Contacting the Program Officer
A Program Officer (PO) is your point of contact for your proposal submission, so it is important to know when and how to contact them.
Note: The following advice is based on NIH, but much is applicable to NSF and other federal funders. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions regarding a specific federal funder. When applying to foundation or other private opportunities, please contact Corporate & Foundation Relations.
What a PO Does
NIH Program Officer Responsibilities include a program officer is your point of contact for understanding the organization’s response to your submission. POs manage a “portfolio” of grants, and they are rewarded for having a set of very solid grants – they want your grant submission to be successful! The following advice is based on NIH, but much is applicable to other funders.
When you should contact a PO
At the start of the research proposal:
- To decide if your research idea is in line with the priorities of the program or agency, or if another division – or a tweak to your current plan – would fit better.
- To gauge the level of enthusiasm this particular agency has for your proposed area of research – particularly if you have multiple agencies (or NIH NIH Institutes and CentersI/Cs) that you could submit to.
- Note: Some agencies, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Defense, provide opportunities for program officers to review proposals or white papers in advance and to provide feedback on the fit for the particular program. It’s important to take advantage of these opportunities to maximize your chances of success!
- When a major question of suitability or fit arises (e.g., if a division doesn’t deal with clinical studies; if a certain form of analysis is welcome).
During the writing of your proposal when you have questions about:
- Specific agency policies such as Data Sharing, human subjects, etc.
- Grant award specifics, such as possible award minimum/maximums, whether or not a particular budget item can be funded, etc.
- Please be sure that these questions have not been answered within the solicitation or the agency’s guidelines. Check with your Local Research Administrator if you have questions!
When you receive your score or reviews:
- The PO can help you interpret critiques, provide guidance on when to resubmit, what to focus on, and, if they were present at the study section, provide additional input into reviewers’ responses.
- Be sure to follow all agency guidelines for when it is appropriate to contact a program officer after submission – and remember never to contact anyone on the review panel!
What to prepare before contacting a PO
- Check the agency or program’s website and all available documents for answers to your questions, as well as the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA).
- Your question may not be answered there, but you can frame your question in terms of what information is already available.
- Prepare one or at most a few clear, succinct, relevant questions that are in the PO’s purview.
- A one-page summary: Conduct background research on your project idea and prepare a one-page research summary (specific aims page works well) that you will include in the body of the email (generally not as an attachment, unless the PO requests that format) you send to the PO, along with a specific question about your project or a request to discuss whether it is a good fit for the program.
- Assume a technically literate reader but not necessarily well-versed in your specific area.
- Keep it focused; draw clear, explicit connections to significance and innovation; and make clear the expected outcomes and deliverables and how these are related to the program’s priorities or guidelines.
How to contact a PO
- Email first! This gives the PO a chance to get back to you on their own time.
- Introduce yourself and your project, with specific, focused information and questions that show that you’ve done your due diligence with publically available materials.
- Make sure that your inquiry makes it clear why you are asking, what information you hope to get from the PO, and what your deadline is.
- Give them ample time pre-deadline to respond, and expect delays in response right after an RFA comes out or just before a deadline.
- Make sure that you’ve examined their online documents and that you know the PO’s name.
More information on PO’s and policies
- Contacting Staff at the NIH Institutes and Centers
- Contacting Program Officers and Grants Management Specialists
- A view from the NIH bridge: perspectives of a program officer
- NSF-specific information on contacting an NSF PO
- NSF 101: 5 tips on how to work with an NSF program officer
Last updated: July 2021
Source: OVPR Research Development, Tufts University