You’ve now figured out which NIA program officer handles your kind of science. But how to get in touch? I hope you’re not agonizing over whether now is the right moment or whether your message will be well received. If you’ve spent a few minutes reviewing published resources related to your questions—for example, the NIA and NIH grants websites—your remaining questions are probably good ones to ask. We really are here to help, though of course if you all contact us all at once, we’re doomed.
So, here are some tips that might make you more comfortable hitting send on that email to a program officer.
How to contact an NIA program officer:
1. Please send an email. Most program officers will agree, please don’t phone.
Emails can be forwarded, and we can copy other potentially useful people on our reply. We can answer email whenever there is a break in something we’re doing, or after a bit of necessary research. In an email, we can insert the webpage you need. Phone calls just lead to more phone calls.
2. After a week or so, please send another email.
Some of my colleagues are great at answering rapidly. Others of us aren’t so good, especially if we have been out of the office. It’s OK to follow-up.
3. Please attach a draft of the one-page Specific Aims section of the application you plan to write, if at all possible.
When you get in touch, include your Specific Aims draft. This says what you plan to do, what data and methods you are using, and the like. It doesn’t include the literature review, why what you are doing is important and innovative, why you are the right person to do it, and all of that. You need those things eventually in the application. But to get a useful response from us, we most need to know the specific aims of this application. Because NIH, unlike many other funders, separates the review and program functions, this draft can be very drafty. We won’t (and can’t) hold it against you later.
4. There’s no need to begin communications with “I know you must be terribly busy….”
We are terribly busy, but then so are you, in all likelihood. And we’re public servants. Do contact us if we can help.
Even if your application was not discussed at the review meeting, you can expect to get a notice from NIH Commons when the Summary Statement is ready. This contains written critiques and criterion scores from three (usually) committee members.
It is most efficient to wait until after you have read the Summary Statement before contacting a program officer to discuss strategy for resubmission. We cannot tell from the score alone, or from the fact that the first version was not discussed, whether particular changes will help your resubmission. The Summary Statement is what counts, not what we think we heard or what we think the reviewers were thinking. Program officers are limited in what they can say about the confidential peer review of your application. However, program officers CAN help with planning a resubmission, based on what is in the Summary Statement.
And, after you have a grant, please keep us informed.
We especially love to get new and forthcoming papers, without waiting to learn about them in formal progress reports. We always respect embargoes. New publications help us advise NIA leadership, prepare news releases or other reports, answer questions from Congress or elsewhere in the government, and attract attention to new and productive areas of science. I have often heard colleagues complain about too many emails; I have never heard anyone complain about too many emails with interesting articles attached to them.
Have more questions about how to get the best out of your NIA program officer? Comment below.