NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

Episode 11: Monitoring Grant Performance

March 06, 2020 NINDS Season 1 Episode 11
Episode 11: Monitoring Grant Performance
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
Episode 11: Monitoring Grant Performance
Mar 06, 2020 Season 1 Episode 11

Learn how NINDS monitors grant performance from Program Directors Drs. Jane Fountain and Michael Oshinsky and Health Program Specialist Dr. Emily Carifi.

Building Up the Nerve is a podcast from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the life cycle of a grant from idea to award at NINDS with the people who make it happen. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting, but we’re here to help—it’s our job!


Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Learn how NINDS monitors grant performance from Program Directors Drs. Jane Fountain and Michael Oshinsky and Health Program Specialist Dr. Emily Carifi.

Building Up the Nerve is a podcast from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the life cycle of a grant from idea to award at NINDS with the people who make it happen. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting, but we’re here to help—it’s our job!


Lauren Ullrich:   0:02
Welcome to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Building up the nerve, a podcast for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the life cycle of a grant from idea to award at NINDS with the people who make it happen. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting. But we're here to help. It's our job.

Marguerite Matthews:   0:22
Hello, I'm Marguerite Matthews, a health program specialist at NINDS.

Lauren Ullrich:   0:26
And I'm Lauren Ullrich,  a scientific program manager at NINDS and we're your hosts for this episode. So last time we discussed the issuance of the grant award and how to read a notice of award.

Marguerite Matthews:   0:37
Now we're going to talk about monitoring grant performance. How does NINDS keep track of what researchers are doing with their funding and ensure we are responsible stewards of taxpayer money?

Lauren Ullrich:   0:49
As always, I want to state the disclaimer that everything we talk about may only be relevant for NINDS. So if you're applying to a different NIH institute, it's always best to check with them about their policies.

Marguerite Matthews:   1:04
In joining us for today's episode are Dr Jane Fountain a program director in the neural environment cluster, Dr Michael Oshinsky, a program director in the Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience cluster, and Dr Emily Carifi, a program specialist in the neurogenetics cluster. So can each of you introduce yourselves?

Jane Fountain:   1:26
Hi, My name's Jane Fountain. I'm in the neural environment cluster. I oversee the brain tumor grant portfolio. This portfolio is shared between NINDS and NCI, so have a lot of interactions with the staff over on the NCI side. And overall, I would say, NINDS oversees about 20% of the brain tumor grant portfolio at NIH. So I've worked at NINDS for almost 15 years now. I was previously at NCI for five years, and before that I was an associate professor at the University of Southern California. Um, I have three teenagers, so I think that's enough said right there about what I do outside work. One's been in college for one month now, so last year was a full time job just figuring out where she was going to college, and the other two are 16 and have their driver's permits--    

Lauren Ullrich:   0:00

Jane Fountain:   2:20
So I spend most of my time in the passenger seat--    

Marguerite Matthews:   0:00
Scared for your life?  

Jane Fountain:   2:25
--white-knuckled, telling my son to apply the brake more often.

Michael Oshinsky:   2:30
I'm Michael Oshinsky. I'm the program director for pain and migraine research at NINDS. I've had been with NIH since August of 2014, so that's about five years. And before I came to NIH, I was faculty at Thomas Jefferson University for 14 years.

Emily Carifi:   2:50
Hi, Emily Carifi, I'm a health program specialist, neurogenetics cluster. I support two program directors, one who is responsible for basic fundamental neuroscience, Dr Bob Riddle, and Dr Glenn Knuckles, who has the muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy, CMT and other, well, both neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental disorders. I've been here about three years. I was a post doc in the NINDS intramural program before I got here. Hobbies, I don't have time for them because I have two,very young children.

Lauren Ullrich:   3:36
Last episode sort of ended right at the issuance of the notice of award. So once the applicant has their award, what do they need to know?

Jane Fountain:   3:46
So the first thing I would say is, keep an open dialogue with us. So often times we're working with applicants a lot, frequently, up until they submit their first application. Then it goes through review, they get a promising or meritorious score, they get the application and they sort of go away. Or maybe they feel that our interaction has now ended. It's actually, in most cases, just begun, because we're potentially going to be engaged with this junior investigator for maybe their entire career. So just keep an open dialogue, I think. With changes or any questions that you have and if we can't personally answer them, we're gonna either find out the answer ourselves or direct you to somebody who can.

