Generating Scholarly Ideas

Iain L. O. Buxton, Pharm.D., FAHA, Regents Professor, Foundation Professor, Chair of Pharmacology

Generating Scholarly Ideas

General Considerations for devising interesting, medically relevant questions is best thought of as devising Specific Aims.

  • Devising Specific Aims is the most important part of developing a project and requires the most thought.
  • The Specific Aims constitute the template or master plan for the rest of your research effort.
  • The Specific Aims should be written to include everything about your scientific idea that is important and exciting - without the detail.

In What Context Should I Develop My Plans?

  • Whether convincing a Department Chair or a Dean or a potential sponsor that your ideas are worth protected time and/or start up funding, you will need a proposal.
  • Proposals are reviewed at some point so developing a proposal around your ideas (specific aims) requires that you know your audience (peers, generalists, specialists, the informed lay public).

General Considerations for Turning your Ideas into Specific Aims

  • Know the subject
  • Think about what primary outcomes measures are doable and meaningful.
  • Create a bullet outline (no details!).
  • Consider organizing bullets within four distinct paragraphs:
    • Introductory paragraph
    • "What, Why, Who" paragraph
    • Outcomes "paragraph"
    • "Payoff" paragraph

Crafting the Idea: Specific Aims of the Research

  • The opening sentence must be an interest-grabbing sentence that immediately establishes the relevance of the proposal to human health.
  • You want to convey that, by supporting your proposal, the reviewers will be helping you, the funder and ‘medicine' accomplish shared goals.
  • A statement of current knowledge will help less expert members of the panel get up to speed with respect to what is known about the topic of the application.
  • Introduce what is missing in sentences that identify the gap in knowledge. It is the gap in knowledge that is holding back the field and is what you will address in the work you propose.

Writing Specific Aims: Introduction

  • The long term goal of the project is the eventual outcome of research that you will pursue over the course of multiple years of effort.
    • This component tells the reviewers what the "big picture" of your research program is.
  • The long term goal is followed by the objective of your application, which defines what you expect to accomplish in the short term.
    • This component must link back to the gap in knowledge, and emphasize the product and not the process.
  • The central hypothesis must link to the objective, because the objective will be accomplished by testing the central hypothesis.

Writing Specific Aims: Rationale

  • Develop a Rationale.
  • The rationale conveys why you want to conduct the proposed research.
  • Your rationale should tell the reviewers what will become possible after the research is conducted that is not possible now!
  • The rationale must describe why the idea is significant and why your approach to it is innovative.

Writing Specific Aims: "What, Why, Who"

  • The aims are the most difficult components to write.
  • There must be complete concordance between the aims and the parts of your central hypothesis.
  • The aims should be brief, informative headlines that will attract the reviewer's attention.
  • Each aim should convey why that part of the research is being done, not what will be done.
  • Your aims should not be descriptive, and as such you should avoid using words that connote description.
    • "compare", "correlate", "describe", "investigate"
  • Choose instead: Define, Determine, Establish, Discover and even Prove.

Writing Specific Aims: Outcomes "Paragraph"

  • This paragraph helps to develop advocacy for your proposal.
  • The expected outcomes articulate the expected products of the research.
  • This paragraph details the payoff that the reviewers can expect to realize if they vote to recommend funding of your application.
  • There should be at least one important expected outcome for each of your aims.
  • The final part of the Specific Aims section must summarize the general impact of the expected outcomes.
  • The positive impact statement should make clear that, collectively, the outcomes will advance your field vertically, as well as contribute to the mission of the agency, department, etc.

Writing Specific Aims: "Payoff" Paragraph

  • Linear Progression of Logic for a Strong Specific Aims Section that defines your ideas in the following way.
  • The Gap
  • The Objective
  • The Central Hypothesis
  • The Specific Aims
  • The Expected Outcomes

Finally, Get Critical Input

  • Share your ideas early on with colleagues who will relate to the area of medicine you are targeting.
  • Develop your specific Aims page and share a draft with others for criticism and input.
  • Get specific feedback on your primary outcome measures.
  • Don't be resistant to multiple edits to get the best result.
  • A well refined set of specific aims, with the right outcome measures, makes preparing the approach needed to achieve the aims far easier to write.