Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

University of Texas Medical Branch


Research Coordinator's Corner, Dr. David Konkel

April 2008

Check out UTMB's new Catalog of Expertise - That's not what this exciting new tool is called, but those who remember Dorothea Wilson will doubtless also remember the Catalog of Expertise as being invaluable in locating UTMB researchers with skills and interests in a particular area. It was especially useful when looking for reagents, help with a method that wasn't going well, or potential collaborators. The downside was the time required to develop or update your entry, and the inherent problems with trying to find what you wanted in a fairly thick book indexed by a limited number of keywords. Still, almost since his arrival I and others have been asking Bill New for a replacement – and at last it's here. It's called the UTMB Scientific Expertise Search Engine, or USES. If you forget the link, it's available as the rightmost tab from the research.UTMB web page. The good news is that you don't need to fill out an entry or spend time pondering which ten keywords best reflect your research interests yet are likely to occur to any would-be collaborators; the engine uses Boolean logic and is based on the titles of PubMed Central (PMC)-listed papers. The bad news is that to limit the time needed to find and incorporate UTMB investigators' citations, the programmers had to search PMC first by the "location" field, so only papers with the first author at UTMB will be identified. While that's not ideal, it sure beats what we had a month ago! Furthermore, as compliance with the new NIH Public Access policy rapidly boosts the number of papers uploaded to PMC, the odds of finding all UTMB researchers with relevant skills and interests should increase correspondingly. Finally, Mr. New has also promised to develop a searchable CV database for UTMB researchers in the near future; presumably USES will then be based on that more inclusive database. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!

  Don't forget NIH's new mandatory Public Access Policy – Did you just get a paper accepted based on your NIH-funded research? If you're the PI, it's now your responsibility to ensure that PMC promptly receives "an electronic version of the final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication." While the policy doesn't specify the permissible lag-time after acceptance, after May 25 all NIH grant applications and progress reports must include the PMC accession numbers for any work funded by the grant and accepted for publication after the April 7 just past. There's the possibility of a stiff penalty for non-compliance (the policy is now part of the Terms and Conditions of your NIH grant award, retroactive to October 1, 2007, so violation could nullify the award and require repayment). I'd thus make it a standard practice to ensure that your support staff puts the upload on their to-do list as soon as you receive the notice that a manuscript's been accepted. For more details, see the excellent Research Services Web page on the policy, with a tutorial and link to the NIH manuscript submission system (reproduced here). Support staff uploading for a PI should do so through the MyNCBI link, even if registered as an "assistant" in the NIH Commons. Could they make this more confusing? (Forget I asked – they probably could!)

