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.
The August issue of NIH’s Extramural Nexus includes two announcements that might interest you.
Impact Score Paragraph in Summary Statements
Starting with September grant application reviews, reviewers will include a summary paragraph to explain what factors they considered in assigning the overall impact score. This should help investigators better understand the reasons for the score.
Plain Language in Public Sections of Grant Applications
The director’s column talks about the importance of communicating research value in your grant application.
Your grant title, abstract and statement of public health relevance are very important. Once a grant is funded, these items are available to the public through NIH’s RePORTER database. Many people are interested in learning about research supported with taxpayer dollars, so I encourage you to be clear and accurate in writing these parts of your application. Reviewers are being told to expect plain language in these sections.
The Nexus column includes links to these helpful resources: