SFN 2016: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

November 3, 2016

As the neuroscientists in the audience prepare for their largest annual scientific gathering, I like to remind my Readers to attend to a chore which will improve their odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.

Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I’ve had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.

Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply “Well, do you want to get funded or not?”.

A version of this post originally went up Nov 12, 2008.

One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA is to stroll around NIH row. Right? The National Institutes of Health populates quite a bit of real estate in the vendor/exhibitor section of the poster floor. If you are new to SFN, go find it once you arrive. If you are and old hand, I expect you know what I am talking about.

This blog has frequently discussed the role of Program (meaning the individual NIH Institutes and Centers which fund grant proposals) in determining which grants actually receive funding. Although the priority scores assigned by the study section review (and the resulting percentile ranks) are very, very important there is also a role for Program Officials (POs). The ICs will frequently fund grants outside of the order of the percentile ranks based on a number of factors having to do with the type of science that is proposed, their view of the quality of the review and various IC initiatives, desires and intentions. The process by which the IC selects the grants which it is going to pick up for funding outside of the percentile order is a bit opaque but believe you me it is done by real human POs with typical human virtues/failings.

Consequently, there are social factors that matter. These factors matter in deciding just which applications get picked up and which do not.

I’m sure that the official line is that the process is objective and has nothing to do with interpersonal schmoozing……HAHAHAHAAHAHA! Get real.

This is not the time to get on your high horse about the way the world should work. The annual meeting of a large-ish (like SfN or Experimental Biology) or IC-dedicated-ish (like RSA, CPDD) societies is the time for you to work with reality to nudge your current and future grant applications ever closer to funding.

So find the big row of booths which are populated by the NIH ICs at the upcoming SfN meeting in San Diego. The brain institutes will dominate, of course, but you’d be surprised just how many of the ICs have interests in the neurosciences.

Hi, My Name is….

sfnbadge2016My closest collaborator and the PI on a most critically important, albeit low-N, developmental biology study once gave some firm advice when I was preparing a slide on the topic of schmoozing NIH Program staff. It was pointed out to me that nonspecific calls to “go schmooze” are not necessarily all that helpful and that trainees could use some specific pointers. Therefore, I’ll include some thoughts on somewhat more concrete steps to take for the shy/retiring personality types. Please excuse if I am insulting anyone’s social intelligence.

First, you need to spend some time in the next day or two figuring out a couple of basic things. Which Institute (or Center) supports your lab? The labs in the departments around you? Hit RePORTER if you need to, it is simple to search your PI, look at the results page for the specific way your University or local Institute is described. Then go back to the RePORTER search and pull up all the awards to your University from a given NIH IC.

Second, ask your PI who his/her POs are. Who they have been in the recent past, if necessary. This is optional but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO!

(And I simply must remind the PIs..you too!!!! There is nothing more embarrassing then having no idea who your PO is when s/he is standing in front of you. Yes, I’ve known peers who don’t know who their PO is. Also, as I mentioned, your grants can get reassigned midstream with no particular notice to you. This is a good time to recheck.)

Third, click on over to the websites of 2-3 relevant ICs. You are going to have to look around a bit for the “Organization” structure because the ICs all have different webpage designs. And I will note that some make it really difficult to do the following research (so if you are stymied it may not be you). Using NIMH as the example, you’ll see a bunch of “Offices and Divisions” listed. At this point you are going to just have to wade through government gobbledygook, sorry. It is not always clear which Division is the most specific to your interests. Under each Division (the director of which would typically also have a personal portfolio as supervising PO) you will see a number of “Branches” also with a head PO (and often some additional POs) listed. As you are reading the descriptions of the research domains of interest to each Division and Branch you might want to note the ones that sound most like your areas of interest. Maybe even jot down the PO names. If you are really feeling in the zone, you can go back to RePORTER and search on a PO name to see the extend of her/his portfolio.

Fourth, if you did manage to get some PO names from your PI you may be able to shortcut this process a bit by just plugging their name into the staff directory or IC page search box to figure out which Division/Branch they inhabit. And again, maybe just search out this person’s portfolio of funded grants on RePORTER.

Fifth, you can email a PO in advance and ask if they are attending the meeting and if so, can you schedule a meeting with them. This is an optional step but if you are the busy/scheduled type and/or you really need to see a specific PO this is a way to go. This is a good time to mention to the PO when your presentation will be taking place as well.

Now you are ready to take a stroll on NIH row!


The first thing to remember is that this is their job! You are not wasting their time or anything like that. The POs are there at the meeting, staffing the booth to talk with you. Yes, you. From the trainee up through the greybearded and bluehaired types. So have no concerns on that score. Plus they are quite friendly. Especially in this context (on the phone when you are complaining about your grant score is another matter, of course).