Michael Oshinsky:   4:27
I completely agree. Contact program. You know, once you get your award, it could be just to hear congratulations for us, and that's good, too, that's the beginning of the dialogue. But there are lots of questions you're going to have, and reaching out to people in your institution is good. But also it's good to bounce those things that you're going to do based on that guidance off your program officer. Working with program staff can help you at all stages of your career, not just before your first application is accepted, but also every junction point going from early career to midcareer to your first renewal. Everything there, we can help you with. And it's our job to do that. We're happy to do it.

Marguerite Matthews:   5:09
What do program officers and grant specialists do to monitor grant performance?

Michael Oshinsky:   5:15
So we do monitor publications. We read the literature just like you do. We're very involved in the portfolios that we're responsible for, and not only seeing the publications that you put in your progress report, which we'll read each year after you put that together, but also following the publications because there's certain journals in our fields of expertise that we read regularly. We also get notified of press releases that are put out associated with your publications, and we see those. And we go to meetings, too, and we'll walk by your poster and speak to your graduate students or your postdocs while they're presenting it and hear what's the next stage of the experiments and maybe make some comments on the data that you're presenting there. So progress reports, publications, press releases and going to meetings, watching your talks and seeing your posters

Lauren Ullrich:   6:08
And you can also come to us at a lot of meetings. If we have a booth, like at society for neuroscience, there's an entire NIH booth where program directors have basically office hours. So if you don't necessarily have a relationship with them yet, that's a good place to to meet and have a chat.

Michael Oshinsky:   6:25
So find that sign up sheet and sign up because the slots fill really quickly.

Emily Carifi:   6:30
Also I know the Gordon Research Conferences often have a NIH program directors and I have done lunch and learns. So attend these sessions, the great for the more informal questions at any stage.

Lauren Ullrich:   6:48
So, Michael, I think you mentioned the progress report, which is now called the Research Performance Progress Report or RPPR. What is the RPPR and what kinds of things are required in that?

Michael Oshinsky:   7:01
So each year, you're required to report on the progress of your award. Now that has multiple components. One part of it is gonna be filled out by your institutional signing official and the budget officials, and that's gonna be associated with the financial part of the grant. There's a scientific portion of the progress of your grant that you're going to have to report yourself. There's many different ways you can break that down to give us a good feel for the work that you've done in the last reporting period, which is usually the last year and how that progress is being communicated to the greater scientific community. So one part of that, it could be breaking it up into your specific aims and telling us the progress of the experiments in there. And it could be this didn't work, that didn't work, and the other thing didn't work. All of that is really helpful. Please do not just give us a list of your publications and say all my data is there. That's not a good progress report. A good progress report is a dialogue of what's been going on in the previous year, broken up in some format that we can evaluate about whether or not you're working on only a part of the grant, or whether or not you made progress in multiple parts of the grant in the previous year. Then there's a formal part of the progress report where you report your publications and your progress in communicating them through NIH's formal system of making data public, which is called a public access, right, NIH public access. And it's a database for that. Jane do you want to add?

Jane Fountain:   8:41
So I just want to say in the progress report, the main thing I'm looking for is a couple paragraphs that very concisely tell me what you did in the past year. Similar to what Michael said, things that went well, things that didn't go well, if the project is steering in a different course, that's what I want to see there. I do not want to see any part of the original application cut and pasted into the progress report. I do not want to see any progress report from the past, cut and pasted into the current progress report.

Michael Oshinsky:   9:07
Please do not do that. We do remember.

Jane Fountain:   9:09
and I do not want to see just figures sort of taken from a publication and put into the progress report with no text. So take it seriously. It is taxpayers' money. It's a reasonable chunk of change that everybody is getting on their grants or their fellowships. And just spend an hour or two essentially writing down what you've done for that year. I think it might also be very helpful for discussions that you have with your mentors or colleagues as far as if you have individual performance plans and things like that, you can use the progress report, just sort of document what you've done that year. And then, lastly, if you are getting a PhD, working towards a degree, I sort of want to see a little bit of information on where you are, when you anticipate you're gonna graduate, you know, when you anticipate you're going to get your first 1st author publication out. All those things are really important to us to just assess where you are at this stage in the game

Michael Oshinsky:   10:03
And that dialogue is really helpful. It should be reporting what happens--what has happened in the previous year in a narrative form, or it could be bullets, too. Now, what I'm afraid that some people do is that they copy and paste, as Jane mentioned from their publications, and it becomes really mired in individual details of the project, which are exciting, don't don't get me wrong and important, but we're really looking for an overall gestalt view of what's happened during the previous year in the progress you made. If there is a key piece of data that you want to communicate to us, feel free to put one or two figures in there. We're excited about the science, too, we're scientists.

