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.
With several training and other grant application receipt dates right around the corner, I want to be sure you know that all competing and noncompeting applications submitted for due dates on or after May 25 must use a new biosketch format.
There are two versions of the biosketch:
To increase the efficiency of issuing noncompeting grant awards, we’ve changed the submission date for noncompeting continuation institutional training grant (T32 and T34) progress reports. Beginning with applications for noncompeting awards that will be made in Fiscal Year 2016:
- Progress reports for all T32 grants will be due on November 15 (rather than on December 1).
- Progress reports for all T34 grants will be due on October 15 (rather than on November 1).
There is no change in the receipt dates for competing T32 or T34 applications.
While NIH expects applications to be submitted by their deadlines, it may accept a late application and has recently announced a 2-week window of consideration for all types of applications. Beginning with applications due on or after January 25, NIH will consider accepting applications during this grace period provided a cover letter submitted with the application includes an appropriate justification for being late. The new policy includes submissions in response to most requests for applications and program announcements with special due dates. For exceptions, acceptable reasons and other details, see Simplifying the NIH Policy for Late Application Submission.
The annual Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) is how we assess progress toward your funded project’s goals and whether your project is in compliance with guidelines set forth in the NIH Grants Policy Statement. The designated grants management specialist and program official (PO, also known as program director) review each progress report. After these staff members approve the report, we can issue a notice of award for the noncompeting continuation of the grant.
Typically, this administrative review is a straightforward process, but sometimes issues arise that can delay the processing of the award and create additional work for everyone involved. Here are some of the most common issues we encounter:
- Public access compliance: Before initiating the RPPR, you should enter all appropriate citations into your NCBI My Bibliography, associate them with the appropriate grant number and select the citations to include in this year’s RPPR. The RPPR software will then complete Section C.1 automatically. When noncompliant publications are identified, you should immediately begin (or complete) the process of bringing those publications into compliance.
- Publication reporting in the RPPR: List publications in Section C of the progress report, not in Section B.2, “What was accomplished…,” or elsewhere in the text. For more details, see Janna Wehrle’s post on Progress Reports and the Public Access Policy.
- Change in scope: A request for a change in project scope is a prior approval request that must be submitted by your Authorized Organizational Representative (AOR) and requires review by the grants management specialist and PO; this is done separately from the progress report review. Please remember that adding human subjects and/or vertebrate animals to a grant that previously did not have these activities is considered a change in scope.
- Discrepancies in answers to RPPR questions: Please double-check your responses to questions about the administrative aspects of your grant. Inconsistent answers to these questions often trigger a flurry of e-mails from us requesting clarification from the AOR and investigator. In my experience, the most common issues involve changes in other support, key personnel and vertebrate animal use, or they indicate a change when none exists.
- Description of collaborations: Please adequately describe how any collaborations contribute to the project. This is especially important for collaborations with foreign investigators and collaborations involving the sharing of samples from human subjects or vertebrate animals.
- Level of effort: Be sure to use whole numbers to report person-months of effort on a grant.
Finally, your progress report should include a relatively brief description of the project’s scientific progress in the last funding period. We want to know what you think are your most impactful and exciting discoveries from the past year, as well as where the project is headed in the next funding period. Reading these descriptions is one of the most interesting parts of my job.
When in doubt on what to include in the progress report, contact your PO.
Jon Lorsch recently posted a message about the responsibility that our grantee community shares with us to help the research enterprise thrive. One way that we have addressed this is by taking a hard look at the funding of investigators who are already well supported. As most of you know, in an effort to increase efficiency and to support as many outstanding scientists as possible, we have long required special advisory council approval for any grant that, in combination with the principal investigator’s (PI’s) other research support, would provide over $750,000 in direct costs.
We have now developed guidelines that we will use in awarding R01s and other research grants to investigators with substantial levels of long-term, unrestricted research funding from any source. Unrestricted funding means that it is not project-based and may be used to conduct research on a broad topic at the PI’s discretion. We consider such support substantial and long-term if it is over $400,000 in direct costs (excluding the PI’s salary and direct support of widely shared institutional resources) and extends for at least 2 years from the time the NIGMS grant would be funded.
Abiding by these new guidelines will enable us to fund additional labs, increasing the likelihood of making significant scientific advances. The guidelines will take effect for applications submitted on or after January 2, 2016. If you might be affected by the new guidelines, I encourage you to discuss your plans with your program director.
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 on YouTube.
If you have an NIGMS research grant, we want to raise your “IDP consciousness.” If you’re unfamiliar with this abbreviation, IDP stands for “individual development plan.”
A recent NIH Guide notice announced a revised policy on describing the use of IDPs in annual progress reports that requires you to include a section on how you use IDPs to help identify and promote the career goals of the graduate students and postdocs supported by the grant. The notice states:
NIH will not require but strongly encourages institutions to develop and use IDPs for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers supported by NIH awards, regardless of their position title. IDPs provide a structure for the identification and achievement of career goals. Therefore, NIH encourages grantees to develop institutional policies that employ an IDP for every graduate student and postdoctoral researcher supported by NIH awards. Beginning on October 1, 2014, annual progress reports are required to include a description of whether the institution uses IDPs or not and how they are employed to help manage the training and career development of those individuals.
Please note that you should not include the actual IDPs in your progress report.
NIGMS’ training strategic plan emphasized the importance of IDPs, and our IDP Web page provides useful resources for preparing and implementing them. If you have other tips for using IDPs or meeting the new progress report requirement, please feel free to share them here.
NIH has just announced a significant change in its policy for resubmission applications.
Effective immediately, for application due dates after April 16, 2014, following an unsuccessful resubmission (A1) application, applicants may submit the same idea as a new (A0) application for the next appropriate due date. NIH will not assess the similarity of the science in the new (A0) application to any previously reviewed submission when accepting an application for review.
NIH’s policy for accepting overlapping applications remains in effect (see NOT-OD-09-100), so it will not accept duplicate or highly overlapping applications under review at the same time. This means that NIH will not review:
- A new (A0) application that is submitted before issuance of the summary statement from the review of an overlapping resubmission (A1) application.
- A resubmission (A1) application that is submitted before issuance of the summary statement from the review of the previous new (A0) application.
- An application that has substantial overlap with another application pending appeal of initial peer review (see NOT-OD-11-101).
The NIH time limit for accepting resubmission (A1) applications remains in effect, as well (see NOT-OD-12-128 and NOT-OD-10-140). NIH will not accept a resubmission (A1) application that is submitted later than 37 months after submission of the new (A0) application that it follows.
Also remaining in effect is the NIH policy for new investigator R01 resubmission deadlines, described in NOT-OD-11-057.
Background and details on the new resubmission policy are in NIH Guide NOT-OD-14-074 and a blog post by NIH’s Sally Rockey.