Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants.
Megan Columbus: From the Office of Extramural Research here at the National Institutes of Health. I am Megan Columbus, and welcome again to All About Grants. Today we will be talking to about your cover letter for your grant application. With me we have Anne Clark from the Center of Scientific Review’s Division of Receipt and Referral. Dr. Clark serves as the Associate Director for the Division of Receipt and Referral. She’s also been a Scientific Review Officer at a couple of different institutes within the National Institutes of Health. Anne and her colleagues in the division of Receipt and Referral have the responsibility for reading and acting on the information provided in cover letters. Anne can you tell us how PIs can use a cover letter to their advantage, what you’d expect to see in a cover letter in your office, and, maybe most importantly, what a PI should avoid including in a cover letter?
Anne Clark: The big picture from my perspective is that a cover letter helps the people who are assigning your application get it to the right place at the right time, and there are many uses for a cover letter. I think one of those is to direct your application to be considered by a specific institute or center for funding or a specific review group then that’s the kind of information that you would want to put in the cover letter. Basically you can list one institute or more institutes or centers that you would like to have your application be considered by, and similarly for review groups, you can list one or more review groups that you would like to have your application reviewed by.
Megan: So in order to determine the institute, it’s fairly easy, although we do have something like twenty-six institutes here at the NIH, for people to go out and trying to determine based on the mission of the institutes and by reading some on their websites which institutes their research project might fit. What about the review group? How would they go about determining which review group they might want to suggest in that cover letter?
Anne: If the application is going to be reviewed by the Center for Scientific Review, which most applications are, but certainly not all. It’s useful to go out to the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) home page and to find specific descriptions for the various review groups. From there one can choose a review group that seems most suitable.
Megan: You know, I’ve heard that some folks have had some success by using the tool—NIH has a web tool called RePORTER—that allows you to get some insights into what applications NIH has funded in the past. By searching RePORTER and seeing the kinds of applications that are in your areas of science, not only can you see which institute those applications were assigned to, but if you drill down in those search results, you’ll also be able to find which review groups those applications were assigned to. And I know some people have used that as another way of validating maybe what they’ve found on the Center of Scientific Review website or on one of institute websites.
Anne: The information about suggesting institutes or review groups is very helpful in the assignment of your application, but you cannot assume that it’s always going to go to the place that you request. There may be specific things about the type of application you are submitting or the funding opportunity announcement that you’ve used, which would preclude that application from going to the place that you’ve asked for.
Megan: It’s a good point Anne. You can make a request for assignment in the cover letter, but it is possible that your request will not be granted. If you don’t know which institute or review group to request, don’t worry about it. Experts in NIH’s Division of Receipt and Referral will make the decision based on a careful reading of your application.
Anne: That’s right.
Megan: I know when we put on seminars we have lots of questions about, what do I do if I think I’m going to have a conflict with a reviewer.
Anne: Certainly in the cover letter if there are individuals that you think should not be involved in the review of your application, it would be useful to list those individuals and in a brief description of why they should not be involved. That information can be used by the individual who is setting up the review panel, the Scientific Review Officer, in avoiding conflict of interest.
Megan: What about the converse? What if I want to say I know who would be perfect for this application?
Anne: That on the other hand is something that you should probably not do. Mentioning specific reviewers actually puts the Scientific Review Officer in a difficult situation. However, the better thing to do would be to list the areas of science that you think would be needed to review your application particularly if it’s a multi-disciplinary area, mention the specific areas and that would be of use.
Megan: So during the application submission process, I know that the cover letter also comes into play. Specifically when you know that you’ll be submitting an application late and you want to try and provide a reason for consideration for that late application.
Anne: Absolutely, if the application is coming in past the posted due date for the application. It is a requirement that you address this in the cover letter, the reason for the lateness and a brief description of what’s happened. If it’s a situation where you believe that the late policy would allow you to be late because of your service on a review committee or that there’s been some extraordinary circumstances, those things should be described.
Megan: How much detail is expected?
Anne: A very brief description is usually sufficient if more information is required it can be asked for, but basically just a reasonable description of the situation, and I think that’s described in the SF424 instruction guide.
Megan: And we’ll provide at the end of this segment the URL for NIH’s late policy, but I do want to remind people that NIH does not approve any reasons to be late up front, and so that’s something that’s decided once we get your application. One of the things I’d like to remind folks is that when you submit an application to NIH and maybe during the submission process you ran into some errors that needed to be corrected. At that point you have to go back to the application and fix those things and submit it back to NIH. Should the application’s cover letter need to change for any reason, you need to make sure that you include the new information you’d like to include in addition to the information that you included originally, because NIH will only get that final version of the cover letter when it comes in. Is there anything else we need to touch on today?
Anne: There are some other reasons for putting in a cover letter, one is if there’s an approval from the agency which is required for accepting your application. Those would be situations if you are submitting a conference type grant which is an R13 or U13 type of grant application. There is a requirement for many of these R13s or U13s that the institute that you are directing your application toward has had an upfront ability to approve acceptance of your application, and basically, you need to provide that acceptance with your application when you submit it. This would be the type of thing where you would also have your regular cover letter but append the approval from the agency to your cover letter and send that in as one document.
Megan: So frequently that would be conference grants, would that also be the approval to submit large grant applications over five hundred thousand a year.
Anne: Absolutely that does apply to applications five hundred thousand or more in any one year, agency approval is also required for that, and it’s a similar type of process.
Megan: Anything else you can think of that people should be thinking about in the cover letter?
Anne: Just as a general tone, I think putting a cover letter on an application is a good idea even if you do not have specific requests for institutes or for study sections. Just saying what the title of your application is and what funding opportunity announcement you are applying for. Occasionally, the wrong application comes loaded up with something else, and it’s sometimes an excellent check just to say this is what I intended to put it in for and the funding opportunity announcement in the cover letter.
Megan: So someone picked the wrong funding opportunity announcement, this would validate what they were intending to submit the application?
Anne: Yes, absolutely, it is very helpful to us.
Megan: And one question we get frequently is who actually is going to see the information I put in the cover letter because for some applications that can be some personal information. Is that restricted here?
Anne: Yes, the cover letter is viewed by the staff who would be assigning your grant application that would be in the Division of Receipt and Referral, and also the staff that who would be setting up the review for your application that would be the Scientific Review Officer. However, other staff at NIH—program staff do not have access to the cover letter, and the reviewers do not have access to the cover letter.
Megan: So it’s a relatively confidential piece of information?
Anne: Yes it is.
Megan: And on a more mundane note, how should I format this letter? Is it a regular business letter, and who would I address it to?
Anne: You have great freedom in how you format the letter, but it can be addressed to the Division of Receipt and Referral or Dear Referral Officer. Actually, further structuring is identified quite well in the SF424 if you’re making specific requests for institutes or for centers or for scientific review groups. There’s a nice pattern that shows how the letter should be laid out.
Megan: So they should look at the application guide and actually read those instructions.
Megan: Good advice all the time. For NIH and OER this is Megan Columbus.
Announcer: You can view the NIH’s late policy by visiting grants.nih.gov and clicking on the “Forms & Deadlines” tab and selecting “Due Dates & Submission Policies” from the left navigation bar. Search for review groups by visiting csr.nih.gov or searching the RePORTER database at projectreporter.nih.gov.