Is your NIH PO a little….grouchy?

February 27, 2015

Another one, paraphrased from multiple correspondents:

Dear DM: 
is it just me or are all the POs getting increasingly grouchy and unhelpful?

A. Reader

I am not certain, since I hardly have a representative sample. But I’d say no, this is probably just a bad run for you.

When encouraging you to interact with your Program Officer(s) I tend to emphasize the useful interactions that I have experienced. Consequently I may fail to convey that most of the time they are going to be unhelpful and even discouraging.

Try to see it from their position. They hear from dozens of us, all complaining about some dirty review deed that was done to our application and looking for help. Round after round, after round.

They cannot help everyone.

So take it in stride, as best you can, when you get a seemingly dismissive response. This same PO may become your best advocate on the next one*.

*and then treat you like effluvium again after that. It’s happpened to me, I can tell you.

36 Responses to “Is your NIH PO a little….grouchy?”

  1. Mikka Says:

    Mine is really helpful and upbeat. It may be because she’s pretty new to the job, as am I, so she has this “let’s learn together” attitude that makes things kind of cordial


  2. Evelyn Says:

    Two recent interactions:

    PO#1 – “I didn’t go to the study section meeting so I can’t tell you anything useful.”
    Gee, thanks.

    PO#2 – “I know you are on the + side of the funding line, but you need to resubmit because I am not going to recommend this grant for funding.” *crickets*

    Maybe we just caught them on bad days, or maybe before we had a good run with good POs. Either way, left a sour taste in our mouth.


  3. eeke Says:

    I have yet to understand what makes the POs tick. I wrote an R01 application that stemmed from data collected from an R21-funded project (easily made the payline at the time). The PO for the R21 refused assignment of the new R01. wtf? I didn’t fight it. I don’t want to have the application assigned to a PO who is lackluster about the work as I can’t count on them to fight for it if the application is scored within a gray zone. It’s now assigned to a different PO at a different institute (with far lower success rates).

    It seems that every decision made by people at the NIH lately has made the situation worse instead of better.


  4. Brain Says:

    My experience was that PO’s became much more upbeat/helpful when I started submitting applications that were more in line with “programmatic” goals. Reading this blog helps me realize it’s tough for almost everyone so I try not to get to exasperated with them in correspondence/conversations about summary statements etc.


  5. Curiosity Says:

    Utterly USELESS. Contact attempt #1. Hi, Dr So-and-so, newbie here. I do xyz and have learned that you cover xyz grant applications. Would you agree that the xyz study section is an appropriate home for my application? (probably better worded at the time)
    Crickets. One month later.
    Contact attempt #2. Hi other PO (OPO). Newbie here, I do xyz and contacted dr so-and-so but didn’t hear anything back. I am submitting a new application. Would xyz study section be appropriate?
    OPO gets right back to me: “You need to contact dr so-and-so.:
    Me. Ugh. Stuck with him.
    Finally, after 1 and a half months, reply I get to inquiry 1 is. “sure.”


  6. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    Got to say, my PO has been fantastic in the timing and content of her responses. But maybe that’s because I’m earlier career and she’s being helpful to us young fry. Will have to wait and watch how that evolves across time and/or with increasing budget woes…


  7. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    *early career


  8. Established PI Says:

    I have found huge variations in POs – the good ones have invaluable advice and can help you get funded, while the bad ones actively impede progress. Years ago I had a useless PO who gave terrible advice and kept encouraging me to resubmit a grant that, in hindsight, had clearly gone to the wrong study section (I ended up getting funding from another source). I wish I knew then to seek advice elsewhere although I still don’t quite know how one gets a grant reassigned to a different PO. I now have two POs who are incredibly helpful and responsive. They have clearly made a difference in a few cases in getting an application funded that I had through would need to be resubmitted.

    My advice to newbies is to try your hardest to establish a good relationship with your PO, seek their advice, listen to it with an open mind, and then run it all by a more experienced colleague who can help you assess whether you have a “good” PO who is helpful. If not, you will need to find other sources of advice (at your institution) in navigating the system. No matter what, you must maintain a good relationship with your PO – taking your frustrations out on them may feel good in the moment but will only hurt your chances of success.


