Maternal and Child Health Research Program

Advancing Applied MCH Research

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Writing Your Application

Introduction

Writing a grant application is a major undertaking. The following guidance may assist you in developing a strong application that allows reviewers to better evaluate the science and merit of your application.

  • Though the advice provided is relevant for all research grants, it is general in nature and geared toward the R40 Extramural MCH Research Program.
  • The tips and guidelines included in this document are not intended to replace your organization's internal guidance, specific advice provided by MCH program or grants management staff, or instructions found in the various application guides.
  • This document is written for the Investigator. Therefore, all references to "you" refer to the Program Director/Principal Investigator (PD/PI).

Getting Started

  1. Before you begin writing your proposal, read the funding opportunity announcement (FOA) very carefully. This will provide you with:
    • Important information on the application process and guidance on preparing specific sections of the application.
    • Any special instructions that the FOA may provide for the competition that you're applying under.
  2. Talk to your colleagues and/or mentors about your research idea while it is still in the concept stage. Ask for their feedback.
  3. Do your homework.
    • Make sure that your institution will allow you enough time to accomplish the research, if funded. Can you arrange for a reduction in some of your other responsibilities?
    • Identify the grants and contracts person who will be assisting you through the application process. Let them know your plans to submit an application and the application's due date. They will provide you with important information regarding internal routing deadlines and expectations.
    • Ask your colleagues or your Office of Sponsored Research for copies of successfully completed and funded federal grant applications. Examine them closely. They will give you an idea of the level of planning and detail that you will need to include in your own proposal.
  4. Make special note of the application's due date. Is it reasonable to expect that you'll have a strong application completed by the competition deadline? Develop a feasible timeline for completing the application, including:
    • Time to complete drafts
    • Get feedback on your drafts
    • Revise the application based on feedback
    • Prepare a budget and budget narrative
    • Obtain letters of support and any consulting agreements
    • Route your application through internal approval channels at your institution
    • Complete and upload all supporting documents

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Thinking Through Your Ideas

  1. Is your idea original?
    • Check the literature to verify that the exact project you are considering has not been done before. Search the literature and the Maternal and Child Health Research database to minimize overlap with similar studies.
    • Assess the competition. What other projects in your field are being funded? One strategy is to turn competitors into collaborators in order to improve the strength of your proposal.
    • Carve out a niche that will allow you to significantly advance knowledge in your respective field.
  2. If you are a new applicant, you'll be asked in the application narrative to provide information on preliminary studies you have completed on your topic. This information helps establish that you have the competence and experience necessary to complete the proposed project. Think about your own preliminary studies and make sure they are adequate to serve as a foundation for your proposal.
  3. Create an outline based on the format and structure provided in the application.
  4. Refine your ideas.
    • Generate a hypothesis.
    • Make sure your specific research aims can be accomplished within the proposed time and resources.
    • Discuss your research idea with colleagues, mentors, etc. Request that they review a first draft of your specific aims early in the process. This step can save lots of valuable time.
    • Confirm your confidence and enthusiasm for the proposed research. Propose research that you are passionate about and totally committed to doing.

    INSIDER TIP: Secure collaborators on your project who can provide any scientific expertise you may lack. Discuss the project with a mentor and use his or her feedback to improve the quality of your application before you submit.

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Understanding the Peer Review Process

  1. A panel of experts reviews all grant applications submitted to the Maternal and Child Health Bureau in a process known as peer review. Although several factors contribute to whether your application will be funded, great emphasis is placed on this evaluation and how the reviewers rate the scientific merit of your proposal. The criteria reviewers use to evaluate applications are described below. Detailed information about these criteria can also be found in your FOA.
  2. The goals of MCH research are to improve the health of mothers, children, and adolescents by supporting important research that has the potential to improve health services and delivery of care for maternal and child health populations. In their written critiques, reviewers will comment on each of six criteria to evaluate the likelihood that the proposed research will have a substantial impact on the pursuit of one or more of these goals. The overall score is assigned based on the reviews for each of these criteria. Reviewers are instructed to keep the six review criteria in mind; however, the final priority score they assign is more likely to reflect a judgment of overall merit.
  3. NOTE: These are general review criteria for evaluating unsolicited research project grant applications through the R40. Other specific MCH funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) may have different or additional special review criteria. Applicants should become familiar with the review criteria by which their application will be evaluated.

