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very aware of the pain and frustration felt by applicants and institutional authorized officials when applications are withdrawn.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If you include any additional materials, your application will be considered non-compliant and will almost certainly be withdrawn.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location for appendix materials that are no longer allowed because this also will result in your application being withdrawn as non-compliant.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.
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.