Help Us Help You!


Understanding what you need to know and do to apply for a grant can be a challenge.  NIH’s application instruction guide is long, with lots of background information that you may only occasionally need. On top of that, funding opportunity announcements have instructions that often add to those in the application instruction guide. We may also issue notices that can change application requirements, perhaps with additional FAQs for you to follow. It’s not only a lot of information, but it’s complex in the way we give it you, which can be frustrating!

We’ve been developing ideas about how to make these instructions better, but we really need to hear how you currently work with the instructions, and how you would like to work with the instructions in the future, so we can make a product that works better for you. Last week we issued a request for information for your suggestions about how we can simplify NIH’s grant application instructions (NOT-OD-15-134). I hope you will take this opportunity to give us your valuable input – as described here – by the Sept 25, 2015 deadline. We do want to make the grant application process easier to follow and, with your input, we can work together to make this happen.


  1. I’d probably be considered a veteran user of the granting process with NIH. Therefore, I don’t use the instruction guide as much as someone new to the process. I rely heavily on the RFA or PA instructions unless it is something that is a little ambiguous. I find that even though the instructions are long they are of infinite value when you’re trying to tell a PI that what they want to do is not acceptable. I’ve had to do this several times and the instructions have saved me from beating my head against the wall. Thanks for taking the time with all of this.

  2. My suggestion is not about how to simplify NIH’s application instructions, but it is related. I suggest that when users download the SF424 Application Guide, they be prompted to provide their email address so they can receive notifications of when the application guide has been updated. This would help prevent them from using an outdated version of the application guide. This measure is similar to the prompt users receive when they download application forms packages from

  3. Currently I most frequently use a pdf of the instructions so I can easily search what I am looking for by a word. Please, please just make it so you have to use ONE document plus any special instructions in the announcement and make it searchable. Thanks.

  4. I am trying to submit an STTR grant and have found the instructions – to the extent that they exist – byzantine and unfathomable. One has to register in multiple places (ERA, SAM, SBC,D&B etc), designate AORs and every single tiniest detail has to match across these platforms otherwise the grant cannot be submitted. For example, the one of addresses of my company listed in SAM did not match that in ERA and the grant was spit out, which may result in our missing the deadline (Sept. 5), essentially for no reason at all. I believe this system should be simplified and – at the minimum – should allow rapid, online corrections, instead of forcing the investigators into the endless sisyphean loop.

  5. The federal income tax code is more complicated that NIH instructions. Yet, Turbo Tax and others make is relatively straightforward by asking a series of questions that require simple responses or data. Additional information is available on each screen via link. A similar software-based model would seem possible for this problem.

    1. I like Henry’s idea of implementing a Turbo-Tax style questionnaire as a way to simplify the process. However, if such a tool is developed for grant applications, I think the instructions should still be available as a single, searchable document, analogous to how the tax code (and even the paper-and-pencil tax form instructions) is still available for anyone who needs more guidance that is provided by the Turbo-Tax prompts.

    2. I agree a simple program based like turbo-tax. Also I rely on the PA. I read it first and make my PI a template of what is needed. A short template for each type of PA would be great. How many pages for introduction, how many pages for research, etc. Any special conditions could be 1 page but a huge help for those PI’s who do not have assistants to help.

  6. Absolutely the instructions need to be simplified. It would be very helpful to PIs for NIH to post templates to be used for each mechanism, i.e., a single form for Response to Review to the end, with sections headings, etc., preestablished. Each section could contain a brief description of what goes into it (or explain when a section is not required and can be blank). Some institutes have posted sample grant applications, which are often very helpful, but they need to be kept up to date.
    Regarding PMID or PMCID, if PubMed lists PMID, that should be it.