Emily Carifi:   10:47
Something you haven't mentioned is: while the science is clearly the most important part, many of the people who hopefully are listening are trainees, and they have an additional requirement to put in the career development they're getting from their institution. And when I do, um, the first pass because I'm not a program director, so I do that: "Are there any red flags?" first is: I see that cut and paste. That's the most time where I see no new information from application to progress report. And it is your institution's requirement to train you. So make sure that that is also updated. That if you're getting responsible research conduct training and if you've attended a class or you've gone to a training, put that in, too. It's not great just to see, again, what you put into your application which is at this point probably 18 months out of date.

Michael Oshinsky:   11:43
For those mentored training awards, there's also a component from the mentor, and that mentor letter we always look closely at, too, and it should clearly say how often that mentor is interacting with the trainee. And it could be once a week, and you know, that you presented the data, or once a month that the data is presented at the lab meeting, something like that. That's one of the things I'm looking for. And then, you know, I'm also looking for details of the mentor commenting on the skills that are being acquired by the mentee and not just the data. Almost every letter says the experiments are going really great, they presented at a meeting, which is nice to see, also; we can see that in other parts there. But some of the interpretation of the progress should be reported in that mentee letter.

Marguerite Matthews:   12:41
What would happen if there is not a lot of progress happening in the career development? Maybe there seems to be a bit of, um, a delay or perhaps that trainee is actually not getting the mentoring or the training that they need. How should that be conveyed to program staff?

Jane Fountain:   13:00
So I guess it depends on how serious it is. If there's a really serious issue where the trainee feels like they are not moving forward, they should have a phone conversation with us, and we're going to try to see if there's a way for them to move forward in their current situation or we're going to encourage them to move to a new laboratory. If it's just like the fact that the project is not panning out as they originally proposed, that can be detailed in the progress report and just tell us sort of what's the new direction? And if it's really different than the specific aims that were originally proposed, we need some revised specific aims, and they do need to get sort of prior approval to really change the specific aims. That's one thing that you should contact your program director--if the project has changed substantially--to discuss what the new aims are and to make sure that they appear to still be in scope.

Michael Oshinsky:   13:58
If you have some question about whether or not a new direction you want to go in is within scope of the grant, you can reach out to us, not just at the time of the progress report but even anytime during the year. Let me give you some hints for how to communicate with program. First of all, don't call us first

Marguerite Matthews:   14:17
[laughter] no cold calls.

Jane Fountain:   0:00
Yes, exactly, no cold calls  

Michael Oshinsky:   14:19
Well, it's just really hard to fit into our schedules because they're usually pretty booked. A much better way to communicate with us is to send us an email, short paragraph, a few sentences, "I'd like to discuss X, Y or Z." Maybe have an attachment if there's some document we would like us to review before we discuss it. And you say, "Is there a time that we could talk?" if that's what you think is needed, or just an answer to a question. Now, if you have 10 questions or 15 questions, it's gonna be difficult to answer all of those in an email, all right, and if we do talk, we'll probably narrow it down on which of the most important ones to fit into that half hour. But that should be your expectation: to send us an email, short summary of what you'll need, and then ask us for a time to talk. And then including something that's written in order for us to evaluate, if there's gonna be a change of aims or if you want us to know if an idea for a grant is a good idea to put it in, the way to communicate with us is really not your abstract, it's your specific aims page. That's the meat of your grant. That's the one page that summarizes all the activities that you want to do and maybe even discuss some of the techniques and the rationale for them. So you know that's you know, from my perspective, the most important document to communicate your scientific ideas and what you want to do next is in the form of specific aims page.

