Talking to NIH Staff About Your Application and Grant: Who, What, When, Why and How

During the life of your application and grant, you’re likely to interact with a number of NIH staff members. Who’s the right person to contact—and when and for what? Here are some of the answers I shared during a presentation on communicating effectively with NIH at the American Crystallographic Association annual meeting. The audience was primarily grad students, postdocs and junior faculty interested in learning more about the NIH funding process.


The three main groups involved in the application and award processes—program officers (POs), scientific review officers (SROs) and grants management specialists (GMSs)—have largely non-overlapping responsibilities. POs advise investigators on applying for grants, help them understand their summary statements and provide guidance on managing their awards. They also play a leading role in making funding decisions. Once NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) assigns applications to the appropriate institute or center and study section, SROs identify, recruit and assign reviewers to applications; run study section meetings; and produce summary statements following the meetings. GMSs manage financial aspects of grant awards and ensure that administrative requirements are met before issuing a notice of award.

How do you identify the right institute or center, study section and program officer for a new application? Some of the more common ways include asking colleagues for advice and looking at the funding sources listed in the acknowledgements section of publications closely related to your project. NIH RePORTER is another good way to find the names of POs and study sections for funded applications. Finally, CSR has information on study sections, and individual institute and center websites, including ours, list contacts by research area. We list other types of contact information on our website, as well.

What, When and Why?

Communication Timeline for February 5 R01 Deadline

November-January: Application preparation (contact: PO)

February-March: CSR makes study section assignments

April-May: SROs make reviewer assignments (contact: SRO)

May-July: Study sections meet (contact: SRO)

July-August: Summary statements prepared and made available to applicants and advisory councils (contact: PO)

September: Councils meet (contact: PO)

October-December: Funding decisions made (contacts: PO, GMS if selected for funding)

This timeline for the upcoming R01 deadline of February 5 illustrates when to contact a PO, SRO or GMS. The general principles hold for all three R01 funding cycles.

Before submitting an application, contact the PO who manages grants in your scientific area. During the review process, communicate with the SRO of the study section to which your application is assigned. Once the summary statement is released, usually a few weeks after the study section meeting, contact the PO (not the SRO) assigned to your application if you have questions about the review or about the possibility of funding. If your application is recommended for funding, address award and other administrative requirements with the GMS. After a notice of award is issued, get in touch with the PO for scientific or programmatic questions and with the GMS for financial questions. For more details, see contacts by type of question.

As a PO, I’m more than willing to talk to applicants about whether their applications are relevant to the NIGMS mission, help identify the appropriate study section and discuss details such as budget and scope of work. After review, most of my conversations with applicants are about prospects for funding and better understanding the reviewers’ comments.


Once you identify a PO who is likely to be involved in your research area, send him or her an email with a brief description of yourself and your work, and ask if he or she has time to talk in the next week or so. If this initial contact is not the appropriate PO, he or she will usually be able to point you in the right direction. We try to respond as quickly as we can; if you contact me, you will typically hear back within a day or two unless I’m on travel or unavailable for some other reason.

My colleagues and I enjoy speaking with grantees and applicants and answering their questions. Our goal is to fund the best research that fits under our “umbrella,” and communicating with you is an important part of reaching that goal.

Early Career Investigators to Join Advisory Council Deliberations

Beginning at this month’s meeting of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council, some of the ad hoc Council members will be early career investigators. We expect to benefit from their ideas and insights, and we also hope that they will get a better understanding of the workings of Council and share what they learn with peers.

As most of you know, the Advisory Council provides the second level of review required before any grant can be funded. The Council also advises the Institute on policy and scientific matters. Regular Council members are appointed by the HHS Secretary, but for most meetings, we invite ad hoc consultants to expand the Council’s breadth of expertise. Both regular and ad hoc members are typically at fairly senior career levels—often full professors or deans. We think there is value in inviting one or two early career investigators to each Council meeting as ad hocs to provide a greater diversity of views.

We’ve identified a perfect pool to draw from: the Early Career Reviewers who have participated in a study section for NIH’s Center for Scientific Review. If you are interested in applying to this CSR program, see How to Apply.

Becoming a Peer Reviewer for NIGMS

NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) is not the only locus for the review of grant applications–every institute and center has its own review office, as well. Here at NIGMS, the Office of Scientific Review (OSR) handles applications for a wide variety of grant mechanisms and is always seeking outstanding scientists to serve as reviewers. If you’re interested in reviewing for us, here’s some information that might help.

Continue reading

Pharmacogenomics Research Network Transition Update

As I wrote in a previous post on the Pharmacogenomics Research Network (PGRN), we have been transitioning our support of pharmacogenomics research from set-aside funding to regular competition with other scientific areas. This is part of the Institute’s efforts to bolster support for investigator-initiated research. We’ll now fund pharmacogenomics research primarily through regular research grant mechanisms, such as R01s or well-justified P01s.

