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.

Who?

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.

How?

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.

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