Guide for Investigators: 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.

What a PO Does

Please note that this advice is designed for contacting program officers at federal agencies. Please contact Corporate & Foundation Relations when applying to foundation or other private opportunities.

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 good! 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 I/Cs) that you could submit to.
  • 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).
  • To discover if a particular foundation is interested in your proposal.

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.
  • Which study section to request when submitting your cover letter.

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 he/she was present at the study section, provide additional input into reviewers’ responses.

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 RFA.
    • 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.
  • Prepare a 1-page research summary (specific aims page works well) and include it in the body of your email, along with a specific question about your project or a request to discuss whether it is a good fit for the program. (The GWSW workbook suggests “maximize the programmatic relevance.”)
    • 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.

How to contact a PO

  • Email first! This gives the PO a chance to get back to you on his/her 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

Last updated: July 2018                                                     Source: Office of Research Development (ORD), Tufts University