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 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.
I’ve been a program officer for NIGMS research and training activities for 27 years. The Molecular Biology of the Cell journal recently asked me to describe the general roles of such a position, including the challenges and rewards. My essay , which appeared in the August 1 issue, offers insight into what the job entails and how we can help our applicants and grantees.
Here’s the abstract for “A View from the NIH Bridge: Perspectives of a Program Officer”:
This essay is written from my perspective as a program officer for research and training activities at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) for almost 27 yr. It gives a bird’s-eye view of the job of a program officer, which includes providing advice to applicants and grantees, making funding recommendations, overseeing grantees’ progress, facilitating scientific opportunities in specific areas of program responsibility, and shaping NIGMS and National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy. I have highlighted the numerous rewards of serving as a program officer, as well as some of the difficulties. For those who may be considering a position as an NIH program officer now or in the future, I’ve also described the qualities and qualifications that are important for such a career choice. Finally, this essay addresses some of the challenges for the NIH and the research community in the years ahead as we simultaneously face exciting scientific opportunities and tighter budgets.