Second, the POs of a given IC will usually have a schedule floating around on the table indicating when you might find a specific person at the booth. Not that you shouldn’t talk with whichever PO happens to be there, but you may want to leverage your researches to speak with a specific person.

Third, hang around and swing back by. There are going to be times when the POs are all seemingly occupied by rabid squirrel PIs, gesticulating wildly and complaining about their latest grant review. So you may have to brave up a bit or just wait for a quieter time to get the attention of a PO. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of literature sitting on the tables for you to read while waiting your chance to horn in. There is usually a magazine rack full of Funding Opportunity Announcements and similar interesting reading somewhere in the booth.

So what do you say once you get the attention of a PO? Well introduce yourself, indicate who you work under and indicate that the grants you work on are funded by the IC or, where relevant, that this person is the supervising PO for one of your PI’s grants. Tell her a little bit about your research interests-remember, on of the primary jobs of the PI is to tell the POs what is the most interesting current and future science!

After that, act dumb! Seriously, just lay out where you are career-wise and science-wise and say “I don’t really understand much about grant support and I figure I need to get up to speed for my future career”.

Or you may want to troll ’em with a few choice questions from our discussions here- ask about R21 versus R01, New Investigator fears, RFA versus PA versus totally unsolicited proposals, etc.

Remember, the goal is not solely information transfer. It is to start the process of individual POs in your most-likely IC homes knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science. You are trying to create the impression that you are “one of their investigators”. Yes, my friends, POs have a pronounced tendency to develop proprietary feelings for their peeps. I’ve been described as such by POs at a time when I didn’t even hold funding from the IC in question! So have a few of my peers. If you have trained under their awards, attended “their” society meetings, maybe had a training grant or even just a travel award…well, they are going to be looking out for you when it comes time to pick up New Investigator grants or fellowships or even old-fogies’ R01 applications.

I understand that this may sound pretty crass and forced when written out. I would observe it ends up being quite natural when you do it. And it gets easier with practice, believe me. This sort of thing is far from my natural behavior and I was very slow to pick it up. I’ve seen the results, however, of getting oneself on the radar of Program Officials and it is a very GoodThing.

16 Responses to “SFN 2016: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary”

  1. SidVic Says:

    “I understand that this may sound pretty crass and forced when written out.” No, no no this is a public service to your readers, especially the rookies. I would be too lazy to lay it so explicitly even if i could.
    I’ve learned that asking questions and listening to answers with a interested look on your face is 90% of the battle. Showing up is the other 90%.

    Understanding the system and knowing the players is important. Good Job.


  2. neurosomething Says:

    Thanks – this is incredibly useful for a young trainee like myself.


  3. BrandNewPI Says:

    So I’ve done this and wound up with the same PO that my postdoc mentor had… But now I really want to “break up” with this PO and don’t know how. My research has evolved into an area that is in the same overall discipline, but in a different subfield than my postdoc mentor’s research. It just happens to be a subfield that my PO is not particularly enthusiastic about. There are other POs at that NIH institute that are in my subfield, but this person was the PO on my K and is now the PO on my R01. But he has told me explicitly to “not do this type of research.” I’m now wondering if it would have been better for me to wait until later and allow NIH to assign a PO to me during my first submission, rather than network with this person on postdoc. Of course this is an unusual situation that might not apply to most.


  4. anonymousPI Says:

    Question for DM — Does/can program staff have any influence on who is chosen to review your grant? For example do the POs and the study section coordinators ever chat at the water cooler about who they’d really like to see get funded.

    Second question. Who chooses the reviewers for each application. I’ve always been under the impression that this is the study section SRO. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much power this person has. After they’ve seen iterations of an application two or three or six times, they know which reviewers like the grant/topic/investigator and which don’t. In this way, they yield perhaps an inappropriate amount of power over who gets funded. Is this line of thinking correct?


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Question for DM — Does/can program staff have any influence on who is chosen to review your grant? For example do the POs and the study section coordinators ever chat at the water cooler about who they’d really like to see get funded.

    This is not supposed to happen. There is a firewall between program and review that, ime, is strongly maintained by SROs who do *not* like any whiff of meddling from POs.

    Who chooses the reviewers for each application. I’ve always been under the impression that this is the study section SRO.

    The SRO.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much power this person has. After they’ve seen iterations of an application two or three or six times, they know which reviewers like the grant/topic/investigator and which don’t. In this way, they yield perhaps an inappropriate amount of power over who gets funded. Is this line of thinking correct?

    I have often observed that the SRO is the most powerful person in the entire NIH grant selection apparatus for exactly these reasons. Should they choose to use this power, they can have a lot of influence on who gets funded and who does not.

    My impression is that SROs are serious folks who take their jobs seriously and try very hard to assign grants based on expertise and not based on trying to micromanage who gets funded and who does not. I would doubt very much that many of them are twirling their mustaches in this way. As always, however, my opinion is that this is a human business and human foibles of covert and inadvertent (and even overt-masquerading-as-objective-non-) biases will always be an issue in some cases.

