Strategies for the New NIH Biosketch Format (Part 2)

Yesterday’s post discussed how the new NIH biosketch format is raising the anxiety levels of many researchers. I stick with my assertion that the change is likely inevitable, so the strategic researcher will channel that energy currently fueling the anxiety into developing a new, strategic, biosketch in the new format. Yesterday I reviewed some basic strategic concepts behind the biosketch in general, and today I will discuss some strategies specific to the new format of the NIH biosketch.

Today, let’s discuss some strategies for the Contribution to Science (C2S) section. This new section allows researchers to describe up to five contributions to science and cite up to four products (publication and non-publication) to support each contribution. The inclusion of non-publication products in an NIH biosketch is new, and these products may include:

  • audio and video products
  • patents
  • data and research materials
  • databases
  • educational aids or curricula
  • instruments or equipment
  • models
  • protocols
  • software and netware

Each description of a contribution may be up to 1/2 page each, including the narrative, the list of products, and any figures.

This section is what seems to be exercising researchers the most. While comments in response to the initial announcement about these changes on Dr. Sally Rockey’s blog cover a wide range of anxieties pertaining to this change, the angst seems to boil down in many (but not all) cases to questions about length and motivation. Length is what it is, but regarding motivation: How do position yourself and phrase your descriptions if you don’t understand the motivation of the audience to which you are writing?

While I have heard and read a number of theories regarding the motivation for this change, I think this change is part of a larger repositioning by the NIH. As mentioned previously in this blog, some NIH institutes and centers have created or will create funding mechanisms that fund researchers, rather than projects per se. Those of you acquainted with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will be familiar with this model, and this new biosketch format seems to support this larger shift.

This new format with the C2S section allows researchers without a long track record as a PI, researchers who work in areas traditionally considered support (data management, software development, etc.), and researchers in areas in which the targeted end product is not necessarily a peer-reviewed journal article (e.g., PCORI-funded researchers) to support their application with a narrative and a product list that supports a wider set of productivity metrics.

While I can’t assuage anxieties about this new section any more than I have, I can provide strategies that every writer can apply to the C2S section to create the most strategic biosketch. They include:

  1. Select the strongest, most relevant contributions to discuss. You may discuss up to five, but you will notice that the sample includes three. The point? Keep it relevant, be succinct. As always, a strong approach is to list your strongest contribution first. However, some may find that taking a chronological approach better fits their work. Think about what organization you would want used if you were the reviewer.
  2. Support your discussions with strong, relevant products. You may list up to four, so choose the best. List them chronologically.
  3. Use the 3 Cs of writing in every description: context, content, conclusion.
    • Context: “historical background framing the scientific problem”
    • Content: the central findings of the contribution
    • Conclusion: the influence or application of the contribution
  4. Use a strong topic sentence. A strong topic sentence clearly states your point to skimmers. See the previous post for a fuller description of how to write for skimmers.
  5. Add a 4th C: Contribution to the contribution. That is, be sure to articulate your specific role in the work you describe.
  6. Support your personal statement. As discussed in my previous post, key terms used in your personal statement should be peppered throughout your C2S descriptions. If they are not, your C2S descriptions are not supporting your Personal Statement. This lack of alignment is a serious problem, so researchers finding themselves in this situation need to work to align the Personal Statement with the C2S discussions.

This section ends with a link to a full bibliography of your work. Two publicly available digital databases are suggested by NIH: SciENcv and MyBibliography. More about these databases to come.

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