Essentials of the Research Plan

A research plan is the main part of a grant application and describes a principal investigator's proposed research. This page describes the essential elements of a research plan.

The research plan gives a principal investigator the opportunity to discuss proposed research, stating its importance and how it will be conducted. Applications are reviewed using AHRQ’s Peer Review Criteria.

The research plan should be written to address the following questions:

  • What do you intend to do?
  • Why is the work important?
  • What has already been done?
  • How are you going to do the work?

A typical research plan has these required elements:

 Specific Aims

The Specific Aims section is a one-page formal statement of the objectives and milestones of a research project in a grant application. The purpose of this document is to clearly and concisely describe what the proposed research intends to accomplish.

The Specific Aims section should—

  • State concisely the goals of the proposed research.
  • Summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved.
  • List succinctly the specific objectives of the research proposed (e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology).

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 Research Strategy

The Research Strategy section has three subsections:

  • Significance.
  • Innovation.
  • Approach.


The Significance subsection will—

  • Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses.
  • Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields.
  • Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved.
  • State whether there is a strong scientific premise for the project.


The Innovation subsection will—

  • Explain how the application challenges and seeks to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms.
  • Describe any novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s) to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s).
  • Explain any refinements, improvements, or new applications of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or interventions.


The Approach subsection will—

  • Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Unless addressed separately, it will include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted as well as any resource sharing plans as appropriate.
  • Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims.
  • Describe any strategy to establish feasibility, and address the management of any high risk aspects of the proposed work if the project is in the early stages of development.
  • Point out any procedures, situations, or materials that may be hazardous to personnel and precautions to be exercised. A full discussion on the use of select agents should also be included, if applicable..

When creating the Research Strategy—

  • Address Significance, Innovation, and Approach for each Specific Aim individually or address Significance, Innovation and Approach for all of the Specific Aims collectively if the applicant has multiple Specific Aims.
  • Include, as applicable, the following information as part of the Research Strategy, keeping within the three sections listed above: Significance, Innovation, and Approach.
  • State whether the investigators presented strategies to ensure a robust and unbiased approach, as appropriate for the work proposed.

State whether the investigators presented adequate plans to address relevant biological variables, such as gender, for studies in human subjects. 

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The Resources section will—

  • Identify the facilities to be used (laboratory, clinical, animal, computer, office, other). If appropriate, indicate their capacities, pertinent capabilities, relative proximity and extent of availability to the project. Describe only those resources that are directly applicable to the proposed work.
  • Provide any information describing the other resources available to the project (e.g., machine shop, electronic shop) and the extent to which they would be available to the project.
  • Describe how the scientific environment in which the research will be done contributes to the probability of success (e.g., institutional support, physical resources, and intellectual rapport). In describing the scientific environment in which the work will be done, discuss ways in which the proposed studies will benefit from unique features of the scientific environment or subject populations or will employ useful collaborative arrangements.
  • For early stage investigators, describe institutional investment in the success of the investigator, e.g., resources for classes, travel, training; collegial support such as career enrichment programs, assistance and guidance in the supervision of trainees involved with the early stage investigators’ project and availability of organized peer groups; logistical support, such as administrative management and oversight and best practices training; and financial support, such as protected time for research with salary support.
  • If there are multiple performance sites, describe the resources available at each site.
  • Describe any special facilities used for working with biohazards or other potentially dangerous substances. Note: Information about select agents must be described in the Research Plan.

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 Biographical Sketch

The Biographical Sketch section should contain the following elements—

  • Personal statement. Briefly describe why your experience and qualifications make you particularly well-suited for your role (e.g., PD/PI, mentor) in the project that is the subject of the application.
  • Positions and Honors. List in chronological order previous positions, concluding with the present position. List any honors. Include present membership on any Federal Government public advisory committee.
  • Peer-reviewed publications. Applicants should limit the list of selected peer-reviewed publications or manuscripts in press to no more than 15.

Applicants should not include manuscripts submitted or in preparation. The individual may choose to include selected publications based on recency, importance to the field, and/or relevance to the proposed research. When citing articles that fall under the Public Access Policy, were authored or co-authored by the applicant and arose from AHRQ support, provide the PubMed Central reference number (e.g., PMCID234567) for each article. If the PMCID is not yet available because the journal submits articles directly to PMC on behalf of their authors, indicate "PMC Journal—In Process." Select for a list of these journals.

Citations that are not covered by the Public Access Policy but are publicly available in a free, online format may include URLs or PMCID numbers along with the full reference (note that copies of publicly available publications are not acceptable as appendix material.)

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 Research Support

The Research Support section should—

  • List both selected ongoing and completed research projects for the past 3 years (Federal or non-Federally supported). Begin with the projects that are most relevant to the research proposed in the application.
  • Briefly indicate the overall goals of the projects and responsibilities of the key person identified on the Biographical Sketch. Do not include number of person months or direct costs.

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 Preliminary Studies and Progress Reports

The preliminary results section describes prior work by the investigators relevant to the proposed project. Preliminary data can be essential part of a research grant application and help to establish the likelihood of success of the proposed project.

  • For new applications—except for Exploratory/Development Grants (R21, R33), Small Research Grants (R03), Academic Research Enhancement Award Grants (R15), and Phase I Small Business Research Grants (R41/R43) —discuss the preliminary studies, data, and/or experience pertinent to this application.
  • Early Stage Investigators should include preliminary data.
  • For renewing or revised applications, provide a progress report that—
    • Provides the beginning and ending dates for the period covered since the last competitive review. Summarize the specific aims of the previous project period and the importance of the findings, and emphasize the progress made toward their achievement.
    • Explains any significant changes to the specific aims and any new directions including changes resulting from significant budget reductions.

Lists publications, manuscripts accepted for publication, patents, and other printed materials.

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For additional information, visit—

Page last reviewed January 2017
Page originally created September 2012
Internet Citation: Essentials of the Research Plan. Content last reviewed January 2017. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.
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