This Megan Columbus: Welcome to All About Grants. My name is Megan Columbus. I’m from the NIH Office of Extramural Research. I’m here today with Dr. Cathie Cooper from the Center of Scientific Review here at NIH here to talk about how to use the Assignment Request Form. Cathie, could you start by giving us a quick overview of how your office, Receipt and Referral, at the Center of Scientific Review assigns applications when they come into NIH?
Cathie Cooper: Sure. So when they come in the door the first thing we do is look at the science and we match the science with one of the institutes or center who will consider that for funding. And we also match it with one of several hundred review groups who will take the application to review.
Megan Columbus: NIH introduced a new referral form for applications submitted for due dates of May 25, 2016 and beyond. Can you tell me a little bit about the origin of this new referral form?
Cathie Cooper: Sure. So historically applicants would include a cover letter with their application. And in the cover letter they’d include things like requests for assignment to a specific institute or center, or a specific review group. You know, we’ve taken cover letters very seriously. We’d like to honor these requests whenever possible. But sometimes it’s been very difficult because cover letters are frequently lengthy narratives about the science or the impact of the work that they plan to do with a request perhaps buried somewhere on Page 2. During peak periods of application submission when we’re processing hundreds of applications a day that makes it very easy to miss the request. So we asked ourselves “how can we do a better job of this” and the Assignment Request Form was born.
Megan Columbus: Ah. So that makes sense. So the benefit to NIH is—and to the applicant is—a speedier assignment...
Cathie Cooper: And more accurate and more likely to honor the request.
Megan Columbus: Even better.
Cathie Cooper: Yeah.
Megan Columbus: What specific information are you asking applicants to include on that Assignment Request Form?
Cathie Cooper: So we capture five difference kinds of information. They were all on the previous cover letter but now in this Assignment Request Form they’re easier to see. So we’re looking for requests to assign to a specific institute or center, or not to assign to a specific institute or center, requests to assign to a specific review group, or not. We ask anyone who has a conflict with someone who might be reviewing their application to identify that person and briefly describe the nature of the problem, so that we can determine whether it’s a conflict or not. And then we have a few fields at the bottom where they can put in some keywords to indicate what kind of expertise might be needed to review their application.
Megan Columbus: So what does it leave for the cover letter?
Cathie Cooper: Well, we do have quite a few things that are still important for the cover letter. For instance, if the application is being submitted late, sometimes because of review service or illness or a major disaster, they need to put that in the cover letter. They need to put things in the cover letter like the intention to submit a video, the intention to generate genomic data that falls under the genomic data sharing policy and a few other administrative things.
Megan Columbus: Just to be clear, the new referral form and the cover letter, they’re both optional?
Cathie Cooper: Correct. They’re both optional. The referral form is never required. The cover letter might be required. And that depends on what we need to read in the cover letter. If the application is late we need to see the reason for the late submission in the cover letter. If there’s plans to submit a video as part of this application, that needs to be discussed in the cover letter. If there is data that’s going to be generated from the study that falls under or genomic data sharing policy that needs to be identified in the letter. So, if one of those circumstances or a few other things that are described in the Application Guide are needed for description in the cover letter, then they cover letter should be included. Otherwise it doesn’t need to be included.
Megan Columbus: That’s helpful. So, if a referral form is optional, under what circumstances would an applicant want to request a specific institute or review group assignment?
Cathie Cooper: So if they have a history with a specific institute where they’ve been funded by them in the past, if they’ve been having productive conversations with the program officer from an institute where they feel that they would have a good likelihood of being funded by that institute, certainly they would want to request assignment to that institute. Similarly, if they’ve had good experiences with a study section or they’ve looked at the roster and they’ve seen expertise that they feel is appropriate for review of their application, or even if they’ve had a bad experience in a study section and they don’t want to be assigned to that study section, all of those requests can be captured with the new form.
Megan Columbus: Is there any detriment to requesting study sections?
Cathie Cooper: None at all. It’s perfectly fine. A significant portion of our applicants do have a request for either an IC or a study section and they’re generally well informed and we do our best to honor them when we can.
Megan Columbus: So how would an applicant then identify which institute or center or which review group would be appropriate to request based on their application if they don’t have a history?
Cathie Cooper: Well, there’s some resources out there that people can use. I’ve personally found that NIH RePORTER is a very good site to use because you can search through a database of funded grants and look to see where science similar to your own has been funded and reviewed. And so I think that’s very helpful. CSR is developing its own tool for its own set of databases that’s going to be rolled out fairly soon. It operates very similarly to Matchmaker on the RePORTER site where you put this abstract or specific aims in the tool and it will return a list of study sections that might be appropriate for, you know, further examination. And so those would be a couple of resources. The CSR website has a detailed listing of the referral guidelines for all of the CSR study sections. And, since about 70 percent of the applications submitted to the NIH are referred at CSR, it’s a good likelihood that someone might be reviewed at CSR and find that information useful.
Megan Columbus: And so people would find NIH RePORTER. They could simply search NIH RePORTER off of the NIH home page or even in their normal search engine.
Cathie Cooper: That’s works. That’s the way I find it.
Megan Columbus: So where can an applicant find this PHS Assignment Request Form?
Cathie Cooper: Well, it’s right there in the application package. Once you access the forms associated with the Funding Opportunity Announcement the PHS Assignment Request Form will be listed with all the optional forms.
Megan Columbus: Great. Okay. So, when they go to the Funding Opportunity Announcements and they either go into ASSIST or they go and download forms, or if they’re even working in their own System-to-System solution they’ll find it. It’s just another form component.
Cathie Cooper: Right. Right.
Megan Columbus: Is there anything else that you’d like folks to know that you think would be useful for folks about the form?
Cathie Cooper: Well, I’d really like to remind people that we’re going to be looking for assignment requests in this form now and not in the cover letter. It’s been a long history of people putting those requests in the cover letter. And I know it’s going to be easy for our applicants to continue doing what they’ve always done that has worked well in the past. But we need a shift in behavior now. We need people to put those requests in the Assignment Request Form. And in the future we will even be able to use those requests for automated routing or expedited routing of an applicant to an assignment. And so we need to start now.
Megan Columbus: Great. Good advice. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Cooper.
Cathie Cooper: You’re welcome.
Megan Columbus: For NIH and OER, this is Megan Columbus.