To learn more about how pharmacogenomics-related applications fare in review, our Office of Program Planning, Analysis, and Evaluation conducted an analysis of NIH-wide pharmacogenomics-related applications assigned to Center for Scientific Review study sections. The analysis showed that these applications have comparable success in the review and award processes as applications in other scientific fields. Even so, I still recommend that applicants include a cover letter describing the kinds of expertise they believe are needed for an appropriate review. This can be particularly beneficial for a multidisciplinary research area like pharmacogenomics.

Continue reading

Tune in for Video Resources on Navigating Peer Review, eRA Commons

The NIH Extramural Nexus blog has published posts on video resources that you may find helpful:

New Webinars Connect Applicants to NIH Peer Review Experts: The Center for Scientific Review is hosting webinars in early November to give R01, R15, SBIR/STTR and fellowship grant applicants and others useful insights into the submission and review processes. Register by October 28.

New Video Tutorials Can Help You Navigate eRA Commons: A 10-part series of short video tutorials walks you through the steps for submitting just-in-time information, a no-cost extension, a relinquishing statement and more. Watch the tutorials on the NIH Grants playlist Exit icon on YouTube.

CSR Launches Competition for Ideas to Detect Bias and Maximize Fairness in Peer Review

As part of NIH’s efforts to address racial disparities Exit icon in grant funding, the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) has just launched two America COMPETES Act Challenges. We hope that the ideas we receive will help us maximize the fairness and vitality of the peer review process, and we encourage you to enter.

One challenge, New Methods to Detect Bias in Peer Review, solicits ideas for strategies to detect possible bias in the NIH peer review process. Submissions can include approaches, strategies, methodologies and/or measures that would be sensitive to detecting bias among reviewers due to gender, race/ethnicity, institutional affiliation, area of science and amount of research experience. We’ll award first place ($10,000) and second place ($5,000) prizes in two categories: best empirically based idea and most creative idea.

The other challenge, Strategies to Strengthen Fairness and Impartiality in Peer Review, seeks ideas for reviewer training methods aimed at enhancing fairness and impartiality in NIH peer review. The submission does not require the full development of training materials. However, ideas should be presented with enough detail to allow assessment of their ability to address fairness and impartiality in review with regard to gender, race/ethnicity, institutional affiliation, area of science and amount of research experience. We’ll give first place ($10,000) and second place ($5,000) prizes for the best overall idea.

The challenges close on June 30, and winners will be announced on September 2. Details on the rules and submission procedures are on the CSR Challenge Web site and at Exit icon.

This contest is just one of many initiatives CSR is working on to evaluate the sources of racial disparities in grant funding in collaboration with the ACD Diversity Working Group Subcommittee on Peer Review.

Encouraging Model Organism Research

Image of a planerian from the lab of Dr.  Alejandro Sánchez  Alvarado. Nervous system in green and photoreceptors in red. Image credit: Sarah Elliot and Lisandro Maya-RamosA recent article in NIH’s Peer Review Notes illustrated how Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado developed the planarian as a model organism for studying regeneration.

When he applied for his first NIH grant in 1997, Sánchez Alvarado was a new investigator at the Carnegie Institution of Washington who had little preliminary data supporting his proposal. The peer reviewers astutely recognized the promise of his grant application, and they scored it favorably.

NIGMS funded the grant and continues to support Sánchez Alvarado’s studies, now at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. Since receiving that first grant, Sánchez Alvarado has helped turn planaria into tiny workhorses that have opened new avenues for understanding tissue regeneration and other developmental processes. He has also trained and mentored graduate students and postdocs and served the scientific community as a study section and NIGMS advisory council member.

Sánchez Alvarado’s work is just one example of how NIGMS-funded research on model organisms, including those that are currently considered unconventional, has significantly advanced scientific progress. Think of the protozoan Tetrahymena thermophila and the discovery of telomeres, or the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and the discovery of RNA interference. The fungus Neurospora crassa has been an important player in understanding the genetics of circadian rhythms, and the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus has led to important insights on the regulation of cell division.

We have long supported research using these and many more model organisms, including mammalian species and other vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, yeast, and additional bacteria. We know that findings made in such systems can translate rapidly—and often unexpectedly—into leaps in conceptual understanding of fundamental life processes, the development of better research tools and approaches, and new strategies for diagnosing and treating diseases. We also know that we can never predict where the next breakthrough will come from—or in which organism. So we continue to encourage applications for projects that use model organisms, including uncommon ones, when these systems offer distinct scientific advantages.