Lauren Ullrich:   15:47
So, Jane, you had mentioned that, you know, if the lab situation, it's just not working out, something needs to change. But they are on an F31. The student has funding for a specific project. Maybe they feel like now they have to do that project with that mentor. But is there a way four trainees to switch labs or switch institutions? And how does that process work?

Jane Fountain:   16:10
So that's a very rare circumstance to begin with, when F31 would change a lab or institution. Usually what I would do internally first is I would go and talk to the training office and, um who are the folks here, and we would discuss the situation and sort of together, come up with some guidance for the trainee and make a decision how to handle the situation. We might also reach out to the mentor. That's, of course, dependent on what's going on with the trainee. The trainee may be uncomfortable with us reaching out to the mentor. So we try to be sensitive to all situations in helping resolve whatever the issue is. And you can ultimately potentially transfer labs, though I have to say, personally, I have not dealt with a situation where I've had an F move to another lab, have you?

Michael Oshinsky:   17:03
Yeah, so I do have experience with that. So the idea I want to get out there is: if you're in a situation where you feel trapped and you're worried about your career moving forward and it's not a good place, you should know you're not trapped, okay? There are options for you to move to different labs, your grant can move. If it's an individual F31 or if you're on a T grant, a T32 or something, it can happen. And if you don't feel comfortable initially going through your chair or the head of your graduate program, you can contact us. But I will recommend you do reach out to those first. It doesn't have to be even somebody in your own department. Usually your university has an ombudsperson or a trainee office that might be a little bit separate from the situation, and you can say, "Hey, you know this isn't working out, you know, is there a possibility to move?" If they tell you no, that's the wrong information, but they can help you mediate internally how to do that. I had a graduate student who needed to move from one lab to another and they moved into my lab, and they had just had awarded an F31 from another institute than--it was different than the institute that I had my R01 in and we worked with the program officer, wrote up a new set of specific aims that were, not exactly in scope, but close enough, and they had them internally reviewed through program and the graduate student moved into my lab, and now she's faculty, you know, she really moved along in her career, so it can happen. It can't happen. And there's a whole slew of reasons why people move from a lab. It might be the funding level in that lab. Or it might be a personal interaction. There's just a huge number of things you're not trapped. Just know that you're not trapped.

Marguerite Matthews:   18:57
So just to go back a little bit, so say things are going fine training-wise, but as we sort of mentioned a little bit before, the project may have taken a different turn or needs to take a different turn because it's not, um, very fruitful, or it just seems that things might not work. How should an awardee deal with changing the direction of a project? Do they have to complete the work that they mentioned in their specific aims? Do they need to apply for a new grant? What should happen?

Jane Fountain:   19:26
So they should contact us as soon as possible. So just a quick email and says, you know, this is what my project was on, this is where it's headed right now. Before they submit a progress report where there's a publication that doesn't make sense, given what the science is on or you have something in the public domain, too. We're all sort of social media freaks now, so you have something in the public domain that doesn't make sense either. So you shouldn't be being trained on sort of one topic, but yet have some other public posting that suggests you're involved in a completely different activity. So it's better to tell us before things get to that point. We're flexible. I think that's what people don't understand on the outside is they think that we're not flexible, and our main job is to figure out, like how to take the grant back away from you.

Marguerite Matthews:   20:18
right? Like we're ogres under a bridge.

Jane Fountain:   20:20
That's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to figure out whatever is reasonable is sort of common sense. We're gonna move forward with helping you, you know, change your aims so that you are going to end up being a successful scientist and you're gonna graduate. You're going to get on to the next step in your career.

Michael Oshinsky:   20:36
The perception from outside is that NIH is a black box. I look at one of my goals as being a program director is really making that box clear. You should know how we make decisions here. You should know what type of information we could give you that can really help you move your career forward and help you with your grants. We are here to help. We're here to serve the scientific community. We're not a regulatory agency. They're our regulatory agencies that do oversee science. There's OLAW, there's FDA, there's the CDC, these are making regulations and oversight. Whereas we are promoting the science, that's our perspective.

Marguerite Matthews:   21:13
That's great. I like that We're promoting science at NIH.

Lauren Ullrich:   21:17
So what about if an awardee has more mundane questions, like, if something is allowable in the budget or not. I think especially in the training sphere, there are sometimes restrictions on what the money can be used for. So if they have questions about that, who should they go to?

