For NIH-funded research proposals, the Specific Aims section is a required component of the application. It is a formal statement of the objectives of your research project (e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, challenge an existing clinical practice or paradigm, address a critical barrier to progress in the field or develop a new technology). Remember the following:
The Specific Aims section must include everything important about your research project – on one page.
Grab the Reviewer’s Attention
All NIH reviewers will read the Specific Aims section of your proposal and they usually read it first, so use this section to create a partnership with the assigned reviewers. Your Specific Aims should be so exciting that they can’t wait to dive into your complete proposal. You want to convey to the reviewers that by supporting your proposal, they will be helping the specific NIH Center or Institute accomplish its goals and advance your field.
Set the Expectation
Imagine your reviewers are bored from reading dull and poorly prepared proposals on recurring topics for several hours; make yours the one that really catches their attention! One of the most common reasons cited by reviewers for an application’s failure to gain their enthusiasm is a lack of focus in the Specific Aims section. This section is used by the Scientific Review Office (SRO) to recruit reviewers to support your application, so always write with the reviewers in mind.
Construct Four Concise Paragraphs
A successful grant application has a testable hypothesis in an area that meets the mission of the funding agency. Your Specific Aims are driven by the hypothesis that you are setting out to test. Stay focused by limiting your project to two or three Aims and show how they relate to one another. Each Aim should be interconnected but not dependent on the successful outcome of another. If the Specific Aims are independent, the project may be overly ambitious; each Aim may be its own proposal.
One: The Introductory Paragraph
The opening sentence must be an interest-grabbing narrative that immediately establishes the relevance of your proposal. Include a statement of the current knowledge to inform less adept reviewers about the topic. The second sentence should identify the gap in knowledge; specifically, what is holding back the field and how your proposal will address it. Describe what is known and what is unknown about this topic.
Two: The Research Goals
Provide the rationale for your hypothesis, design and significance of your planned research. Explain the technology you plan to use, your expertise for a specific task, and your past accomplishments related to the project. Include any preliminary data and any new and highly relevant findings in your field. Describe your overall long-term research goals. Explain what makes your research team capable of meeting the research objectives.
Three: The Specific Aims, Hypothesis, & Expected Outcomes
List each Specific Aim. Underneath each Aim, briefly describe the hypothesis, rationale, study methodology and outcomes. Explain how you will accomplish each task associated with achieving the Aim.
Articulate the expected outcomes and the resulting products of the research. Include at least one important expected outcome for each of your Aims. Detail the expected payoff if the reviewers vote to recommend funding for your proposal. This paragraph develops advocacy for your proposal among the majority of reviewers who, most likely, will not have read your complete proposal.
Four: The Impact Statement
End with a positive and powerful statement to assure the reviewers that your hypothesis is sound and significant, that the research is innovative and that your Aims are logical and feasible. Emphasize the payback for your work, why the reviewers should care and why they should fund your research.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Good: Aim 2 is parallel with Aim 1; findings from Aim 1 may direct future studies in Aim 2 or 3
Bad: Aim 2 cannot proceed until the studies in Aim 1 are completed
Ugly: Aim 2 may be irrelevant if the expected outcome of Aim 1 is not realized
Be clear, concise, focused, and enthusiastic. Make sure your research has interdependent Aims and a testable hypothesis, that it addresses a gap in knowledge and targets a topic of high interest to the funding agency.