  4. Become familiar with the MCHR peer review criteria. Reviewers will use them to rate your application. These criteria (described in detail in the FOA) include:
    • Need: Does the research topic address an important need in maternal and child health research? Does it address one of the MCHR strategic goals?
    • Response: Does the proposed project respond to the description of the "Purpose" included in the program guidance? Are the hypotheses, goals, and objectives clear in relation to one another? Are the proposed scientific activities capable of attaining the project objectives?
    • Evaluative Measures: Are the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses well-reasoned and appropriate to accomplish the specific aims of the project?
    • Impact: Does the application include an effective plan for disseminating project results? Will the implications of the results be regional or national in their scope? Is the project likely to exert a sustained, powerful influence on the relevant research field(s)?
    • Resources/Capabilities: Are the project personnel qualified by training and experience to implement and carry out the research project. What are the capabilities of the applicant organization, including the quality and availability of personnel and facilities to fulfill the needs and requirements of the proposed research project?
    • Support Requested: Is the proposed budget reasonable in relation to the objectives, the complexity of the research activities, and the anticipated results?

    NOTE: Certain funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) that are published in the MCH Research Program Grant Guidance may list additional elements under each of the above criteria related to the specific requirement of the RFA.

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Developing Your Research Plan

  1. Your research plan or narrative describes the proposed research, stating its significance and how it will be conducted. Remember, your application has two audiences: the majority of reviewers who will probably not be familiar with your techniques or field and a smaller number who will be familiar.
    • All reviewers are important to you because each reviewer gets one vote.
    • To succeed in peer review, you must win over the assigned reviewers. They act as your advocates in guiding the review panel's discussion of your application.
    • Write and organize your application so the primary reviewer can readily grasp and explain what you are proposing and advocate for your application.

    INSIDER TIP: Appeal to the reviewers by using language that stresses the significance of your proposed work.

  2. If this is a resubmission, then you will need to write an Introduction. Only one resubmission is allowed. Check your FOA for specific requirements related to resubmissions. The Introduction is limited to 3 pages.
  3. Define the proposed study's Specific Aims. In the Specific Aims section, you will clearly and concisely describe what the proposed research is intended to accomplish. A strong grant application is driven by a solid and significant long-term goal related to maternal and child health (e.g., to improve preconception care or to improve access of depressed mothers to appropriate treatment). Your specific aims are a set of specific research objectives that you will pursue as a way of furthering that long-term goal (e.g., to evaluate the efficacy of a particular preconception care intervention, or to generate data on the characteristics of mothers who utilize different types of treatment for maternal depression). Specific aims should:
    • Address interesting and significant issues.
    • Be hypothesis-based.
    • Be obtainable within the proposed timeframe.
    • Be well-focused rather than broad and diffuse.

    INSIDER TIP: State clearly-defined research objectives or aims. Make sure that each specific aim has at least one testable hypothesis.

  4. Research Strategy. In this section you will describe the proposed project's Significance, Innovation, and Approach. Please read the guidance carefully for information regarding page limitations for the Research Strategy section.
    • The Significance section states the research problem, including the proposed rationale, current state of knowledge, and potential contributions and significance of your research to the field. In this section you should:
      • Critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill. References should reflect up-to-date knowledge of the field.
      • Explain why the literature about your research leads you to think this topic needs study. This should not be a thesis, but should provide information that directly pertains to the scientific need for your project. Identify controversies or unanswered questions that the project is designed to resolve.
      • Make sure the significance of the topic is explicitly stated. Describe how scientific knowledge or clinical practice will be advanced if the aims of the application are achieved.

    INSIDER TIP: The "Significance" section should describe the relevant literature, particularly any scientific controversies in the field, in a focused way that allows the reviewers to understand the rationale behind your research objectives. Make sure that you have identified key references.

  5. In the Innovation section, describe the potential effect of your proposed research on the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services or preventive interventions that drive this field.
    • Explain how the application challenges and seeks to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms.
    • Describe any novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or interventions to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions.
    • Explain any refinements, improvements, or new applications of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions.
  6. In the Approach section, describe how you plan to carry out the research. Your research methods should relate directly to the aims you have described. This section is critical for demonstrating that you have developed a clear, organized and thoughtful study design that tests the central hypotheses. It is NOT a list of recipes for methods, experiments, and data collection.
    • Relate your research methods directly to your specific aims.
    • Include details related to specific methodology; explain why the proposed methods are the best to accomplish study goals.
    • Include details of how data will be collected and results analyzed.
    • Describe the population you will include and how they will be recruited.
    • Consider required statistical techniques.
    • Include a proposed work plan and timeline.
    • Consider and discuss potential limitations and alternative approaches to achieving study aims.
    • Keep in mind that a carefully developed research plan will also be reflected in a realistic and well-justified budget for the project.