    Is it “inappropriate”? No, I don’t see how there would be a different way, especially given that reviewers have to say yes to review, we have these terms of empaneled service, etc, etc. Hard to replace this with a computerized assignment algorithm, say.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    But now I really want to “break up” with this PO and don’t know how

    Not entirely sure what you mean. If your R01 is funded, I don’t see why you care. If you are trying to get funded, then you should have multiple irons in the fire. If you don’t think this PO is the right one, seek to target the next app to another Branch in the IC in question. Talk to other POs and see what scope would be appropriate for them.


  7. BrandNewPI Says:

    I care because I applied for an administrative (non-diversity) supplement and was told by another person on staff at that institute that I really needed my PO to advocate for it, and was told that he didn’t. I also care because I want to be renewed and if I’m on the bubble, I’ll need my PO to advocate for me. I’ve talked to other POs in the same branch (my work is clearly under one specific branch) and they acknowledge that my PO is conservative when it comes to my research area, but think that it’s bad form to switch.

    I’m relatively new at this, but have funding from another IC and a good score on a grant from a third IC. So my point isn’t to complain about my personal situation but to offer another perspective on networking with your mentor’s PO. In my experience, the POs that have been assigned to my grants based on the topic area have been enthusiastic and supportive. The PO that I “inherited” from my postdoc PI has been less so.


  8. BrandNewPI Says:

    Also–I forgot to add that I’ve found strategies 1, 3, 4 and 5 incredibly helpful. I just wanted to present an alternative viewpoint to #2 for those who have some scientific overlap with their mentors, but see their work moving in a different direction in the future.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    Ah, I see. Yeah, it is really frustrating to have a PO that is not really gung ho about your project. I’ve had some of those before. I try to keep telling myself that it is all just part of the game. Sometimes you get one moving mountains for you and sometimes they act like you are a bit of effluvium they stepped into by mistake.


  10. Philapodia Says:

    Off topic, but how does everyone think the President Trump and Republican control of the Senate and House will affect the biomedical research enterprise over the next 4 years? I have a feeling that HHS will take a hit on funding, reducing NIH success rates and increasing the cull rate.


  11. Neuro-conservative Says:

    I would be surprised if NIH takes a cut. There is bipartisan support in Congress, and Trump has been consistent in opposing the sequester. Newt is a close adviser and is a big fan of NIH. I don’t rule out the possibility that a cut (or freeze) happens, but such a move is not a policy priority of the Republican party at any level.


  12. Bagger Vance Says:

    Thought of the Day

    Jun 08 2016 Published by drugmonkey under General Politics

    Hillary (H-Rod, as Isis the Scientist puts it) gave one heck of a General election speech last night.

    She is going to mop the floor with Trump all through the coming campaign.

    This will be a bigger landslide win than Reagan’s.

    my sides


  13. Bagger Vance Says:


    I know you don’t believe it but there is at least some cause for hope. HRC was intended to inherit Obama’s legacy, whose support has been flat. I expected little if any change under her. The last big increases came under Bush (ironically), so the GOP shouldn’t be viewed as inherently hostile to science or the funding thereof.

    I haven’t heard any specific proposals from the God-Emperor but I’m guessing at minimum no cuts. Sure, I’ve been wrong before, but not as completely 100% wrong as DM.



  14. It is highly likely that now that the GOP controls the entire govt, there will be massive economic stimulus, tax cuts, and ballooning deficits. The GOP only cares about running the federal govt like a household budget and ‘budgeting within our means” when there is a Dem president. Starting right now, the only time you will hear anything about deficits and fiscal issues is as a cudgel to destroy social welfare programs.


  15. Bagger Vance Says:

    The second-worst blog prognosticator (blognostcator?) chimes in with yesterday’s answers to last generations’s problems. Thanks “Comrade”! Shouldn’t you be out rioting in the streets to protest democratic process? Plz leave car windows alone thx!

    Let me spell it out in words so clear even a PhD can understand them: The God-Emperor is a rejection of Bush conservatism as well as Obama liberalism.



  16. UCProf Says:

    To all you worrying about Trump and science funding . . .

    The real action is happening in the Senate right now. They are supposed to pass the “21st Century Cures Act”, in the next month or so. It’s a collection of bills that modify biomedical research laws. One effect is that it will increase NIH funding (by 3% per year over the next 5? years). It includes the “Next Generation Researchers Act,” which mandates the NIH do something for new researchers and the “Advancing Research for Neurological Diseases Act” which will establish some type of epidemiology database for parkinsons and MS, similar to what they have for cancer.

    The Act is apparently controversial, because other bills in the package loosen FDA requirements on approving new drugs and devices.

    The House already passed it.


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