  9. DoctorD Says:

    Project officers have helped me time and time again over the past 25 years. There is, of course, a reciprocal relationship. If the Institute asks me to participate on a committee or speak at a meeting. I agree. When they host “get to know you” sessions at national meetings, I attend to be supportive. I invite them to co-author papers and speak at meetings. As a result, they tend to be helpful when I have needs or unique situations.


  10. Grumble Says:

    I’ve also seen huge variations in PO helpfulness. The one who has handled most of my grants has been a true gem. This person is helpful in the extreme: answers e-mails promptly, always goes to study section meetings or sends another PO and shares notes, always answers my questions with detailed, thoughtful answers that really explain the system. Other PO’s I’ve interacted with have ranged from lackluster to useless to downright obstructive. I am actually very nervous about what happens when my “main” PO retires, which I’m guessing will be in just a few years.

    One example of “other PO” behavior: I wrote asking how I’d go about trying to get funding to develop a cool new technique. I get back a one-word answer: “Wait.” I guess I should have been glad the oracle spoke at all. That was about 6 years ago. I’m still waiting.


  11. jmz4 Says:

    I just had my first for realsies experience with the grant system. It’s pretty terrible. They specifically say to contact the PO under the scores on the ERA commons website, so contacted the PO, wait 3 days, email again, he told me he was the PO, and I should be contacting the SRO. Did that, wait three days, email again, get a response. And since this was to request expedited release of the study sections comments, I was obviously impatient, but I didn’t want my first interaction with these people to be hostile.


  12. JustAGrad Says:

    My experience is somewhat similar to jmz4’s. I contacted my PO after receiving my F31 score to ask about likelihood of funding and if it would be worth trying to resubmit (because the F31 resubmission deadline sometimes occurs before comments are even returned). Their response was to contact the SRO. I contacted the SRO, who angrily responded that I need to learn how to read and pay attention to detail and to contact the PO.


  13. Drugmonkey Says:

    “Requesting expedited release of study section comments” is, in my view, not smart.

    It is one thing if you don’t know the timeline for the summary statement coming out and you ask the SRO. But to ask for special treatment just because…why? It makes you look like you think that you are a special flower and nobody else could possible also need the SRO to do their critique first.


  14. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I am finding it hard to believe these stories of POs telling applicants who have already received their scores to contact SROs for further advice.


  15. girlparts Says:

    Some not-helpful feedback I got from my P.O. was in retrospect useful advice that I did not want to hear, i.e. “the study section is not going to go for this idea, so don’t waste your time parsing the comments.” It took me a while to realize that this was probably what his not meaningfully discussing the reviews meant. He spent a lot more time helping with comments on grants that did better.


  16. Davis Sharp Says:

    “I invite them to co-author papers…” DoctorD, February 27, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Do they accept? Don’t your journals have more stringent requirements for authorship than “approved the progress report”?


  17. DoctorD Says:

    We work together on developing the manuscript. You should be strategic, because a PO co-author is then in conflict for two years.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    Are you talking NIH? NSF?


  19. E rook Says:

    I think one of the best interactions I had with a PO was when my grant was assigned to her when I requested someone else, I let it go through review and after emailed her requesting a conversation. When it happened: Me, “so I looked up your active projects in a Reporter so I assume my project was assigned to you because my project does xyz and the other PO does abc, but I know you work in the same division.” Her, “well that saves me five minutes, how can I help you?” Follows is a productive conversation about her observation of study section behavior. I have found that the easiest thing to do is email: start out with who you are and why you’re contacting THEM, (Reporter stalking, Greybeard Mentor told you tom their division profile….and how it relates to your grant), request a phone conversation, specify what you want to talk about (does this fit the IC’s goals? Does it overlap with ongoing projects [name a name they’d know]? Was my budget wonky for reason? Did I not communicate it clearly enough? I think I misjudged X, what are you’re thoughts on that? The reviewers hated Y topic, but you renewed the PAR three times.” Set parameter regarding topic and time, make an appointment and thank them for taking the time to call you.


  20. Over the years I have learned that the main reason applicants are “dissatisfied” with their POs is that they grossly overestimate the knowledge and power that a given PO has. They really don’t have access to some magical information or process that is going to get you funded. The way to get funded is to keep at the process until you learn the ins and outs of what particular study sections demand and write good grants. Any PO has substantially less insight into the behavior patterns of particular study sections than a regular member. Even if they are listening to the discussion of your grant, there is a very good chance that they will not really understand what is driving scoring. You have to attend multiple entire sessions to really understand that, and it is impossible for POs to do that. They really don’t have substantially better information than what you can glean from your summary statement, and from general discussions with study section members about the culture of the study section (which is perfectly allowable, while discussion of your grant is not).



