Should I Contact a Program Officer Before I Apply?

Yes. Early in the planning stage of your project, we recommend you contact a program officer. You can find them by talking to colleagues or by checking out our websites. They are listed in section seven of our funding opportunity announcements (FOA). You can also search individual institute’s or center’s websites, or search for your area of science in RePORTER and see which program officers might be the right fit. 

Program staff are your primary source of information for scientific, funding and programmatic matters, and they can advise you regarding:

  • An institute/center’s potential enthusiasm about your research area
  • Potential application topics
  • The appropriate FOA through which to apply
  • Investigator-initiated research: topics of interest and new scientific directions
  • Additional information about an initiative such as a request for applications or program announcement
  • Requirements for special areas such as human subjects and vertebrate animal research
  • The appropriate study section to request in your cover letter

Yes, they are busy people. So we recommend you e-mail them first rather than play phone tag.

15 thoughts on “Should I Contact a Program Officer Before I Apply?

  1. These are excellent suggestions, in theory. In practice, however, there are far too many program officers who do not even respond to their email (never mind the phone).

    I also remember fondly the program officer who suggested (in all seriousness) that I get out of human research and change my line of research to focus exclusively on animal studies if I wanted to be funded.

  2. Some program officers are very helpful. It depends and when and why you call them., Generally they are very helpful if you call before you get into “trouble.”. They can’t get you a grant, they can’t put your grant on the top of the pile, they can’t battle for getting your grant funded at the council. They can advise you on what is current, appropriatenes of your research project, what is realistic and what is unrealistic grant objectives, procedures and policies, what to do if your evaluation is too close but still not in the fundable range etc.

  3. I have often heard that one should contact one’s program officer…Yet the one I most often deal with is so busy his responses typically arrive about a month too late.

  4. My experience of contacting the program officer through email was very positive. She answered my questions and gave me helpful suggestions …. I would recommend it.

  5. I have an application that seems very appropriate for a particular institute yet the program official for my topic at that institute has not responded to my multiple emails and phone calls. What should I do next?

    • We’re sorry to hear that. Try contacting another program official at that institute within the same division or branch, or look at the organizational chart and talk to the division director or branch chief about your interests. You can also search RePORTER for projects similar to yours and see which program officers are assigned to those grants. You may be surprised to find that your RePORTER search may lead you to other institutes that also provide funding for your area of interest.

  6. My program officer has been extremely helpful for my most recent application. We established a time to speak about the proposal early on and she provide feedback on areas that I should make sure to address thoroughly. And, she replied to follow up emails as well. However, I have had 2 less positive experiences with other officers.

  7. Hi. I have to side on the “POs are useless” side of this debate. I’ve gotten nothing out of mine but long silences on the phone. If I’m lucky he’ll read me the comments from my pervious pink sheets. No matter what I do I wind up assigned to him. Part of the problem is the single-point-of-contact model; PIs whose POs provide useful feedback think all POs are great and can’t imagine why I dread contacting mine. I can’t imagine a useful one. Maybe we need team POs or rotating assignments.

  8. If a PO is not responsive (does not respond emails and does not take phone calls), what should I do? Is there any alternative people I can talk with? Thanks.

    • Program officers are very busy people, so if you haven’t given them a few weeks to respond you should try that first. But if it has been awhile and several emails and phone calls have gone unanswered, you have a couple of options. You can try contacting another program officer whose expertise might fit your research, whether in the same IC or another IC. You can also try contacting the branch chief, a program officer who oversees a group of program officers. You can usually find these individuals by searching the part of the IC website that deals with extramural funding.

  9. My program officer never responds nor returns my phone. Surprisingly, other than her, my experience with rest of the NIH staff had been positive. Nick.

  10. This is totally fascinating to hear the truth about experiences with POs. We all want to know if there is some kind of internal mechanism that promotes some researchers while shunning others.

  11. It’s reassuring to hear that other people are getting no responses; as a first time applicant I thought my PO’s silence indicated total disinterest in my proposal (although it still might).

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