Understanding What Program Officials Can and Can’t Do for You


NIH Program Officials (POs) are responsible for the programmatic, scientific, and technical aspects of NIH programs and are a key resource for prospective applicants and recipients.

Although POs are scientists and may have previous experience seeking funding and performing research, their current focus is on the stewardship of federal funds in alignment with NIH’s mission and administrative and public policies. As federal employees, they must adhere to specific rules to promote public trust and impartiality.

Having a clear understanding of what POs can and can’t do for you will help you make the most of your interactions.

While identifying opportunities, POs can recommend programs that may be of interest, discuss institute or center priorities, help determine if your proposal is a good fit for a specific opportunity and clarify opportunity requirements, but …

  • Can’t share information not in the public domain
  • Can’t discuss plans for new or potential reissue of funding opportunities not yet released
  • Can’t provide insights into program beyond what is included in the posted opportunity

While preparing your application, POs can pose general, thought-provoking questions, but …

  • Can’t propose specific edits to any part of the application
  • Can’t provide specific advice on experimental design

Regarding application referral, POs can help you determine if your proposal is a good fit within the mission of their institute or center, but …

  • Can’t direct your application to a specific study section

Regarding application review, POs can observe review meetings and later help clarify points made in the summary statement, but …

  • Can’t discuss review prior to release of summary statement
  • Can’t provide review meeting insights beyond points included in the summary statement

Regarding funding decisions, POs make programmatic judgements for applications and grants, but …

  • Can’t advocate for a specific application’s funding
  • Don’t make final funding decisions

POs are a tremendous resource and can help you in many ways. Just keep in mind that their role as federal administrators and stewards limits what they can and can’t help with.

Learn more about POs, where to find their contact information, and tips for reaching out at Understand Staff Roles.


  1. My grant has been under “administrative review/pending” for 8 weeks since the council meeting. My score is certainly within the pay line. I contacted the PO twice for an update because I have to make plans for purchase, hiring, etc. The start date is proposed to be June 1st, and it is less than 2 months away. The PO never replied to me. Do I need to worry about anything? What should I do?

    1. We would encourage you to reach out again respectfully requesting a follow-up from the program official designated on the summary statement. Some handy advice, if not done so already, is to initiate conversations via email, be specific (using the subject line to convey the main ask), provide relevant details and application information, as well as explain why you are reaching out, and give enough context for the PO to be prepared for a meaningful discussion.

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