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Communicating with NIH Program Officers

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is made up of 27 institutes and centers (IC), 24 of which can make grant awards. Each IC employs Program Officers (PO), staff scientists who administer a specific portfolio of grants and contracts. As advocates for a given scientific area, POs routinely read scientific literature and attend scientific meetings to keep abreast of the latest advances in the field. This due diligence helps POs develop research concepts, requests for applications (RFA), program announcements and notices of special interest to support emerging areas of science.

Contacting a PO can be a daunting prospect, particularly for early career researchers, but it is an important part of the grant seeking process. One well-timed conversation with a PO can put an investigator on a PO’s radar, plant the seed for a long-term professional relationship and help an investigator move forward with greater confidence in their funding strategy. Many POs were once academic researchers who understand what it is like to walk that walk – and because they are evaluated on the quality of the funded proposals within their portfolios, they have a vested interest in advising prospective applicants.

Research Development recommends that researchers talk with a PO in a project’s early planning stages – well before committing to a specific funding opportunity.

Reasons to contact a PO at the planning stage:

  • Gain insight on the potential enthusiasm for the proposed research and its fit within the IC’s mission and scientific priorities
  • Obtain suggestions on the alignment of the proposed work with a specific Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA)
  • Seek recommendations on the most appropriate IC, program or mechanism through which to apply
  • Obtain guidance about project design, collaboration, budget and timeline
  • Identify study sections that may be best suited to review a proposal
  • Clarify program requirements and administrative policies
  • Receive general tips and strategies on writing strong applications
  • Get greater clarity on reviewer critiques and areas of focus for a potential resubmission

If a researcher is seeking feedback on a specific FOA, the correct PO is listed under Scientific/Research Contacts in Section VII of the FOA. If a specific FOA has not yet been identified, researchers can utilize NIH Matchmaker to identify a PO.

Suggested information to include in an initial email to a PO:
Research Development recommends that researchers develop their ideas in the form of a draft Specific Aims page and email the PO. Avoid cold calls unless there is an established relationship with a specific PO. Keep in mind that POs can be most supportive when contacted early in the proposal planning process – not 3-4 weeks before an NIH deadline. Key information a researcher should include in their initial email to a PO:

  • Working title of the proposed research project
  • Funding mechanism and/or program being considered (if applicable)
  • Brief summary of the proposed project (avoid technical jargon)
  • Brief introduction to the PI’s background and research program
  • A short list of specific questions or topics you would like to discuss
  • A statement of appreciation for the PO’s time and available dates/times for a follow-up discussion

Understanding what program officials can and can’t do for you

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