Program Officer Gatekeeping

May 21, 2019

Everyone who is an applicant to the NIH for funding hears, sooner or later, that they are supposed to contact one or more Program Officers for advice. I give that advice myself, even on this blog. That is what they are there for. To discuss your application plans and to try to help you propose something that is of interest to them, as a representative of the Program interests of a given Institute or Center of the NIH.

You, I suggest, should be familiar with who inhabits the Divisions and Branches of your closest interests. You should check who is listed as the scientific contact for a Funding Opportunity Announcement that is of interest to you. You are supposed to get in touch, make a phone call time and/or send them your Specific Aims.

I also tell you that the Program Officer’s opinion is but one of many considerations about whether you submit a proposal or not. Because they are just one scientist. And as with any one scientist, the PO comes with biases, preferences and blindspots. Who are they to tell you not to try your hand competing for a good score in a study section?

Well, do recall that Program does not have to fund anything, even if your grant proposal gets a 1% score it can be skipped. They can, and do, skip grants that fall within their paylines, published or virtual. Every bit of percentiles/funding data that I’ve seen has at least one apparent skip. So it could be that the PO is telling you this- no matter what, they will argue that your proposal does not fit and should not be funded. So you have to listen to what they are saying very carefully.

The other, larger side of this consideration is that the PO is trying to tell that in their estimation your proposal does not sound like one that will score very well. And here it is tricky. They have a lot of experience with study sections and with applications being scored. They have access to a lot of knowledge that you do not. And you could be barking up a ridiculously out of position tree. This kind of interaction saves you the time and effort…no small thing.

The problem is that nobody can predict very well, particularly when it comes to your general outline or Aims page. They know generally what the population of reviewers look like but cannot (unless there is illegit SRO/PO collusion) know who will be assigned to your application. Maybe for some reason your proposal will resonate with the reviewers. And a PO faced with a 1%ile score has a tendency not to fight so much about how it wasn’t a good idea to them when you chatted several months ago.

I’m sorry that I do not have hard and fast answers for you. PO advice can be heartfelt and still totally misplaced. I am, to this day, astonished by the degree to which POs express apparent ignorance of how grant review really goes down, despite long experience watching review play out. PO scientific preferences can led them explicitly or implicitly to discourage applications featuring ideas, models or people that they don’t favor and encourage ones that they like. They may have a very strong idea of who they would like a highly targeted FOA to end up funding….while peer reviewers might think some totally different approaches are a better way to advance the topic as they understand it.

So my advice is generally that if you really like you proposal and have a strong argument as to why it fits with the FOA ideas…..submit it anyway. Even if the PO has been fairly discouraging to you. Let peer review tell you that it doesn’t fit.

People worry about making the PO mad by going against their advice. I don’t know how to view that and it is another unknowable risk. Sure, it might very well happen. There are unprofessional people in this world. Someone could be having a bad day. Stuff happens. But…..this grant getting stuff is too critical. If you have a good idea and you think a panel of peer reviewers might go for it……worrying about a PO trying to spike your within-payline proposal because you submitted against their advice is a small consideration (imo).

Most of the time it won’t be this direct anyway. You’ll get unenthusiastic responses and mild opposition far more often than a flat “do not submit that”. IME. So if you’ve twitched things a bit since your conversation and the score is good enough to discuss, how can the PO get too frosty with you?

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