  7. Instead of one SF424 instructions guide which is about 240 pages long, have separate packages for each grant type. How about a software contest to develop most user friendly NIH application system? A system that will also allow to import the organizational info or a PI specific info directly into the form? Most of us write grants all year round and to fill each of those forms every time (which keep getting longer) becomes cumbersome.
    Regarding T grants, we have developed a software platform where all of our mentors/faculty on the grant can update their info on a regular basis and this info can be exported in the Data Table Format. Writing/renewing a T grant is a 3 month process especially the ones with 20+ mentors from 5 different institutions and 8 fellowship spots.

    1. Thanks for everyone’s thoughtful suggestions. Leena, NIH’s ASSIST system does automatically import organizational and PI specific information directly into the forms. We talked about this recently in an April post, More ASSISTance Options for Submitting Your Application to NIH. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!

      You might also be happy to hear that we have been working to simplify and provide systems support for training tables. See the blog from last year, Better Research Trainee Data through Streamlined Reporting Processes. You will hear more about the xTRACT system rollout very soon.

  8. It took me 4 attempts to complete SBIR Phase 1 and was submitted successfully of the 4th try. I am a practicing physician and was awarded a grant by the Delaware Small Business Development Corp to receive help from a company that teaches how to fill out the grant. Most of my friends at academic institutions have 3-5 individuals to complete NIH grants and subsequently respond to questions after the grant has been accepted.

    If you are serious about democratizing the process you should start over and place in precise non-coded language what is required to complete the grant and respond to questions when you are fortunate to receive the grant. Having gone through this process once and anticipating submission for a Phase 2, I am budgeting FROM MY OWN FUNDS FOR CONSULTANTS to complete and service the grant SHOULD I BE LUCKY TO GET A SECOND AWARD. That way I can spend more time helping patients with the necessary care to assist them in being more consistent with their asthma medications.

    thank you for considering these comments.

  9. The SF 424 Guide is great for administrators that work on many different kinds of grants, it is very detailed and informative. On the other hand, the RFA and PA instructions do not have enough information. If there was something in between, maybe 3-4 pages of instructions that cover detailed information and highlighted the differences for different PA’s, R01, R21, etc, it would be easier and less overwhelming for new PI’s, PI’s that do not submit as often, or PI’s that do not have administrative help.

  10. I’ve been around a long time, and at the time the guide came out, I printed it out and read it cover to cover, making notes and flagging pages with sticky notes. Although I have to admit that it wasn’t the most exciting piece I’ve ever read, doing so was invaluable. These days I keep a PDF of the current version on my desktop and use search features if I need to resolve something. It may be long, but it’s certainly full of necessary detail!

  11. I generally find the instructions very helpful (searchable, in order by grant section, NIH-specific guidance) although I agree with earlier commenters that additional tools could make the process even easier, and that having it all in one document would make searching easier. However, some of the FOA instructions are confusing. For instance, diversity supplement instructions have different parts described in several different places, are divided by which party is responsible for different sections, when I’d love instead or in addition a checklist of which pieces go in which section, and how many pages are allowed.

  12. This is a very simple suggestion. The first things I need to know when I write a proposal are format specifics. It would be great to have a summary of font, document margins, page numbering, heading labels, page requirements, reference style (i.e. settings you’ll need for your Word processor) easily accessible at the very start of the instructions rather than deep within. A clickablle link for a template would make this even easier.

  13. Create simple “Quickstart” guides for each grant mechanism, aimed at the PI. Like the simple instructions that come with smartphones and software, these guides for R01, R21 etc. could contain the basic information a PI may need to prepare their research proposal and necessary documents that are then passed along to their grants office. Simple instructions on the format of the proposal, required components (e.g. biosketches, budget justification) would be a huge help. Because the SF 424 guide contains every imaginable piece of information for all mechanisms and for all parts of the grant, it is very difficult to extract basic information that the PI needs (and the sometimes impenetrable bureaucratic language doesn’t help).

  14. – Separate manuals for different types of grants
    – Separate sections for administrators (e.g. how to fill out those cover page and budget forms) vs. PIs (e.g. what information goes in which section, and deadlines, page limits, font, and margin rules)

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