    INSIDER TIP: Set realistic goals for what you expect to accomplish with the budget and within the project period. Be clear about the methods and research design you will use and how these relate to your specific aims.

  7. Preliminary Studies/Progress Report. If this is a new application, include information on Preliminary Studies as part of the Approach section. Use this section to describe your prior work relevant to the proposed project. The preliminary results are important to establish the experience and competence of the applicant to pursue the proposed research project and to provide support for the study hypotheses and research design. Preliminary data often aids the reviewers in assessing the likelihood of the success of the proposed project.
    • Preliminary data may consist of your own publications or unpublished data from your own laboratory. Ensure that you have a body of solid preliminary data that demonstrates the likelihood for success of your research. Reviewers must be convinced that the work is feasible in your research setting and under your direction.
    • Discuss how previous work leads to the current proposal.
    • Emphasize how the previous work demonstrates feasibility of proposed methods.
    • If you do not have the required expertise for a specific methodology, enlist a collaborator or consultant (include a letter of support or agreement).
    • Accuracy and overall presentation are important in figures, tables, and graphs.

    INSIDER TIP: Use the "Preliminary Data" section to judiciously support your hypothesis and the future direction of your research, and to show your expertise and knowledge of the experimental approach, methods, data collection and data analyses to be employed in your project. Reference concise examples of your experiments that support the premise of your proposal.

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Preparing Your Application

  1. Establish your competence to do the research. Provide reviewers with evidence that you are independent and are prepared and able to lead a research project. Are your career stage and expertise appropriate to the size and scope of the project you're proposing?
  2. Choose your collaborators wisely. Determine the expertise needed for your research study team (individuals, collaborating organizations, resources, etc.). Most scientific work requires collaboration among researchers. Choose collaborators who will provide the different areas of expertise required by the content of your application.
    • Obtain letters of commitment from each collaborator. These letters should clearly spell out the roles of each collaborator. Each letter should be signed by the collaborator and should list the contribution he or she intends to make and his or her commitment to the work. These letters are often the primary assurance the reviewers have that this work will in fact be done.
    • Letters from consultants should include the rate/charge for consulting services.
  3. Demonstrate your institution's commitment and capacity to support this research.
    • Understand the level of institutional resources needed to be competitive.
    • Conduct an organizational assessment. What resources and support does your institution have, and what additional support will you need? Are the available equipment and facilities adequate? Is the environment conducive to research?
    • Clearly state that you have the appropriate resources to conduct the research, such as adequate equipment, laboratory space, and computer access and technical support.
    • Include letters of institutional commitment from your department head and other university authorities as appropriate.
    • Mention any start-up funds, support for a technician, etc., that you may have. These indicate institutional commitment to the peer reviewers.
  4. Complete all necessary sections of the application. Read the FOA and instructions very carefully to make sure that you have correctly completed all necessary sections of the application, including but not limited to:
    • Financing
    • Protection of Human Subjects
    • Targeted/Planned Enrollment Table
    • Dissemination Plan
    • Environment
  5. Allow yourself enough time to complete and submit the application.
    • Plan to have your research narrative and a draft of your budget and budget justification completed two weeks before the submission deadline. This will give you and your institution time to examine the budget for errors, revise if necessary, and approve it through proper internal channels.
    • Give yourself two weeks to complete the supporting documentation required on Grants.gov, including but not limited to:
      • Bibliography & References
      • Biosketches of all Senior Personnel
      • Facilities & Other Resources
      • Performance Site Locations
      • Appendices and Attachments
      • Letters of Agreement from consultants
      • Letters of Support from your institution and any external collaborating partners (e.g., clinics, primary care centers, etc.)
    • Don't wait until the last minute to begin uploading documents onto Grants.gov. Begin this process several days before the submission due date, in order to give yourself time to complete and upload all sections correctly.
    • Aim to complete the official submission process by the morning of the due date. Unexpected delays can occur and you need to allow yourself time to deal with these before the application deadline.
    • After submission, you will need to check for warning errors and make corrections as indicated within a specific time period.

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