After building a proposal timeline and speaking with a program officer, the next step in developing a successful grant proposal is to draft the technical or research goals of the grant proposal. Included formally as the Specific Aims document in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant proposal, this piece of the proposal is often less explicitly required by other funding agencies, but should still be presented in the introductory portion of a proposal (for example, as the Overview and Objectives section within the Project Description document of a National Science Foundation (NSF) proposal).
PIs should use the goals statement to provide a concise logical outline of their project, to ensure agency reviewers can quickly situate the project in the current scientific landscape, understand the critical need the project will fill, and why it is urgent to fund. Time spent working to perfect the goals before tackling other portions of the grant is important for several reasons:
- It serves as an organizing draft or road map for the rest of your research plan (NIH) or project description (NSF), making the balance of your proposal easier to compose.
- It convinces busy reviewers, who may only allocate a few minutes of time to an initial review of your package, that your proposal is worth the time and effort to read. For some reviewers, this is the only section of your proposal they will read.
- It ensures your proposal will stand out as worthy of funding by providing evidence that your proposal package contains thorough justification of scientific and technical merit and meets the funding opportunity requirements.
A goals statement can take many shapes depending on the agency and funding opportunity, but here is a suggested four-paragraph format:
The introductory paragraph captures the reviewers’ attention by sharing the specific information necessary to frame your project as a novel, important, agency-relevant project. It should be written to inform and educate a knowledgeable audience who may not be experts in the specific topic of research. Share what is known and unknown about the specific field (excluding information that is generally known to the public), and the critical need which requires that the project be funded.
Paragraph two should clearly lay out the over-arching objective and central hypothesis of your project, as well as why you (and your team) are ideally prepared, equipped, and situated to complete it. Develop linkages from your introduction to your hypotheses and then to your aims presented in the next paragraph to create a compelling flow of logic that can be easily digested by the reviewers.
In the third paragraph, provide two to four aims or objectives (based on the scope of the funding opportunity) to state how you will test your hypothesis or collectively meet the overall objective identified in the introduction, if your proposal is not testing a hypothesis. Share what steps you will take and why. (The how will be detailed later in your research plan, not here.) Your aims should be interrelated, but not interdependent; the feasibility of one aim shouldn’t be affected by the outcome of another aim.
And finally, the concluding paragraph will outline the expected outcomes or expectations for the innovation or impact of the results of your research or project. It will close the loop between the rationale for the project and the deliverables. It informs the reviewers what the funding agency will gain from their investment and how the results of the project relate to the funding agency mission.
The NIH Specific Aims section must be a maximum of one-page, following the introduction to the Research Plan. The NIH provides guidelines for crafting the specific aims, as well as sample proposals showing various ways to structure the specific aims. BioScience Writers has created a very useful summary of how to approach the structure, content, and organization of your NIH specific aims page. This article in Science shares other great tips.
It’s important to note that in an NSF grant proposal, the type of information in the NIH Specific Aims section is split into two places. The four-paragraph outline above is a useful outline for the introduction to the NSF Project Description, which must include “the objectives for the proposed work, expected significance, and the relationship of this work to the present state of knowledge in the field,” but the PI must also include a concise version of the aims in the Overview section of the NSF Project Summary which the NSF proposal guide describes as a description of the activity that would result if the proposal were funded and a statement of objectives and methods to be employed. (This is in addition to required sections on Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts).
In writing to any agency, your goals statement should be easy to read, uncluttered and written with no mistakes. Save all but critical citations for the detailed research plan included later in your proposal. Use spare, clear, simple declarative sentences, free from jargon, formatted according to agency guidelines. It can be useful to italicize or underline key points in writing, but use these formats frugally to avoid dulling their effectiveness. Including language that ties your project to the agency mission (e.g., available on the NSF or NIH website), funding criteria, or the funding opportunity announcement is always a great idea.