NIH program officers—what do they really do? How can you get the best from your program officer?
Our main job is to make sure the NIA is funding the best research projects, career development, and research training in the areas of science we cover. A big part of “turning discovery into health,”—NIH’s credo—is advising applicants. If an application fails, it should be because something else was judged a better bet, not because one applicant was poorly informed.
Program officers assist you throughout the funding process, after you get a grant as well as when your idea is still just… an idea. It is often important to get in touch with us before you submit your grant application.
Before you submit an application, your NIA program officer can help…
1. Judge which of the 27 NIH Institutes and Centers is likely to be the best fit for funding your idea.
We work frequently with other NIH institutes on joint initiatives and collaborative projects. So, we often know if another Institute is trying to build its portfolio in your area. Everything is somehow related to aging, and lots of patients are old, but not every research project belongs at NIA. A top cardiologist explained to us recently that the average age of his patients was 80, a good example of research that might fit NIA or may be better suited to NHLBI. If we advise you to work with another Institute, please don’t interpret it as a brushoff. NIH is a complex organization. We really do try to match up applications with the place where they will attract the most interest and where program officers have the right expertise.
2. Determine which NIA division, and even which program officer, is the best fit for your work.
Again, please don’t think this is like being passed from one clerk to another at the DMV. Many of the best ideas cut across traditional boundaries. We often know that a colleague in another branch or another division is specializing in something related to what you propose. You can also read our NIA staff bios to learn more about who handles what portfolio.
3. Decide which mechanism is most appropriate.
Start at the NIH webpage describing the various types of NIH grants. Unless it is obvious, feel free to talk to us about the pros and cons of different types.
4. Brainstorm about the most appropriate committee for review and likely review considerations.
Applicants are allowed to suggest review considerations, and should do so, especially if there are some areas of expertise needed that won’t be obvious. The assignment officer, in the Center for Scientific Review or in the NIA Scientific Review Branch, makes the call. (Read more from the Center for Scientific Review about The Assignment Process.) Program officers and scientific review officers have the same goal, to ensure the most appropriate review, not the most favorable review. But both program and review officers sit in on a lot of review meetings, and program officers read (and review officers write) a lot of Summary Statements, so we may be able to suggest issues that are likely to come up in review. (Read more about the difference between a program officer and a scientific review officer.)
5. For a specific RFA (Request for Applications), or PAR (Program Announcement with a special review committee), predict whether an application will be judged responsive.
The best person to contact for this is the one named as Scientific Contact at the end of the RFA or PAR itself.
Have more questions about how to get the best out of your NIA program officer? Comment below.