At public and private funding agencies, the program officer's job is to make sure the organization is funding the best research projects, career development, and research training in their interest area. An important part of this is advising applicants and guiding them through the grant application and funding process. Intimately familiar with their agency's mission, and current and future funding priorities, program officers know what will make a proposal successful for their particular program.
It is valuable to be in touch with your program officer prior to writing your grant proposal. Pre-proposal communication with the PO can significantly reshape a research design or save an investigator from submitting a proposal that will not meet the agency's funding priorities. Either way, communicating with a program officer before crafting a proposal will save that most valuable of faculty resources -- time!
Here are some reasons to contact your program officer:
Contacting a program officer doesn't need to be an uncomfortable task. Do the background research needed to prepare yourself to speak with your program officer. Study the agency mission, program guidelines, and look up recent awards. Being prepared with this information will naturally help allay any anxiety you may have. It will also ensure you convey respect for the PO's time and expertise. (Consider how pleasant it is when a student comes to meet you with well-prepared, well-researched questions.) Keep your interaction professional and be specific with your request.
- Request early feedback on your statement of scientific aims upon which the proposal will be built, improving chances of a favorable review
- Get clarification on specific grant requirements or instructions, ensuring compliance with the agency's regulations
- Request help assessing the fit of your application to the specific request for proposals or funding opportunity announcement, or a recommendation for a more appropriate program
- Assess the best grant mechanism for your research and career status
- Discuss new topics that the agency may be interested to fund
- Help ensure that your proposal is submitted to the most closely matched reviewer category, the one most likely to highly rank your research
- Request advice on resubmitting a proposal that has been declined
- Offer to serve on a review panel, an invaluable experience at all career levels
Unless you just have a simple question, to clarify a program guideline for example, don't make the initial contact with your program officer by phone. It's best to first send an email to introduce yourself and your topic. Attach a summary of your scientific aims, research objectives, research plan or potential proposal ideas -- a maximum of two pages. At the end of the email ask the program officer to call or email you back in a few days, mentioning times and days when you will be available (or unavailable). If you haven't heard back in a week or so, send another email. It's OK to follow up; program officers are busy, too.
In Can we talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers, Robert Porter, PhD., former Director of Research Development at the University of Tennessee, shares a sample coaching script to help investigators prepare a successful encounter with a program officer, as well as background on why the relationship between PO and investigator is so important. A very useful read, it also includes a sample pre-abstract of the type that might be shared in the initial email to a program officer.
A funding opportunity announcement will usually identify the program officer(s) that should be contacted, or you can easily search the agency's online staff directory. If you're not applying in response to a specific RFP or you can't determine the specific program officer, try searching the online awards database for the agency (e.g., NSF, NIH, grants.gov) and drilling down to information about the program officer. For additional questions about contacting your program officer, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.