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.

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The Funding Decision Process

I recently described the role that an advisory council plays as the second level of peer review for applications submitted to NIH. One thing that neither advisory councils nor study sections do, however, is make funding decisions. How, then, are these decisions made?

In this post, I’ll describe the process we use at NIGMS.

The Institute is organized into five units: four divisions (Cell Biology and Biophysics; Genetics and Developmental Biology; Minority Opportunities in Research; and Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry) and a center (Bioinformatics and Computational Biology). Once the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council has met, each unit organizes meetings (referred to as “paylist meetings”) attended by most or all of the program directors within that unit.

During a paylist meeting, applications are discussed and prioritized, beginning with the top-scoring applications. These applications (typically up to about half of the number that are expected to be funded) are given highest priority for funding unless there are specific issues, such as those related to the NIGMS well-funded laboratory policy or other concerns that came up at the Council meeting.

The discussion then turns to applications in the “gray area,” typically extending to about 10 percentile points beyond where we would expect to be able to fund applications if they were awarded in straight percentile order. Each application is discussed, typically in percentile order, although sometimes early-stage investigators (ESIs) are discussed first.

For each application, the responsible program director presents the scientific topic as well as factors such as whether the applicant is an ESI or new investigator, how much other support the applicant has (particularly if the application represents the only support available to the investigator), whether the Council has given us specific advice on the application, whether the scientific area is perceived to be particularly exciting, and how much other research we already support in the general area of the application. The other members of the unit listen to these presentations, and the group then produces a prioritized list of applications.

The other key factor for final funding decisions is, of course, the availability of funds. Funds are provided through the appropriations process, either through a regular appropriations bill or, sometimes toward the beginning of a fiscal year, a continuing resolution that typically funds government programs at the previous year’s level. When it is reasonably clear what level of funds is available at a particular point in the fiscal year, the funds are allocated to different mechanisms and programs (research project grants, training grants, various programs within the Division of Minority Opportunities in Research, and so on) based on our previously established budget. Funds for unsolicited R01s are allocated among the four units within NIGMS that fund these applications (the Divisions of Cell Biology and Biophysics; Genetics and Developmental Biology; and Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry; and the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology), based on the fractions of applications that have scored well enough to be considered for possible funding.

Paylists are then developed using the prioritized lists, with budget adjustments for each application based on NIH and NIGMS-wide policies as well as considerations specific to the application provided by the responsible program director. Applications are paid until the available funds are exhausted. Applications that are relatively high on the priority list but could not be funded with a given allocation are flagged for consideration later in the fiscal year, when more funds may become available. This process leads, over the course of a full fiscal year, to the funding curves we recently posted.