Jane Fountain:   21:37
I think you should always start with your program director, so I'm thinking of this situation with Ks where you get a stipend and that sort of a separate bucket of funds from the research dollars. So again, start with the program director if the program directors unable to answer your question, they're gonna pull in the grants management specialist or somebody from the training office who can help address the policy issue that your question is.

Michael Oshinsky:   22:02
So don't think that you're just being kicked around if your email is forwarded to somebody else. What we're doing there is not passing the buck. We're trying to get you correct information that is most up to date and accurate, okay? So if you need some information, don't wait till the last possible minute and give it some time for those emails to move around through several individuals because NIH is a very big institution with lots of rules and lots of different different programs. And it's hard for each program director be an expert in each one of them. But our job is to really find the information for you and to connect you to the right person.

Emily Carifi:   22:43
I would like to add as a health program specialist, I'm not a program director, so my name is nowhere. You will not be able to find me. I might be in the staff directory. If you get an email from your program director and there's a couple more people cc'd, reply all. Because I have more bandwidth on a given day. So if it's a quick question that I do have the expertise to answer, I will move it forward, probably more quickly. But if you don't reply all, I don't see it until my program director goes, "Hey, Emily, Can you handle this?" So I know, generally don't reply all. This is the one case. Go ahead, let your questions go to all the people on that email.

Michael Oshinsky:   23:31
I want to, you know, ditto that, because there's so many times where I add people to the emails and just do a reply. Sometimes it's just that I'm replying from my phone because it is a particular issue that needs a quick reply and on my phone, I'm not able to track all the information down. So I'll do a reply, adding people's names, and I know that I have support and other experts here at NIH, like Emily, that I'll add to the grant and I know that they'll see it and answer it, okay? 

Marguerite Matthews:   24:04
That's great advice.

Lauren Ullrich:   24:05
Does one of you want to talk about the resource is that might be available at the institution to answer questions about grant policies?

Michael Oshinsky:   24:15
Sure, so at your institution, in addition to your mentor, who will be the person and hopefully you build that relationship so that you can ask them on a daily basis if you have questions, you can just pop into their office and ask them questions; they might not have the all of the answers, especially when it comes to budgetary issues or what's allowable on grants. So you should know that in your institution there is a grants management office there also. It might be an Office of Research Administration, it might have different names. But in that office, there is an institutional signing official, who is usually a director, you don't necessarily have to reach out to them first, but you can, if you don't know where the office is, and they'll connect you to the people that are in your Office of Research Administration or grants management office that are responsible for the grants from your department or your division or your school inside your university, and they're the ones that directly communicate with the budgetary and grant management people at NIH or at NINDS. So they have an interaction with the rules and regulations and as they're changing much more than your PI does. Your PI is really focused on the science and the business official or the signing official deals with those business aspects. There's no reason why you can't reach out to those, especially if you approach your PI and they don't have the answer, but feel free to say to them, "Hey, Dr. Such and Such, I need this, you know, particular information." And they say, "I'm not sure I have that," you can ask the question, "Is there somebody in the grants management or the officer research administration that you work with that I can send this email to?" That would be a good way to address it.

Marguerite Matthews:   26:04
So a lot of research awards allow for administrative supplements to an already awarded grant. Can you tell us about administrative supplements and what they're used for?

Jane Fountain:   26:16
So I guess in that in the realm of trainees, one of the most common administrative supplements is the diversity supplement, which is associated with usually R01-level grant that can support someone who qualifies as the diversity candidate. And Michelle Jones-London oversees our diversity programs, and she's actually the person who administers the diversity supplement program. So she's often times the first person that individuals will reach out to. But some people also will come to me, and I'll sort of link her in--so to get back to Michael saying the people that we cc are critical because they're potentially the ones in the know. And we can help address questions, I think there's an FAQ site for that, too. Anything to do with diversity supplements and other diversity training awards, we will also loop Michelle's office in on. Other administrative supplements, like to R01s; we don't usually give a lot of supplements to Ks, no supplements to Fs, Ts, maybe a couple, but that would be the director of the T32 grant. So mostly with our R01s, our administrative supplements or somewhat restricted to emergency sort of situations, like you have a piece of equipment that has broken down or you have a mouse colony that's died or you've had a flood, something like that, that's impacted your ability to even do research at all. We don't generally consider supplements for just essentially augmenting the science that you're already doing. And we do tend to get requests for supplements like that a lot. If we gave out those types of supplements our pay line, to be quite honest, would go down pretty rapidly because everybody wants one. Everybody would apply for one.