  21. Davis Sharp Says:

    @DoctorD: I can envision some co-authorships by POs that don’t involve primary research papers. But for basic, R01-driven research, it seems like it’s a huge conflict of interest; at the very least it’s favoritism (“DoctorD offers me co-authorships, so I will nominate his grant for select pay over others”). That said, I don’t know all the details of your situation and the technical experience of your PO. Based on my experience and observations, this shouldn’t happen. But hey, if it works for you…

    “[applicants] grossly overestimate the knowledge and power that a given PO has…. They really don’t have substantially better information than what you can glean from your summary statement” CPP, February 28, 2015 at 7:57 am

    I agree with this.


  22. newbie PI Says:

    I’ve had two R01s miss the payline by 2 or 3%.

    The first PO was incredibly supportive and helpful and spoke to me on the phone for two hours about how to address the critiques, and said that in the meantime he would nominate me for select pay. He made me feel like all was right in the world and that it was just a matter of days until I’d get my notice of award. Nothing happened, and that grant is still not funded after two resubmissions.

    The second PO made me curse the NIH and wish I had never become a scientist. My phone call with him started with, “I didn’t have a chance to read your grant, but I think your work is just too incremental. Maybe you should study “hot topic xyz” (that has nothing to do with your work).” My head almost exploded and I quickly ended the phone call after he told me there was absolutely zero chance of select pay or bridge funding. Then magically a few months later when I had given up hope entirely, I got a Just-In-Time request, and two weeks later got a notice of award for an R56, without ever hearing anything from that PO. None of this makes any sense to me at all.


  23. drugmonkey Says:

    Even listening to study section after study section cannot, in my estimation, completely substitute for actually doing the job. I don’t know why but sometimes I am flabbergasted by how little POs grasp of what is really going down around the table. it just seems that you have to have skin in the game as an actual reviewer….


  24. Then magically a few months later when I had given up hope entirely, I got a Just-In-Time request, and two weeks later got a notice of award for an R56, without ever hearing anything from that PO. None of this makes any sense to me at all.

    That is because select-pay, R56, and other decisions are made collectively within ICs, individual POs only have a limited influence on the collective process, and how overtly positive they come across to applicants has nothing to do with their influence on the collective process. Also, depending on the IC, Council can have a major influence on who gets select pay and R56 funding.


  25. MoBio Says:

    I guess one thing to bear in mind is that POs may typically have 100+ active grants (e.g. funded) in their portfolios along with many more that they are assigned to oversee on review.

    FWIW my PO’s have been invariably helpful –even when urging me not to submit a revision (whichI did and which was ultimately funded by another institute).

    I’ve gotten email replies with time stamps in the early am and late pm.

    I cut them slack for being ‘grouchy’ on occasion.

    I also resonate with the comment above about getting an expedited summary statement…though received the same reply that I had to wait ‘like everyone else’.


  26. Ola Says:

    IME it has been incredibly variable, in part because we are funded via two different institutes….

    At one institute, our PO came fairly recently from a prominent lab in the field and knows the nuances of the field and can actually hold their own in a pretty scientific conversation. This PO also answers emails on time, answers the phone, and is very approachable. I’ve seen them at scientific meetings too, engaging at posters etc. Overall our interactions have been awesome. This PO is a straight talker – no arsing about with maybes, if it’s not going to be funded they’ll say so, and help you to work toward an effective resubmit, rather than string you along. It’s everything you could hope for in a PO.

    At the other institute it has been hell on earth. The PO never ever answers emails or the phone. When you do get the chance to talk it’ll be with the junior lacky PO-in-training, who doesn’t know their butt from a hole in the ground. The funding decisions are made on a totally arbitrary basis, with the main response to questions being “bite me!” They cut the budget by more than a third and then gave us grief during renegotiation of the aims. Continued grief at progress report time regarding percent effort salary coverage (how in the hell are we supposed to pay everyone AND do good science when the budget has been eviscerated). A colleague has been waiting on the funding of a single digit percentile scored grant for over a year with the same PO. Overall high suckage level.