Be sure to contact your (potential) NIH Program Officer early in your grant preparation process ­– This advice has been given in virtually every talk I've ever attended on grant writing or the NIH application/review process, whether by an NIH representative or an outside expert on the topic. Nonetheless, when I ask a PI who's just given me the first draft of an application if (s)he's contacted the most likely PO, I usually hear either "no," or even worse, "what's a Program Officer?"
Many investigators confuse Program Officers (POs) with Scientific Review Officers (until recently known as SRAs ­– the "A" was for "Administrator; they work for the Center for Scientific Review, or CSR, and manage study sections during the first stage of the two-tier review process). The POs work for individual Institutes (or Centers; ICs in NIH-speak), where each directs a program – a portfolio of externally funded grants revolving around a particular topic area, usually defined by one or more Program Announcements. NIH wants the PO to be the standard point of contact for applicants and awardees, both during the application process and during the tenure of the resulting grant; financial issues with funded grants may also require contacting the Grants Management Specialist indicated on your Notice of Grant Award (NOGA). The PO plays several important roles during the application/grant cycle, so for the best chance of being funded, it's essential that your application be assigned to the most appropriate program in the most relevant Institute. While in theory that should be done by a referral officer in the CSR's Division of Receipt and Referral, in practice it's extremely risky to rely on them to make the optimal assignment to the most appropriate program/IC and most suitable study section. In fact, the instructions for the most recent (now mandatory) version of the 398 application package include a suggested cover letter format addressing both areas. Finally, not contacting your PO in advance eliminates some important benefits, both direct and indirect.
When (and how) should you contact a potential Program Officer? For those who follow my advice by writing the Specific Aims section first, the best time for initial contact is right after you've written that section (and I've edited it, if applicable). Then you can use a keyword search of the CRISP database to locate likely programs (and study sections), based on grants already funded in your field (the more recent, the better, so limit your search to the last 2-3 years). You should then send an e-mail introducing yourself to the PO of the most likely program. Briefly outline your idea (ideally aparagraph, ¼ page max); ask if his/her program is most appropriate, and if not, whether (s)he has an alternative suggestion. If necessary, repeat the process iteratively until you find the best match. You should then e-mail your selected PO to ask whether there's a convenient time for you to call [also provide your phone contact information, in case (s)he prefers to call you]. Questions you should then ask include whether (s)he has any suggestions as to how your idea might be improved. Ideally, (s)he will suggest that you send him/her the Aims; be sure to accept the offer! Alternatively, (s)he may simply make some suggestions based on your initial summary. Either way, take the advice seriously, as the PO presumably has some expertise in your field, and a far better understanding than you of what will or will not be viewed favorably by the study section. In that regard, after you get feedback on the application itself, be sure to mention the study section you've tentatively identified as most suitable (based on your CRISP search and feedback from colleagues funded in the same general research area), and ask whether that would indeed be the most appropriate, or whether there's another study section that might be better.
A good PO will attend the study section meetings at which "his/her" applications are being reviewed; if the application is not funded, contact the PO soon after the summary statement (not just the score) becomes available through your Commons account and ask whether (s)he has any comments or suggestions based on his/her notes or recollections of the meeting. Be careful to avoid inappropriate questions that might seem to be seeking the identities of your reviewers; as with manuscripts, these are strictly confidential. If you consider a major aspect of the review or the summary statement to be unfair, the PO is the appropriate person with whom to discuss your concern, and from whom to ask advice on how best to proceed. Except in the most extreme cases (or an A2 submission), a formal appeal of the review is rarely the best option, as according to CSR policy the best possible outcome is a re-review of the same application (by the same study section, whose members are apt to be miffed that you appealed), without any opportunity to make changes in response to the criticisms that are valid. If the grant is near the payline and the PO agrees with your concern, ask if you can prepare a rebuttal for the Council, either directly or (if the PO is willing) as talking points for him/her to make your case.
All of the points in the preceding two paragraphs represent direct advantages of discussing your application with your PO before and after the review. One indirect advantage of having a good relationship with your PO may come if your application is scored near the payline ("on the bubble"). While applications are ranked by the PO for Council consideration based on their priority and percentile scores, (s)he has some discretion in the ranking process; in some Institutes, this has formalized by establishing a "discretionary zone" within a specified range above and below the payline. Grants below this zone should normally be funded automatically, while those above it are normally out of reach. The primary factors influencing the PO in exercising this discretion include the "programmatic priorities," as reflected in the funding IC's current strategic plan (different Institutes call this various things, but you can usually find it by searching for "priorities" on the IC's home page), as well as the balance in the individual program's portfolio, the preference given to new investigators (in many Institutes now formalized with a separate, higher payline), and often a predilection against new applications from "well-funded" laboratories (again, now formalized by policy in some Institutes). However, Program Officers are also human, so all other things being equal, they may subconsciously favor applicants with whom they have a cordial relationship over those who are "merely a name on a page." Many experienced investigators will thus be sure to establish a personal working relationship with their PO(s), perhaps by interacting with them at conferences, or by arranging a face-to-face meeting when in the Washington area. Since 9/11, however, it's impossible to just drop in at NIH – meetings must be arranged in advance. On the other hand, you don't want to annoy your PO with overly frequent or annoying contacts. Science magazine's "R01 Tool Kit" includes cautions in this area, under the rubric "If you schmooze, you lose" (This link is well worth clicking, as the entire Web page is an excellent resource for grant writers). Furthermore, if the "less granular" scoring system I discussed last month is actually implemented, many more applications will have similar scores than at present, so the PO will play a much more important role in determining which grants are funded.
Finally, many of you are probably wondering "But when do I contact my SRO?" Ordinarily, your only contact with the SRO will come shortly after your assignment to his/her study section shows up in your Commons account. You should then send an e-mail asking whether, and if so how far in advance of the study section meeting you may provide supplemental information to be provided to your assigned reviewers. I've discussed this issue before, and so will only touch on the highlights here: keep the supplemental information to a maximum of two pages – one for figures and the accompanying legends, and the other for explanatory text, following the standard NIH rules about legibility and font size. Don't forget to mention any new or submitted publications [the latter only by "(manuscript submitted)" after describing the work], and provide either a link/PMC accession number or (if allowed by your SRO) pdf of the preprint for accepted manuscripts. For any other issues that may arise before or after the review, you should ordinarily contact the SRO only when advised to do so by your Program Officer; if (s)he's willing, it's often better to have him/her contact the SRO on your behalf. You should consider the SRO as being a judge charged with overseeing the fairness, quality, ethics, and objectivity of the review process, and thus required to avoid even potentially inappropriate ex parte communications or interactions.

That's it for this month – Happy Spring! Please don't forget to advise me as soon as possible of your plans for grant submissions during the June/July cycle. Incidentally, we have several good applications for the positions in our new editorial assistance group; I hope the new staffers will be in place to assist for that cycle.

     -- Dave Konkel x24074; E-mail: (copyright 2008).