Michael Oshinsky:   28:11
There are other types of supplements other than administrative supplements. What Jane was just referring to are administrative supplements on the R grants, on the R01s, R21s, et cetera. Sometimes there are institutes or offices at NIH puts out a request for supplements on a particular topic, like the Office of Research on Women's Health sometimes puts out supplements to add female animals or addressing sex as a biological variable in experiments that weren't specifically addressing those questions earlier. So there were different types of supplements that have a formal application process and a request for those proposals. Adding those type of experiments to an ongoing project would not go through the administrative supplement request or funding announcement. Those would be specific announcements that were published on, and you can search them out, um, and then find them that way. Another great idea, if you're not currently on this email subscription list for, it's just another email that comes in your box once a week or several times a month, but as the new funding announcements are published and there are just a few every week, you get to see them in your email box right when they're published, and then you get to just take a glance at them and see whether or not they're pertinent for your research and click on them. Otherwise, there's really no way to find out about them other than being on that email list. 

Lauren Ullrich:   29:46
Right. And you can subscribe through the NIH Guide if there are specific keywords that you're interested in, or if you're interested in just all the FOAs that a specific institute publishes because you know you're never gonna apply to, NCI, for example, and so you just want to know about NINDS-published things or NIH-wide things

Michael Oshinsky:   30:06
Or just the neuroscience institutes

Lauren Ullrich:   30:07
Or just neuroscience institutes, exactly, so you can subscribe to keywords, to specific mechanisms, there's a lot of different options, and it's a great resource.

Jane Fountain:   30:18
So with the parent supplement sort of solicitation, we now have a new form of sort of notice is called NOSIs, notices of special interest, and those can be associated with parent requests. So in those cases, if you're applying to a special like NOSI, you want to make absolutely sure in box 4B of the application that you put the notice number in there. If you don't, then we can't internally track your submission as associated with that NOSI, and it will not be considered for funding or go through the appropriate review process. So I just wanted to say that's a new kind of nuance to our notice and supplement system.

Michael Oshinsky:   31:07
You don't have to hit rewind on the podcast. It's box 4B, okay?

Lauren Ullrich:   31:12
Yeah, I think that kind of alludes to something that has been a bit of a theme throughout the podcast, which is that there are some things that we at NINDS control and policies that we establish and that we might have some flexibility on. And then there are some things that come from the office of the director, building 1, that we have no control over. And so if you don't put that that notice in that box 4B, our hands are tied, there is really nothing that we can do! And same thing with like the appendix policy. If you don't follow those instructions, it will get kicked out, and there's nothing we can do. And we don't like to see that. We want to get your application. We want to read your ideas and be able to evaluate them. Um, and so it really hurts us when when that kind of stuff happens. So just make sure to read the instructions. And if you have any questions, let us know.

Emily Carifi:   32:05
And since we're speaking about the administrative supplements, and the notice of special interest: if you're going to do something that's not that traditional pathway and you know it's going to affect your present award, contact your program director. Let them know this is coming in. Because some of these slightly strange programs, they are using the system set in place in ways they weren't originally designed, so things can start not going to the correct people in the right way. I had a case where we were involved in a special program. They used the parent administrative supplement and it was very hard to make sure we got all of the correct supplements and got them all to the right people because the PIs just sent them in. And we had to go digging. And so, like, basically, if you're like, this notice of special interest, I want to apply to, send an email to your program director, so then again, probably the health program specialist, will go find it and make sure it goes to the right people.

Jane Fountain:   33:17
I completely agree with what Emily just said. So I've had a very complicated situation with a supplement. Took hours of sort of my time and the time of other folks here at NINDS, trying to figure out, like, what particular notice it was associated with. And once we figured it out, the PI was not eligible to apply for that supplement. So just to save yourself time in not doing something that's not time effective on your end and applying for an activity that you are not eligible for and to save our time, it's best to contact us even before you submit it. Just say exactly what Emily said, "I'm planning on submitting this. Does that make sense to you?"

