A few thoughts on abstracts for NIH grants

Abstracts, which are now called project summaries, are critical to your grant. Sometimes, that is all that someone who gets to score you will ever read (ie the other people on study section who are not your reviewers). Writing the abstract after the rest is done allows you to take the best sentences from elsewhere in your grant combine them, smooth them, adjust them. This should not be too hard to write, after you have written your kick ass grant proposal. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to make sure its good.

As an aside – if you get funded, the abstract is what is publicly available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. If you are applying for jobs, ten to one someone on the search committee will check you out in RePORTER. If you are doing anything within the academic community, someone will check you out. It is very good to have those abstracts readable for all those people who will be checking you out.

I am busy reviewing grants now for an October study section. I have just read five abstracts and it is hard for me when I see how bad some of them are. I want to support these people, I want to advocate for them. I want to see them funded. These are all young investigators (this is a mechanism, in this institute, designed for young investigators, which a separate pot of money set aside for them). But these abstracts makes my job harder. Not that you should care about how hard the reviewer’s job is. BUT… making things easy for the reviewer ups your chance of being funded. I’d like to put 40 hours into each grant and figure out exactly what the PI means. I do not have time for that (nor does NIH expect me to have time for that). But if I understand your grant, it is much more likely I will perceive what is good about it.

These abstracts are not bad in the sense of poorly written and sentences that don’t make sense (though there is some of that). There are problems in the sense of poor choices about what to include, poor choices about what to emphasize and poor choices in opening & ending sentences.

Problems (things not to do):

1. Having divided your summary into categories (not necessarily bad, but certainly uncommon), starting with “Personnel” and discussing the PI in the third person (She will do this…). Did someone else write this grant for you and therefore is talking about you? But more to the point – as a reviewer I am less interested in what you will do, or why you are so lovely, than in why is this project interesting, important, and most of all, significant.

2. Spend 2/3 of the (single) paragraph on the justification for the work. This is too much. I want to know less about the problem, and more about what you are doing for the problem. A good strategy (for SA’s too), with each of these points being 1-2 sentences, max:

  1. What is the overall problem:  Bunny hopping is critical for a happy life.
  2. What is known: The disease XYZ is responsible for all deaths due to bad bunny hopping.
  3. What is not known: XYZ has two routes in which it has the potential to impact bunny hopping, but it is unknown which, or both, are responsible for the failures.
  4. What you are going to do: We propose to test these two models of XYZ and measure their impact on bunny hopping.

3. This issue exists independently, but also as a function of 2. No information on what you propose to do. No hint of what kind of methodology (whole animal physiology, genotyping) you are proposing. What kinds of things will you measure? This again can be 1-2 sentences, but needs to tell me what I am going to find in the approach you propose.

4.Jargon in the abstract that is not defined. This one (or two, or in this case three) word(s)  may be a common word in your sub-specialty, but I don’t know what they mean. Yes, I can look it up, but I’m actually reading your abstract during a boring meeting, prior to reading the whole thing later on, so I can’t. I stop reading yours, and move on to the next one. Of course, when I go back and write my review, I’ll look it up. But in my time-deprived, sleep-deprived world, it means you get one less reading than the others. And I’m irritated. One does not want irritated reviewers.

5. No kick-ass final sentence. Please give me something to work with in my review: The successful completion of this project will make bunny hopping possible for patients who can’t get off the ground. In general, if you can include, in the abstract, sentences like (and no, you don’t have to bold or underline these), you make life easy for the reviewer:

  • The significance of this work is:
  • The innovation of this work is:
  • The results from this project (NOT “if this project succeeds”) will change the world in the following ways…

As I keep emphasizing in the debates about font, white space, etc, that it doesn’t matter what you like, it matters what the reviewers like. This is part of grantsmanship. Do it right and you don’t just pass go and collect $200, you get hotels on Park Place and Broadway and get to get out of the game, and do the science.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “A few thoughts on abstracts for NIH grants

  1. Critical thing is NOT to just recycle your aims page and lose a few words to make the abstract. The big reason to avoid this (of course) is then when you get funded, your adversaries can go on RePorter and see what you’re doing! There’s a certain art to being enigmatic in the abstract for the purposes of keeping your ideas secret, while simultaneously providing enough info’ for the reviewers to get excited about. I usually include the statement “The overall goal of our research program is to…” somewhere in there, to put the grant in context of the ongoing work in the lab.

  2. I agree about the “overall goals” statement.

    But the adversary stuff… hmm… I have a problem with this. Thinking in terms of adversaries is a bad idea.

    First, it is far more important to get funded than “protect” your science. Anything you to do compromise that, including writing enigmatic abstracts, has the potential to do more damage than an adversary.

    Second It encourages paranoia, which takes up brain space that could be devoted to being excited about science. It gets in the way of collaboration or even talking about what you do with others. Those discussions are some of the most important for making your work go.

    Third, the reviewers of your grant are quite likely to be those adversaries, if not 1-2 steps from them. I doubt that being vague will keep the info out of those hands.

    Write the best abstract you can. If you have good sentences in your SA’s, Significance or Innovation sections, use those. Do not just string them together, work to make the text flow, so that it is easy to read.

  3. Reblogged this on JAPANsociology and commented:
    Part of the publish or perish circle of life in academia is getting money for our research, without which we can’t do the work, and thus can’t publish, and hence risk perishing … which we all will do anyway. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind, as we try to cram as much as possible into a few paragraphs in our grant applications.

  4. Pingback: How to Write an Abstract for a Talk/Meeting (without Embarrassing Anyone Especially Yourself) | Mistress of the Animals

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s