The first receipt date for predoctoral T32 applications in response to NIGMS Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) PAR-17-341 is fast approaching—May 25, 2018. While a wealth of information is already available regarding the intent and requirements of this new FOA, including on our NRSA Institutional Predoctoral Training Grants website and a recent Feedback Loop post, we want to reassure prospective applicants that we are also actively preparing for the review of these applications.
All predoctoral T32 applications submitted to NIGMS are currently reviewed by two in-house standing review committees, TWD-A and TWD-B, and this will continue for applications submitted under the new FOA. However, we are mindful that reviewing these applications requires different expectations and considerations, and that reviewers must accordingly be prepared for them. To this end, scientific review officers in our Office of Scientific Review are working closely with program staff in the Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity to revise the materials and resources currently used to orient review committee members to ensure they understand and address the new review criteria appropriately. We are also exploring options to add expertise to the committees in aspects of the FOA that may be less familiar to reviewers, such as program evaluation, evidence-based approaches to teaching and mentoring, and non-academic career development. In addition, we are considering ways to bring the perspectives of community members who educate and mentor undergraduate students who go on to pursue Ph.D.s in biomedical fields, as well as of those who employ graduates of NIGMS-funded Ph.D. programs, such as representatives from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. And of course, NIGMS review and program staff are available at each step, including during the review meetings, to provide guidance and reminders.
Trying to navigate changes in NIH grant application policy can be a daunting task. Moreover, when these policy changes bypass the radar of applicants, the result can be an unwelcome outcome. This was the case most recently for many grant applicants who did not follow the new NIH policy limiting the types of appendix materials allowed for applications with due dates on or after January 25, 2017. This policy was first advertised last August to allow sufficient time for applicants to absorb the change. Unfortunately, many of the grant applications assigned to NIGMS came in for the January 25 receipt date with non-compliant appendix materials, resulting in their withdrawal by NIH. We at NIGMS are very aware of the pain and frustration felt by applicants and institutional authorized officials when applications are withdrawn. In the hope of minimizing the number of withdrawals due to non-compliant appendices for upcoming receipt dates, here are some important reminders:
- Under the new policy, almost nothing is allowed as appendix material unless specifically requested in the funding opportunity announcement (FOA).
- The few remaining materials that are still allowed are very specialized and do not apply to most FOAs.
- If the FOA you apply for is one that does allow or specifically requests certain types of appendix materials, be sure to include only what is allowed. If you include any additional materials, your application will be considered non-compliant and will almost certainly be withdrawn.
- Do not use application sections that have unrestricted page limits (e.g., the Other Attachments section) as a surrogate location for appendix materials that are no longer allowed because this also will result in your application being withdrawn as non-compliant.
- Lastly, be sure you are reading the most up-to-date versions of the FOA and SF424 instructions, as the materials that are and are not allowed in an application may have changed from previous versions.
One of the best resources to help you stay on top of new and upcoming changes is the Notices of NIH Policy Changes on the Office of Extramural Research website—please check this site frequently. And, as always, NIGMS program and review staff are available to answer any questions.
As we’ve pointed out, it’s important to acknowledge your NIH funding in all your publications, including research articles, press releases and other documents about NIH-supported research. Your Notice of Award includes information about such acknowledgements (also see Requirements for Acknowledging NIH-Supported Research and Attribution of NIH/NIGMS Support).
If you have more than one NIGMS or NIH award, you should only cite the grant(s) that supported the research described in the publication. The specific aims should be the determining factor. This would apply even in cases where one of the authors on the article (e.g., a technician) works on multiple projects and is paid through multiple grants, or when equipment used in the reported work was purchased on a different grant.
Acknowledging multiple awards in a publication may be taken as an indicator of scientific overlap among the cited projects. This becomes important when your next application is being considered by reviewers, NIGMS Advisory Council members and NIGMS staff. For example, when considering support of research in well-funded laboratories, our Advisory Council expects the Institute to support projects only if they are highly promising and distinct from other funded work in the laboratory.
So, please take a moment to make sure that you are citing your grants accurately in your publications and avoid pitfalls when you send in your next application.
I recently attended a scientific meeting where I had the opportunity to talk with investigators at all stages of their scientific careers. I was surprised to learn that many didn’t know that they could submit a cover letter with their electronic grant application. Here I briefly explain some reasons to provide a cover letter, including situations that require one.
1. Suggest a particular review group for your application.
The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) assigns applications to scientific review groups (SRGs), but sometimes an application could be a scientific match for more than one study section. In a cover letter, you can request assignment to a particular study section and explain why you think that study section would be the best fit. Appropriate assignment requests are honored in the majority of cases. Study section descriptions, recent study section rosters and the NIH RePORTER database of funded grants can help you identify an SRG suitable for your application.
2. Suggest a particular institute or center (IC) for funding your research.
Your research might be relevant to the mission of more than one NIH IC. You can use a cover letter to suggest that your application be assigned to a specific IC. The NIH RePORTER database is a good place to investigate the types of research supported by different ICs. Before making a request in a cover letter, you should also consult with program officers at the IC to determine whether your application would be an appropriate scientific match.
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.
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.
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.
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.