    Regarding some of the issues being raised by earlier commenters – some of these sound like things to be discussed with SROs in the CSR, not program officers. Similarly, other issues would perhaps best be dealt with by the GMOs. Key thing is to realize GMO/PO/SRO are all different jobs and each one typically is not in a position to answer questions that belong to the others. Choosing who to ask for your specific problem is key.


  27. Regarding some of the issues being raised by earlier commenters – some of these sound like things to be discussed with SROs in the CSR, not program officers.

    I did not see a single issue raised in this thread that should be discussed with an SRO. The only relevant discussions with an SRO occur prior to peer review, and the only relevant content of such discussions relates to the question of what study section is an appropriate locus of review for your grant and what reviewer expertise is important. Although it is possible that there are SROs who–out of ignorance or just trying to be nice/helpful–are willing to discuss other grant-related matters, it is not really appropriate.

    Again, I will reiterate that under almost all circumstances, things that POs or SROs tell you is of very limited value in relation to the goal of getting your grants funded. General discussions with members of study section and ad hoc service are vastly more important. BTW, I should say that my grants are all funded by ICs who weigh initial peer review outcomes *vastly* higher than any other factors in making regular awards, select pay, and R56 decisions. So if your grant is assigned to an IC that takes a much more interventional approach to funding decisions–NIMH and NCI come to mind immediately–then it is possible that POs have a lot more valuable information for you.


  28. drugmonkey Says:

    The data published in the book by Berg and writedit will give you some clues as to which ICs hew closer to a strict payline approach and which have a more … interventionist approach.


  29. drugmonkey Says:

    A colleague has been waiting on the funding of a single digit percentile scored grant for over a year with the same PO.

    That is way harsh but I am having trouble seeing how something like this is the fault of one PO. Either that is the IC payline or this proposal ran into some sort of portfolio / priorities buzzsaw at the Division level at the very least. I mean sure, maybe the lowly line PO is the one crapping on it but if it is within payline I am thinking you have to have the Division Director in on it at the very least.


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    [and I sort of misrepresented my understanding of the structure in my last comment. It is my understanding that all of the Division POs meet and kick through the tough call cases together at some point. Sure they have a hierarchy but my main point is that there is input of multiple people on any decision of skips or exception pays]


  31. jmz4 Says:

    ” But to ask for special treatment just because…why?”
    -Well, it’s the K99 application, and my 4 year eligibility runs out before the July cycle (in June), and they don’t get the reviews back to you normally within the necessary time to resubmit in the immediately following cycle (deadline is 4 weeks after study section meets, reviews come back at 4-6 weeks, they were nice and got me mine in 2).


  32. drugmonkey Says:


    -Need a job, nobody will take me as a postdoc without funding
    -PIs grant running out and I’ll be fired
    -startup running out
    -ESI is expiring
    -foundation award is expiring
    -will have crushing clinical / teaching hours that will keep me from getting back in the game
    -tenure docs due
    -will have to lay off key staff!
    -will lose precious resources we’ve invested in for years
    -Full Prof promotion
    -the Dean will take all my lab space away
    – …?


  33. pinus Says:

    I think that there is actually a systemic problem with how NIH approaches training related awards. They treat them similar to R01’s, with very little acknowledgement that they are extremely time sensitive. Now look, I understand some R01’s are sensitive (I need to get it back in, tenure, job loss.) but hedge your bets people, no limit on R01 submission so do your job and get a bunch out there, this is a lottery. only 1 K01, k99, F32, etc. at a time. They need to consider this and reduce the time that these applications spend in NIH limbo.


  34. drugmonkey Says:

    Maybe once they’ve gotten a fundable score. I could see that as a special case. Maybe. But for the submission side? Not really.


  35. jmz4 Says:

    DM, if those are all problems as common as running into the 4 year mark, then the research game is even more terrifying than I thought.

    But yeah, I don’t think I *deserved* the special treatment, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask, given the circumstances. I still think it’s their fault for not grandfathering in their switch from 5-4 year eligibility over a reasonable time frame.


  36. drugmonkey Says:

    Was not leaving the K99 open to anyone, regardless of time-since-degree, when they started it up “reasonable”?


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