Identifying the Study Section for Your Application

One of my jobs as an NIGMS program director is helping investigators navigate the review process. This includes understanding where their applications will be reviewed and how they can make a recommendation about this assignment.

Applications can be grouped for review by research area or grant mechanism, or as a cohort submitted in response to a specific funding opportunity announcement (FOA). I would like to briefly walk through a few scenarios and share some advice along the way.

The “Review and Selection Process” (V.2) section of FOAs provides clues about where your application will be reviewed. An application can be reviewed at the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) or at an individual NIH institute or center (IC), depending upon the particular FOA. Information about who will review your application is posted in your eRA Commons account soon after it is determined, but you should contact your program director or CSR if you have questions or concerns.

The vast majority of applications received by NIH on topics relevant to NIGMS are in response to “parent” program announcements, such as PA-13-302, for unsolicited R01 applications. Section V.2 of PA-13-302 states, “Applications will be evaluated for scientific and technical merit by (an) appropriate Scientific Review Group(s) convened by CSR.” This means that the application will be reviewed by a regular NIH study section or a special emphasis panel (SEP) with expertise in the research area explored by the application. To identify a possible “review home” for your application, I suggest you peruse CSR’s list of study sections, find the ones that seem most suitable for your application and then use NIH RePORTER to search for funded applications that have been reviewed by those study sections. This will allow you to identify the group of scientists who have the appropriate research expertise to review your application.

Specific requests for applications (RFAs), such as RFA-GM-14-003 (Revisions for Macromolecular Interactions in Cells), are often reviewed together in the IC that issued the RFA. For example, section V.2 of GM-14-003 states, “Applications will be evaluated for scientific and technical merit by (an) appropriate Scientific Review Group(s) convened by the NIGMS.” This means that the NIGMS Office of Scientific Review will organize a review panel to review applications submitted in response to this RFA.

For applications that will be reviewed by groups convened by CSR, I encourage the investigators I speak with to write a brief cover letter for their applications that indicates which study section they think is appropriate and how they arrived at that conclusion. Sometimes, it is also helpful to indicate the type(s) of expertise you believe is needed to review your application, but you should not provide a list of reviewers, as that creates issues with potential conflicts of interest. The recommendations made in the cover letter are advisory, but the CSR Division of Receipt and Referral makes every effort to accommodate reasonable requests.

Resumption of NIH Extramural Activities

One of the biggest challenges facing NIH after the government shutdown is that it occurred during a peak review period and caused the cancellation of several hundred peer review meetings. On October 22, NIH announced that most of these meetings would be rescheduled so as to minimize the disruption of the submission/review/Council/award timeline.

While NIH may not be able to preserve the timeline for all applications, at this point, it looks as though most will still go to January 2014 council meetings. More details are available in a new NIH Guide notice.

Most of the study sections run by the NIGMS Office of Scientific Review were not affected by the shutdown and will proceed as planned over the next few weeks. While a few meetings will have to be rescheduled, we expect the results of the rescheduled meetings to be available in time for our January council meeting.

The other big challenge facing NIH and the extramural community is the disruption in the application process, since funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) could not be accessed and applications could not be submitted during the shutdown. NIH has rescheduled the submission dates that were lost and extended the dates for those FOAs that were adversely affected. More details are available in the same NIH Guide notice.

Sally Rockey’s blog provides more on NIH’s efforts to minimize the disruption of the shutdown’s effects on the extramural community.

Additional Reviewer Scoring Guidance for Overall Impact Scores on Research Applications

NIH has posted additional scoring guidance for reviewers to consider when determining overall impact scores for grant applications. Here are answers to some key questions about this new guidance.

Why provide more guidelines?

Scientific review officers and program directors noticed that reviewers have tended to arrive at overall impact scores by comparing the number of weaknesses and strengths in an application, rather than balancing the importance of the weaknesses and strengths. In addition, there was significant compression of overall impact scores around the perceived funding range. Both practices made it more difficult to gauge reviewer assessments.

What’s changed?

The additional guidance chart simplifies and clarifies the way in which reviewers should evaluate the overall impact of an application. In particular, it encourages reviewers to focus on the importance of the research problem and the likelihood that the project will succeed. The chart emphasizes a balanced assessment of the review criteria and the use of the entire scoring range. The general Scoring System and Procedure also includes a new, simplified scoring guidance chart for assigning individual criterion scores.

When will this change occur?

Some Center for Scientific Review (CSR) study sections used the new guidelines in application reviews for May 2013 advisory council meetings. So that these applications would not be disadvantaged by the deviation from the impact score distribution of previous review cycles used for percentiling, CSR recalculated the percentile base. The vast majority of study sections and special emphasis panels are using the new scoring guidance with the reviews for fall 2013 advisory council meetings.

Note: New scoring guidelines are also available for fellowships, career awards and institutional training grants.