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Guide for Investigators: Contacting the Program Officer

What a Program Officer (PO) does

Please note that this advice is designed for contacting program officers at federal agencies. Please contact University Advancement 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 funded!


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 programs 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.

When to Contact

INITIAL SUBMISSIONRESUBMISSION
BEFORE the proposal is developed

The earlier the better

Don’t waste time developing a proposal that does not fit the program

NEVER after the proposal has been submitted to discuss content of a proposal under review, wait until you’ve received your reviews
At least 1-week after receiving the Summary Statement.

Take the time to digest the comments and to develop a draft strategy for responding to the reviewer comments

Develop a targeted list of questions

Contact After the Award

After the PI has received the award, all contact with program officers should be through the grant coordinator for non-technical issues or questions, such as no-cost extension requests, budget revisions, etc. The grant coordinator will relay the determinations to the PI and research accountants. All technical concerns should be addressed between the PI and the program officer.


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/RFP.
    • 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.
    • 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/RFP comes out or just before a deadline.
  • Make sure that you’ve examined their online documents and that you know the PO’s name.

Where to Locate

NSFDirectorate

Programs

Listed by Division

Under Cluster/ Additional Funding Opportunities

Contacts
NIHListed in section seven of a funding opportunity announcement (FOA).

Listed on the IC-Specific Scientific Interests and Contact website for each FOA.   
   
Institute or Center websites
NEHDivisions and Offices

Programs

Programs Staff
NASAMission Directorate (The Science Mission Directorate publishes a list of POs)

For Researchers/Solicitations

Listed as Point of Contact in each solicitation

Additional Tips

  • Although often advised, do not ask questions about pay lines or success rates – especially to federal funders – the POs likely don’t know given the current funding climate so any answer will be speculative
  • Be responsive to the advice that is delivered
    • A sure way to get rejected is to submit the proposal the PO suggested may not be relevant to their program
  • DO NOT ask for the names of the reviewers or speculate on the reviewers based on the study section roster (NIH)
  • Do not criticize reviewer comments 

The Don’ts and Dos

  • Never cold call a PO
  • Never call a PO to “chat” about research
  • Do not ask questions that are “answered” in the solicitation (i.e., read the solicitation carefully)
  • Do not badger or contact POs repeatedly; if you don’t hear back from an initial e-mail request, wait two weeks and try again. If you still don’t hear back, try reaching out to another PO.

Related Resources

A view from the NIH bridge: perspectives of a program officer, by Marion Zatz, Molecular Biology of the Cell, Volume 22, Issue 15 (2011)

Can we Talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers, by Robert Porter, Research Management Review, Volume 17, Issue 1 (2009)

What to Say–and Not Say–to Program Officers, by Michael J. Spires, The Chronicle of Higher Education (2012)

NASA Science Mission Directorate List of Program Officers

NIAID: Get a Speedy Response From Your Program Officer

Last updated: 6/15/2020