Michael Oshinsky:   34:00
When you're communicating to us about a grant that you wanna put in or one that you've already put in, it's really helpful if you put that grant number in the subject line and then in the text, tell us the program announcement or notice, the NOT, or the NOSI that you're responding to. And then we really have all the programmatic information for us to know whether or not you're responsive A lot of time there's just an assumption that we know what it is because we're going to evaluate your science and know which one it fits into. But sometimes we're responsible for large initiatives that could include, you know, dozens of funding announcements, and it just makes the process a lot simpler if you tell us what you want to, it could be two or three choices, too. "I'm thinking about these three funding announcements, could help me pick which one?" And you list the number from each one and then you include your grant number. Oh, and there's one other point that you should know if you're calling or emailing and asking about a grant, all right? You have to be the PI, okay? We can't communicate anything to you about a grant that you are not a PI on. Now, if the PI would like us to communicate with you, that has to be a request from the PI for us to really communicate to you. And then we're going to cc them and send the email to the PI and maybe cc you on it, right? So but, you know, if your PI asked you, say, "Oh, you know, I put this grant in last cycle, why don't you contact the program officer and find out what happened with it?" You're not gonna get any information unless that request comes from the PI to communicate with you.

Jane Fountain:   35:40
Also unlike we said earlier, where we want you to keep everybody that's been cc'd on our side on the email and respond to all, we will take people off if you send us questions because of what Michael just said. We have very strict confidentiality policies. So if I see a whole bunch of names in the CC line and I don't have a clue who they are, if they're the signing official, that's fine, they can remain on. But if there's a whole lot of other people in there, I'm going to take them off because of the confidentiality rules where I can't communicate certain information to people other than the PI or the signing official. I wanted to also second Michael, saying, put your grant number down and everything on the communication, because oftentimes--we've already said this--we will sometimes forward your communication to like grants management. They do not know you by your name. They know you by your grand number. It's very different and very interesting, internally, just to come to grips with this. We know everybody's name. We have no idea what your grant number is on the program side, and then grants management only deals with numbers. So it's really helpful if all that information is on one email so that we can forward it around and everybody knows the grant or the activity we're talking about.

Marguerite Matthews:   36:53
Help us help you

Jane Fountain:   36:55
I wanted to say one more thing just about FOAs in general. So this is another example where you have to be very exacting. So recently, the rules have changed where you have to identify the correct funding announcement in regards to whether clinical trials are required, optional, not involved. So we had a leniency period where internally we could change funding announcement numbers. We no longer have that leniency period, and there is a chance that your application might not get reviewed if you pick the wrong funding announcement. So if you have questions about that, please contact us, too, because that's a very new thing.

Michael Oshinsky:   37:34
Also, if you're not sure of which funding announcement that your application falls into or if you might have the erroneous idea that you have to respond to an RFA in order to get funded, know that that's not the case. First of all, you could reach out to us, and we'll help you find one. And if we tell you the right funding announcement is to submit it to the parent R01. I don't think that you have any less chance of getting funded. It's equal to any other PA. Maybe it's different on an RFA, depending on the number of applications that come in for that. But the parent R01 is a good choice for your proposal to come in on. It will be directed to the right study section by CSR. It will get a good professional review, and then the programmatic decisions will not make a difference if it comes in on a PA or or that the parent one. Again, it might be different with RFAs, but don't only apply to RFAs. Your good science can get funded on the parent R01.

Lauren Ullrich:   38:37
Is there anything else that you wish applicants knew about this process, or any common misconceptions that you'd like to counter?

Jane Fountain:   38:46
Just for them to help them understand why we don't take sort of cold calls is that most of us have about 150 grantees on board, and then we're dealing with about 100 folks that are going through review, their proposals are going through review at this moment, and then we have another 100 or so folks, and this is sort of the minimum number. So that's like about 350 individuals at any point in time that could be coming at us. So that's where, if you come from it, come at us out of the cold, we don't necessarily know your project off the top of our head, know what your career stage is, all of those things, and we need to dig it out. So we don't wanna push you off or not address your question quickly. It's just that we want to be able to give you as much information as possible and be as helpful as possible when we do engage in some kind of exchange with you

