Principal Investigators Association

No. 128: The Scope of Your Research Plan: Find the Best Way Up the Mountain
By Christopher Francklyn, PhD

Before making the climb towards completing your NIH grant application you must map out your basic strategy which includes defining the scope of your project. Adhere to this advice when demonstrating your proposal’s scope.

Before you start writing any NIH grant application, you must map out your basic strategy. One core element of your overall approach is defining the scope of your project.

Climb the mountain

When considering your proposal’s scope, think of your project as a mountain climbing expedition, and the grant as a plan for the climb. In this metaphor, reaching the summit stands for answering the principal research question driving your work. And like climbing a mountain, there may be multiple routes to the summit.

Your Specific Aims represent the potential routes to the summit, and collectively, they describe the project’s scope. When choosing each route, consider what technical approaches you have immediate access to, and what additional ones potential collaborators might bring to the research.

You may also have to predict whether you can reach the mountain in four to five years or if it will take 10. But this doesn’t mean that you should reject all research questions that might take 10 years to address definitively. Choosing a 10-year question is not necessarily a fatal flaw — if you can convince reviewers that the waypoint you hope to reach in 4-5 years will still pay scientific benefits to people outside your immediate scientific community. You may even win points for being realistic.

Essentially, scope strictly defines the extent of science you hope to accomplish during the proposed award period. Fixing your application’s scale early is a critical aspect of grantsmanship because you have to strike the correct balance between proposing enough work to achieve significant impact — is the mountain high enough? — and not suggesting so much that reviewers think you overly ambitious — too many routes, or won’t get high enough to make a difference.

How broad should scope be?

Keep in mind also that your “expedition” has a fixed budget that will allow you to hire only a set number of “climbers.” This means you have to think carefully about the “routes” (the Specific Aims) for your personnel. Your scope should move the field forward (up the mountain) rather than sideways. If other researchers have made an interesting observation in your field in one organism, don’t assume that reviewers will be excited if you simply attempt to validate the same observation in a related species — particularly if the proposed work only takes your understanding to the same reported level of detail.

On the other hand, examining the same research question in a different species could be useful if that system has unique features — better genetics, easier to screen phenotypes and easier biochemistry — that allow you to obtain more detailed data than the original system. Remember, reviewers are trying to uncover the new information’s perceived value. Will it provide novel insights that your competitors in the original system won’t arrive at tomorrow?

Scope should also provide depth to your research plan and insurance against any one approach’s failure.

Experienced reviewers know that — despite the most detailed plans — experiments don’t always go as planned, and approaches fall short for unanticipated reasons. Thus, your proposal should include a built-in redundancy, and no single aim should depend on another’s success. Reviewers typically spot — and frequently reject — this as a “linear” proposal where each aim represents a technical milestone that relies on a prior aim’s success.

Instead, employ a “parallel” strategy where your individual aims represent individual climbers. Accordingly, if one goes spectacularly well, you may want to re-deploy the efforts of the others. Thus, in your proposal design, you should always “expect the unexpected,” and convince your readers that you’ve engineered your plan — while directed toward the summit — to be flexible and responsive to the results that you obtain.

Limitations on scope

NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) advises new and early-stage investigators to keep their scopes fairly conservative. A key point NIAID repeatedly stresses is to avoid at all costs the dreaded “overly ambitious” reviewers’ critique. The agency also writes, “Be innovative, but be wary,” and “As a new investigator, your goal should be significant incremental progress, not a ‘giant leap forward.’” This advice is somewhat problematic because reviewers usually use the term “incremental” in a pejorative context.

In my experience, there is no such thing as a totally risk-free, high impact, outstanding application. Rather, you should propose just enough risk — both in intellectual novelty and technical capability — to excite the reviewers, but not lose them regarding feasibility.

In addition, you should consider the principal limitations on scope, namely those imposed by resources and your technical background. With an annual $250,000 grant, you likely will not be able to hire more than three or four full-time researchers.

Consequently, the resource limitation imposes a feasibility test on each aim. Can one full-time worker complete the work in a four- or five-year time period? If your plan is overly detailed with a long experimental sequence with numerous forks and contingencies, reviewers likely will score it as unrealistic. You’re better off proposing fewer and better described model experiments, particularly ones for which you have technical precedent.

The other major limitation is your technical background. If you do not have expertise in a particular area, reviewers probably won’t accept your research plan’s appropriateness and feasibility. If you are a relatively new investigator, you may not have established an extensive track record in more than a few techniques, and reviewers may judge your proposal as suffering from an overly narrow focus.

The obvious solution, which experienced investigators employ universally, is to recruit one or more external collaborators with defined expertise in techniques outside the PI’s field of strength. This is particularly important if experts in the field consider the additional approaches as the best way to attack the problem.

The value of experienced collaborators is at least threefold:

  1. strengthen the research plan
  2. add credibility to the investigator team
  3. justify a larger budget.

Before going this route, new PIs should understand that a larger team means more administrative responsibilities and potentially delicate negotiations regarding leadership, authorship and control over the project’s strategic direction.

Consider These Scope Do’s and Don’ts

When considering your project’s scope, keep the following in mind:

  • Before writing up your detailed research plan, DO spend time carefully deciding your research’s scope.
  • DO carefully match scope with the project’s proposed costs and your technical capabilities.
  • DO use scope to achieve depth, redundancy and flexibility in your research plan, so you can accommodate unexpected outcomes.
  • DON’T try to fix your research plan’s scope until you’ve carefully defined your central research question.
  • DON’T fall into the classic trap of proposing every experiment you can think of on the system.
  • DON’T finish fixing the research plan’s scope until you’ve considered the proposed budget and your own technical limitations.

 Dr. Francklyn is a veteran reviewer for NSF and NIH and served as an NIH study section chair. He is a professor at the University of Vermont, where his scientific expertise is in protein synthesis and RNA-protein interactions. He is also assistant editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of NIH & NSF Funding Advisor monthly newsletter.

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