims. Each aim should have its own bolded title sentence that clearly states its objective. Use the next 2-3 sentences to describe methodology, resources, and expertise to ensure the successful execution of each of the aims you propose. Outline a well-defined criterion for measuring the experimental success of each specific aim. Demonstrate to the reviewers that the team you put together is the best for the job. Traditionally, SBIR grants have 2 to 3 specific aims that are independent of one another and use different but complementary experimental techniques to confirm and extend findings.
- The last paragraph of the specific aims should address the project’s feasibility, considering the budget and time to complete the work. It’s essential to present a balanced, financially sound, and realistic assessment of your costs and deliverables. Your overall approach should demonstrate the maturity and foresight that reviewers look for in assessing your grant application’s strength. A short timeline or a table with well-defined milestones for success can be a great ending to a competitive specific aims page.
I urge you to think about every sentence of the Specific Aims page. It is the “first impression” reviewers get about your grant proposal. Subconsciously, their decision to fund your science is made after reading this first page of the application. Within biologics, patent protection and exclusivity of the potential product must also be articulated somewhere on the Specific Aims page. A well-written summary is not only the skeleton of your application but also a master document you come back to time and again as you are writing out other sections of the grant.