Former NSF staff member offers advice for communicating with program officers

A yellow circus-type tent, with a yellow-and-red striped roof takes up the frame. On the side of the tent -- in letters taller than the height of the tents' side walls -- the word "COMMUNICATE" is spelled out in black letters. Other words and drawings have been doodled on the letters of the word "COMMUNICATE." Four people are shown facing the word "COMMUNICATE," and some of them appear as though they may be writing or drawing on some of the letters.

On Tuesday, November 18, Joyce Fernandes, professor of biology at Miami University and a former program officer with the National Science Foundation (NSF), led a workshop on communicating with NSF program officers as part of OARS’ fall workshop series.

Fernandes breaks communications with the program officer down into four basic categories, based on the typical grant cycle timeline:

  • Before a submission
  • After a submission
  • After receipt of panel summary
  • Other

Before a submission

Fernandes says one reason to check in with a program officer prior to submitting a proposal is to determine whether a particular project is appropriate for a program. In this situation, Fernandes says, PIs should provide the program officer with a short synopsis of the project – including a summary of broader impacts – and put the project in context.

“In order to be effective in addressing your concern or providing information to you, the program officer needs context,” she says. “Read the program solicitation, show how your project fits the program goals, send a synopsis, and then have a conversation with your program officer to ask specific questions.”

In all cases, Fernandes recommends sending an email, rather than making a cold call. That approach gives the program officer time to consider the specific project and respond thoughtfully. Sometimes the program officer may choose to deliver this response by phone.

Fernandes says PIs have the right to expect an answer to any inquiry. In fact, she says, many program officers have a goal of responding within 24 hours, even if they are not able to fully answer a question at that time.

But, she cautions, program officers are human and can forget things like anyone else. She advises allowing up to a week for a response to any email. If the program officer hasn’t responded in that time, she suggests a follow-up email. If there’s still no response after another week has passed, Fernandes says, “then you have every right to ask the person above – the deputy division director or the division director – to help facilitate the communication.”

Debunking the popular myth that traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with a program officer increases a PI’s chances of being funded, Fernandes says, “You can communicate the exact same thing to your program officer by email as you can in person.” So a visit – unless the PI is already in town for some other reason – is not a good use of anyone’s time, she says.

After a submission

“After a submission, do not ask about your submitted proposal,” Fernandes says. “Your program officer can’t discuss it with you.”

After receipt of panel summary

Once funding decisions have been made, and panel summaries have been sent program officers are free to discuss the submitted proposals. Fernandes recommends that PIs ask their program officers for a 30-minute telephone conversation to discuss the panel summary. This is especially important for PIs who plan to submit a revised proposal.

Other

Serving on panels

Echoing oft-given advice, Fernandes says that serving on a review panel is an excellent way for researchers to get to know their program officers and to gain a better understanding of how the review process works.

Any researcher interested in volunteering to serve on a panel should send an email to the program officer. This email should summarize the researcher’s area of expertise and include a link to the researcher’s online CV. Fernandes suggests doing this “about three weeks prior to a program deadline, when the program officer is thinking about who to call for panels.”

Fernandes says those who aren’t selected the first time they volunteer shouldn’t be discouraged. “There are a lot of logistics involved,” she points out.

Program officers not only have to take into account the expertise and availability of potential reviewers, but also – in the interest of having a broadly representative panel – their geographic regions, personal demographics and backgrounds, and the types of institutions they are affiliated with.

Updates about an awarded proposal

This is an excellent reason for a PI who is in Washington on other business to visit a program officer, Fernandes says, citing an example from her own experience as a researcher. “I was in the area for a conference, so I stopped by the NSF. As a result of a conversation with two program officers, we changed the strategy that we were using to recruit students for our project. It was valuable information,” she says.

Fernandes says the same type of conversation can happen via phone or WebEx. Updates about physical facilities and other changes that affect the progress of a project can also be submitted in an interim report through Fastlane.

Supplements

Fernandes urges all PIs with active awards to apply for supplements, relatively small awards that allow for additional activity related to existing projects.

Activities that may be supported by supplements include:

  • Providing research experiences for undergraduates (REUs) or teachers (RETs)
  • Bringing faculty from institutions without a strong research tradition to campus to participate in the project (research opportunity awards, or ROAs)
  • Hosting conferences

The deadline for applying for these supplemental programs is February 1, so Fernandes recommends that PIs contact their program officers in late December or early January to inquire about the possibility of supplement funding.

By the time decisions are made on supplemental funding requests in late spring, Fernandes says, program officers are already beginning to think about balancing their budgets in preparation for the close of the fiscal year on September 30. Many of them use supplements as a way of accounting for “decimal dust,” small amounts of money remaining in the budget after major awards are made.

“Because they’re small amounts of money compared to standard grant awards, – $2000 to $50,000 – supplements have a high chance of being awarded,” she says.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

“Communicate” photo by Simon Huggins, via Flickr.  Photo of woman with cup phone by Feggy Art, via Flickr.  Both used under Creative Commons license.

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