Score higher by making R01 Overall Impact crystal clear

by Tom Hollon

Can you explain in one sentence why your R01 research is important, and how science will advance or health will improve if NIH funds your R01?

If you can, you have a crystal clear description of your research project’s overall impact — and you can use it to encourage reviewers to give you a high Overall Impact score, bringing you closer to payline.

Examples of Overall Impact sentences

To show you what I mean by describing R01 overall impact in one sentence, here are three overall impact sentences copied from abstracts of recently funded R01 grants (source: the NIH RePORTER database):

1. “Our studies are likely to have a large overall impact on the field of human immunity to tuberculosis, as they will markedly expand our knowledge of targets of human T cells in M. tuberculosis, they will enable novel studies and discoveries that are not currently possible, and they are likely to provide a pathway to more efficacious TB vaccines.”

2. “The ultimate goal and the overall impact of this project is to provide an understanding of the dynamic processes that occur after aSAH to obtain information that, in the future, will lead to the development of interventions that can be delivered after aSAH to reduce the occurrence of DCI, improve the CNS environment post aSAH, and ultimately reduce the burden of complications in the aSAH survivor.”

3. “The expected overall impact of this innovative proposal is that it will fundamentally advance our mechanistic understanding of the normal and neoplastic functions of the second most frequently mutated tumor suppressor gene in human cancer.”

Each example does exactly what I said at the top: it declares in one sentence why the project is important in terms of advancing scientific knowledge or improving health. Each also projects confidence the research will succeed, almost guaranteeing NIH a better future if the grant is funded. It’s no accident that they were written to be so positive. That was intentional — the writers wanted to influence how reviewers scored their grant.

Why it matters to state overall impact clearly

NIH does not require you to state your R01 overall impact outright. While you are required to write at great length so reviewers can score you for Significance, Innovation, Approach, Investigator, and Environment, for your most important score, Overall Impact, you don’t explicitly have to say anything.

This is because your Overall Impact score derives from the other scores. From scoring Significance and Innovation reviewers form opinions about your project’s importance. From scoring Approach, Investigator, and Environment they form opinions about the likelihood of your project’s success. NIH then lets reviewers weight their impressions of importance and likelihood of success as they see fit to score Overall Impact.

Under this scoring system there isn’t any strict requirement to state what your project’s overall impact will be. Accordingly, few investigators bother. They’re content to let reviewers decide that for themselves.

But consider this: Who is more capable of making an accurate, crystal clear statement of your grant’s overall impact?  You, who spent months writing your R01? Or them, who spent maybe two or three hours reviewing it?

This is why the three writers above included overall impact sentences in their abstracts. They didn’t want to take a chance that reviewers would make a mistake on something so important to their chances of being funded.

Take a moment to read the examples again. Wouldn’t your abstract be improved by including a similar statement that encourages reviewers to give you a higher Overall Impact score?

The master summary every NIH R01 grant should have

Another reason your grant needs an overall impact sentence:

Making your overall impact crystal clear in a single sentence makes it easier for reviewers to remember why you should be funded instead of someone else.

When your grant is discussed in the study section meeting, it’s essential for your reviewers to have a quick, pithy way to tell the rest of the study section what your grant will accomplish. A memorable overall impact sentence can do this. Grant titles are usually too short for the job, and abstracts often too long.

Thus the overall impact sentence is really a master summary of your entire grant — in some ways more of a summary than the abstract — carefully crafted to capture your project’s essentials with brevity and confidence. A great master summary will be influential, so writing it merits painstaking effort.

If your grant doesn’t have this, you’re missing an opportunity to get reviewers to give you a higher score.

Where to put your overall impact sentence

After you’ve written it, put it at the end of your Abstract, where everyone on your study section will read it as the summary of your abstract. Then, repeat it at the end of Specific Aims and at the end of Approach so your primary reviewers will have read it three times by the time they finish reading your research plan. Hopefully, they’ll remember and be guided by it in scoring.

I’m careful about being repetitious in a grant. The short page limit doesn’t provide space to waste. Here, though, a little bit of repetition is worth it, because an outstanding Overall Impact score is so critical to pulling your grant across the payline and into the winner’s circle.


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