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How to get the most Help from your NIH Program Officer

Release Date: May 18, 2015
Category: Scientific Grant Writing
Author: Sonia M., Ph.D., E.L.S.

Your NIH program officer can be a great resource to help guide you through the NIH grant application and funding process. Knowing how your program office can help you, what resources they can provide, and how to best contact your program officer can make the complex NIH application and funding process a little more manageable.

How to Find and Contact Your Program Officer

If you do not already know your program officer, there are several ways to find the appropriate program officer for your proposal. The funding opportunity announcement will typically identify a program officer, so if you are applying to a specific RFA or PA, you should contact the program officer listed in that announcement. If you are not applying to a specific RFA or PA, you can search the specific institute’s website to find the program officer in your area. You can also search RePORTER (projectreporter.nih.gov) for similar funding research opportunities and contact the program officer for that grant. Don’t worry if you are unsure exactly who is the correct program officer to contact because if you do not contact the correct person, they will generally refer you to the correct program officer.

It is generally best to contact your program officer by email rather than by phone. This ensures that you do not “miss” them if they are not at their desk and allows the program officer time to thoughtfully consider your question(s) and their response as well as consult with colleagues if necessary. If you are asking specifically about an aspect of your proposed research, the NIH recommends also sending your current Specific Aims draft to provide more information about your project; it is fine to include even a rough draft of the aims because your program officer will not be part of the grant review process, and the grant reviewers will not have any access to correspondence you send to your program officer.

When you email the program officer, make sure that you clearly explain your question and provide your contact phone and email address so that they can return a response. If you haven’t received a response within approximately 1 week, the NIH recommends sending a follow-up email.

What Can Your Program Officer Help You With

There are a few circumstances in which you are required to contact your program officer for approval prior to applying for a grant (i.e., applications requesting more than $500,000 in direct costs per year or conference grants, R13 or U13). However, even if you are not required to contact your program officer for your grant application, they can be a very good source of information.

The following are some examples of the types of information or guidance that your program officer can:

  • Assess the fit of your application with a specific RFA or PA. The program officer can provide guidance on whether your proposed research project fits within an NIH funding announcement, which can save you considerable time and effort if your topic is not a good fit. It also provides an opportunity for you to modify your aims to better fit the announcement.
  • Discuss new topics that their NIH institute is interested in funding. Sometimes, an institute is interested in funding a particular research topic but not creating a dedicated RFA or PA. Your program officer will know about these topics, and this information can help you specifically tailor your grant proposal to address the needs and priorities within the institute.
  • Assess which institute would be most interested in funding your research. Some research, particularly multidisciplinary research, may fit within the scope of more than one institute. A program officer can provide helpful guidance regarding where your particular research proposal is most likely to be well-received. Even if you have a great research idea, applying to the wrong institute can result in your application being rejected for funding. Therefore, assessing the interest of the institute prior to applying can help ensure that you apply to the institute most likely to fund your work.
  • Assess which study section is the best fit for your research proposal. As in the point above, your program officer is a great resource to ensure that your grant proposal is submitted to the study section that will be most interested in, and therefore most likely to highly rank, your research. Getting your proposal to the correct study section also helps ensure that the most qualified reviewers, with expertise in your area, will review your application.
  • Assess the best grant type for your application. Many applicants are unsure whether their research best fits within an R01, R03, or R21 format. The program officer can provide advice regarding what type of grant mechanism best fits your proposed project and your specific needs.
  • Clarify any specific grant requirements. If you are unsure about whether particular grant instructions apply to your research (e.g., human subject research, vertebrate research), your program officer can help clarify the application instructions so that you can ensure your proposal complies.
  • Answer questions about your Summary Statement. After you have submitted your grant proposal and received your reviewer Summary Statement, your program officer can assist with questions regarding your scores, reviewer comments, etc. The program officer may have even attended the peer review meeting, and while information about the reviewers and specific details are confidential, the program officer may be able to provide some information about how much revision is required for your application prior to resubmitting.

In a very competitive funding environment, any advice or additional information can help improve your chances of funding. While NIH program officers cannot edit or pre-review your grant application, they can provide a wealth of information to ensure your application will be of interest to the committee reviewing it and that you have understood and followed all of the instructions accurately.

For more information, the following websites can provide helpful information:

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