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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Guide: How to Write a Research Grant Proposal: Part 3 - The Research Aims [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Continuing on with the look behind the process of  research and scientific grants, we have selected a funding mechanism.  In the case of most university-based research, that's going to be a research grant.  Next we choose a Grantor organization, which in most cases for me is the NIH.  I still have to consider a specific institute, and for that, the best suggestion is to read scientific papers in my field and find out which agency funded that research.  Once the funding type and Grantor are selected, it's time to move on to actually writing the application.  We now continue with:

How to Write a Research Grant Proposal:  Part 3 - The Research Aims

A grant proposal is organized in many parts.  There is "boilerplate" consisting of details about the researcher, their employer, the site where research is conducted, assurances that particular policies and laws will be followed.  Most of this is taken care of by the specific forms that must be filled in as part of the application.  The second major portion of the proposal is the budget, which we will cover later.  Surprisingly, the budget comes first in an application, but you really can't write a budget until you actually write the Research Strategy (the rationale, hypothesis, importance of the work and the design of the experiments).  Research Strategy is the third and final major portion of the application, but in many ways, you can't fill in the rest until this section is at least outlined and drafted.

Before we do anything else, it is important to decide what we're going to do, and why/how we're going to do it.  This starts with a section called "Specific Aims" which defines the goal of the whole project.  Naturally, we have to start off with introductory text, so an application could start out with a statement such as: 
Substance abuse is endemic in society, costing millions in taxpayer dollars each year. 
However, considering that this application is going to be read and reviewed by people who have to decide if you are applying appropriate scientific method and know what you are talking about, it's best to include references to support any conjecture and turn them into facts.  Note that without citation, the above sentence is conjecture, while the following. 
Mental health officials are increasingly warning that depression/PTSD and drug abuse are co-morbid conditions each requiring treatment (McFall & Cook, PTSD and health risk behavior. PTSD Research Quarterly 17:1-3, 2006). a supported fact.  

Now we get into the meat of the proposal - identify a need or a gap in knowledge, formulate a hypothesis, and state how we plan to test it as a series of goals or "Specific Aims" of the project. Generally speaking, all of this must be done in one page, so we need to get into the subject right away.  That means one paragraph to introduce and identify the problem, form a hypothesis, and begin to propose the research.  Next up is a section that reads like this:

We propose that the psychological side-effects of chronic cannabinoid exposure can be revealed by assessing their effect on behavioral responsiveness to stress in performance of behavioral tasks involving memory, by alterations in sleep cycle, and by impaired measures of  anxiety and abnormal psychological state. We will test this hypothesis using the following Specific Aims:
Whoo, that's the big one.  What comes next is quite frequently the first and most important phrases in the entire proposal.  We've already used up half a page in introduction, so this section has to be concise but to the point.
Specific Aims:

  1. To examine... [effects of X on Y...]
  2. To study... [variations on Aim 1...]
  3. To develop... [a model...]
  4. To determine... [whether the hypothesized result is true...]
  5. To extend... [findings from one Aim into a one or more alternate directions...]
Note the stereotyped nature of the language.  This is an early introduction to the rigor and stereotypy of scientific writing.  It is archaic and stiff, but that's because we're using very rigid meanings at this phase of the writing.  [Yes, we can get weaselly with claims, but that usually comes later.]  For grad students writing their first proposal to support their doctoral research, the Aims can be that simple.  For experienced grant writers, the Aims require a bit more detail:

Aim 2:  To develop and test the influence of stressful experience in rats and mice with respect to memory performance.   This Aim will develop two pre-test stress experiences modeled after "Single Prolonged Stress" (Liberzon et al., 2003) and “Chronic Mild Stress” (Grippo et al., 2003) and assess the development of stress-induced emotional states that impinge on cognition. 
Now you see that we have a goal - testing whether a stressful experience alters the ability to perform a memory task.  The further detail describes the two stress paradigms, cites the original papers describing them, and elaborates that we think the emotional state following the stress is what impairs the use of memory.   But it also gets a little weaselly in that we still haven't said how we are going to prove that link - not to worry, that will come in the experimental design.

Once the Aims are written, we can map out the experiments.  An NIH grant still has a couple of pages to insert first - describing the significance of the research topic, how it applies to human medicine (since this is NIH), and what is new and innovative about this study as opposed to the 100 other applications the committee will review this time around.  The important part is that with the Aims, we have set the stage for the experimental part of the project.  Thus we will continue next week with:

How to Write a Research Grant Proposal:  Part 4 - Experimental Design

See you then!

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