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Writing NIH Grant Proposal Cover Letters

Release Date: September 22, 2014
Category: Scientific Grant Writing
Author: Sonia M., Ph.D., E.L.S.

When you submit a grant proposal (e.g., R01, R03, R21) to the NIH, you are allowed (and sometimes required) to submit a cover letter with your application. The purpose of the cover letter is to allow you to submit additional information to the review officer about where you would like your grant submitted, suggest ideal reviewers, and provide any other information that may be useful to better assign your grant proposal to the ideal reviewers. Only the NIH review officer will view your cover letter; the grant reviewers will not see your cover letter.

When is a cover letter required?

The NIH requires that you include a cover letter in the following situations:

  • Resubmission proposals
  • Any application that requires approval prior to submission of a proposal (e.g., grants requesting more than $500,000 direct costs per year, Conference grants (R13 or U13), some investigator-initiated clinical trial planning grants)
  • Genome-wide association study (GWAS) grant proposals
  • Corrected applications
  • Late applications. You should explain why your application is late.
  • Continuous submission. You must indicate that you are submitting to a study section that allows a nonstandard submission date.
  • Video Submissions. You must include a cover letter if you plan to submit any videos as part of your grant proposal.

When can you submit a cover letter?

You are allowed, and even encouraged, to submit a cover letter with any grant proposal. This allows you to provide useful information that can help ensure that your grant proposal is assigned to the best possible reviewers in your area. You can choose to include any of the following information in your cover letter:

  • Specify the RFA or PA to which you are submitting
  • Provide information about any expertise needed to understand your grant proposal. It can be helpful to include the disciplines involved for multidisciplinary work as well as any specific compentencies that ideal reviewers should have.
  • Specify any other special areas with specific requirements (e.g., human subject involvement, select agents).
  • Request that the proposal be assigned to a specific study section and institute. If you do not request a specific study section and/or institute, the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) will assign your grant for you. If you do request a specific study section, you should also explain why that particular study section is the best fit for your proposal. Study sections may have overlapping areas of research; therefore, it can be useful to suggest a specific area if you have a preference. (If you are unsure which study section is the best for your research proposal, it can be helpful to contact the CSR scientific review officer of the prospective study sections or your program office because they can often provide advice on which study section would be best-suited for your proposal.)
  • Specify any potential reviewers you wish to exclude and the reason that you feel he/she should not review your proposal (e.g., competitor, conflict of interest).

Additional Points to Consider

The information you include in your cover letter will help provide the CSR with valuable information to help ensure your grant proposal is sent to the appropriate study section and reviewed by the most appropriate reviewers. Because the CSR sorts more than 80,000 applications every year, they do not have a long time to read each letter, so you should keep the cover letter as brief as possible to highlight your main points (you can even use bullets to make your points stand out). Additionally, it is helpful to use separate paragraphs for each point and/or request in the letter.

For more information:

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