Michael Oshinsky:   39:38
So the NIH program staff is here to help you with your process, help you with your science, and help you find the best procedure to put your grant in or which funding announcement to use to get funded. And the information that you get from your mentee or your mentor or from your peers might not be the same information that you get from us, so there's gonna be some decision-making process you're gonna have to have about--whether or not your first grant should be an R21 is a good example of something that there's a lot of erroneous information out there. From the program's perspective, somebody who's never applied for  an R01 before and they're still within their first 10 years of finishing their terminal degree, like their PhD, so we call that the ESI or their early stage investigator status, should not consider an R21 under any circumstances. Except something, you know, a specific RFA maybe R21 for their particular research. But to get your research program started, you really have to start with an R01. The R21 is not a gateway grant to the R01. The way we like to think in our cluster about R21s is that it really has to be something paradigm changing, high risk. Those are typically good R21 projects that you just want to try it out for a year or two and then--committing a full year, five year project to that doesn't make sense because of how risky it is. But in most other situations, nearly all of them, an R21 is not a good idea

Lauren Ullrich:   41:28
Thank you all for sharing your wisdom today. So can I ask each of you for one last piece of parting advice for our future applicants?

Michael Oshinsky:   41:36
For me, it's really simple: contact program. Just send us an email. If we're not the right person, we'll try to find the right person or we'll direct you back to your institution or your PI or mentor. Don't think that we're intimidating. Don't think that we're gonna judge you negatively on your next grant because of some question you ask. All these things that might keep you from asking us a question, just push aside and say, "You know what? I'm just gonna put it out there" because we're here to help.

Jane Fountain:   42:09
For me, it's slow down, so as opposed to what kind of pressure you're probably getting from your institution or your mentor or your chair. Usually, I see individuals reach success sooner if they take a slow approach rather than a rapid, panicked approach. So work a long time on that first submission. Really make sure it's as great as it could be. Rather than saying OK, I really have one activity and I'm gonna put in three different R01s because I'm going to be that superstar that's going to get three R01s all at once. What I will see is they'll have three solid specific aims, then instead of putting it into one grant application, they put it into three. And all three of those grant applications go down in flames, and two years later, I'm talking to the individual and they're back at square one as to how to get an NIH grant. Really focus all your energy on that first submission. Make it as great as it can be. And don't think about being a superstar before you even have one grant.

Emily Carifi:   43:19
So mine's kind of a combination of the two, which is really go into the NIH and the NINDS websites for information, especially if you haven't put in an application and we keep telling you to contact your program director, you don't have one yet, but if you go to the CSR's website, they will give you a place, it's called matchmaker and you can say, these are mine proposed specific aims, put them in, and they'll tell you who to contact. But most people don't know that the NIH has this resource. So just go to the NIH page, go to the NINDS page, click on the FAQs and this really look around and see what we already have told you before you start, you know, making decisions that waste everyone's time.

Lauren Ullrich:   44:18
Marguerite, you have some advice?

Marguerite Matthews:   44:20
Yes. Um, you're expected to be an expert in your research area. You're not expected to be an expert on how NIH grants process works. This is a long time from the time you conceive the idea, put the application together, go through review, then get your notice of award. There's a lot of things that have happened. And then there's a lot more things that will happen afterwards. So, um, take your time, but also ask for help wherever you need it. You aren't expected to have all the answers. There will be people who are willing to help you. What about you, Lauren?

Lauren Ullrich:   44:53
I would say, following up on that, we hear a lot of rumors and misinformation that's out there regarding policies and procedures, and what NIH will fund, and what you're eligible for. And some of that comes from different institutes having different policies and people thinking that they apply across all of NIH, and some of it comes from that the policies are always changing. And so you're not the expert on that. Even us in the room were not the expert on all of these things, but we are the ones that can connect you and know who the expert is. And so, if you have any questions or if somebody tells you something or your PI tells you something and you think, "I just want to double check and confirm that that's still the case." Just reach out to us because we can find the answer.  

Lauren Ullrich:   45:49
So that's all we have time for today on Building up the Nerve. Thank you again to our guest this week for sharing their expertise, and we'll see you next time on our last episode, when we tackle how NINDS monitors its portfolio as a whole. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more grant application resources on the web at

Marguerite Matthews:   46:12
And be sure to follow us on Twitter @NIDNSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. You can email us questions at Make sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.