Letters of Support

September 23, 2019


David Kosub:                    Hello and welcome to another edition of NIH’s All About Grants podcast. I’m your host, David Kosub with the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research. So, you’re putting together your application seeking NIH support and you find it important to identify how your collaborators or your institution, your senior key personnel identified on the application, how they’ll show their dedication and their commitment to your research project. Well, you do that through your letters of support, and that’s our topic for today.  We have with us Dr. Cathleen Cooper, she directs the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review’s Division of Receipt and Referral, and will be telling us all about these letters of support. Thanks for being with us, Cathy.

Cathleen Cooper:            Thank you so much for having me.

David Kosub:                    Alright let’s jump right in and hear what exactly is the purpose of these letters of support.

Cathleen Cooper:            Well we actually have multiple different kinds of letters that can be submitted with applications in different circumstances. And so the cover letter, and I’m going to go through the other kind first, the cover letter is what you do submit when you want to tell us about processing and assignment. Those are really only used for processing and assignment.

Then we have certification letters that are submitted with some other kinds of applications, where the institution might certify they support a program or they might certify they are eligible to receive a certain kind of award, so that’s a different kind of letter.

We have letters of reference that show up in fellowships and mentored K applications, which are all about the person and their eligibility and their qualifications for the project.

And then finally, we have the letters of support, which are all about the collaboration. We have receipt and referral, we have certification, we have support, and we have collaboration letters. So we’re going to talk about those letters of support and how they support a collaboration.

David Kosub:                    Alright, well let’s jump right into that, what kind of content should be included in these letters of support?

Cathleen Cooper:            Well, you know, we expect the letters of support to come from people who are actively participating in the projects. Generally it is collaborators and people who are identified in the application as senior key persons. The content is really pretty specific, we’re looking for things like: what are the expectations for co-authorship, what are the rules that have been established between the collaborators for sharing reagents and other things, are they exclusive to the collaboration or is it something that the collaborator is widely sharing with everybody in the field, and this distinction is very important for determining conflict of interest.

We also would be looking for rates of charge if it’s a consultant that is doing a fee for service collaboration. And then finally, if somebody is depending upon a core facility, we want to know do they have free access to the core and is there a fee for service. So, you can see everything in a letter of support is about supporting the collaboration.

David Kosub:                    And so, along those lines, it sounds like those are general rules to consider for across the board. Is there anything specific to consider for grants like a research grant, or a training grant, cooperative agreement, SBIR, something like that?

Cathleen Cooper:            Yes, absolutely. SBIRs do have their own particular letters that you can include from investors, or people in the field that speak to the financial resources or the potential for collaboration. A Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) application needs a letter from the academic organization saying that they are supporting the program and that they will do their part of the work.

Mentored K’s also can have letters of support that refer to the amount of mentoring, the type of mentoring that will be done. Institutional training grants do require a couple of letters, including a new one about harassment.

David Kosub:                    So that’s good information to keep in mind for what to include, but I guess it’s important to know also what shouldn’t be included. What would you say to that?

Cathleen Cooper:            Well, absolutely. People can get into a lot of trouble by including the wrong thing, because remember a letter of support is all about the collaboration. And so one of the things you shouldn’t be doing is putting in what is equivalent to a letter of reference. We call these “cheerleading letters” they’re generally submitted by people who are not participating in the project and they’re talking about how important the field is, how important the work is to the field, or what a great PI the PI is, so this obviously has the potential to bias the review and it should not be in there.

Another thing is we’re seeing letters of support where they are including information that really belongs in the page-limited research strategy. So, for example, letters of support that go on and they talk about the background and significance of the field. They include methods; they include preliminary data – all of that really is considered what we would call “overstuffing.” And we would likely withdraw an application that has a letter like that in it. We even occasionally will see letters of support that have a response to a previous reviewer’s critique in it, and that belongs in the introduction and not in the letter of support.

David Kosub:                    So, let’s get to some of the nuts and bolts of it. Where exactly would one be submitting the letters of support, would they be part of the whole application package and do they contribute to the overall page limit?

Cathleen Cooper:            Right, so they are part of the application package and there’s a separate attachment in the application package for the letters of support. Most types of applications don’t have any sort of page limit on the letters of support, you can even see hundreds on the T, but some do, and that’s important to pay attention to. Fellowship and career development awards will have a total of 6 pages that are allowed. We’ve seen people do their 6 pages, attach it to the letters of support attachment and then continue to put letters of support in the appendix – that doesn’t work, 6 pages is max.

David Kosub:                    And now, once I’ve submitted my application including the letters of support, it goes to the peer review process to assess its merits scientifically and technically. Are the letters of support considered in this process too?

Cathleen Cooper:            Well, they’re really important in peer review for a couple of reasons. Obviously, the number one reason they’re in there, and that is to establish that somebody is participating in the work and what the terms in that relationship are. The reviewers are going to want to determine whether that’s appropriate and whether that strongly supports the research. The other thing that’s perhaps a little but less obvious is that they’re used for determination of conflicts of interest. So a conflict of interest, the rules are very complex really, but to be brief, letters of support are carefully scrutinized by review staff, to identify any kind of relationships between the support-writer and any of the reviewers which could potentially review the application. And it’s not just the reviewer, it’s the reviewer and family of the reviewer, and the application and family of the applicant, so it stretches out just a little bit beyond the two applicant and reviewer pair, but we use all of that information to determine whether it rises to a level of conflict of interest. If you want to know more information about conflict of interest, it’s pretty straightforward to simply Google the term “NIH peer review conflict of interest” and the top hit is a link to our conflict of interest rules.

David Kosub:                    Wonderful. So before we go, do we want to leave our audience with any final tips and tricks and thoughts on letters of support that haven’t been mentioned before?

Cathleen Cooper:            Well, I could just go over the ones that I think are really important to take away. First of all, stay on topic, put the right information in the right letter, and have the letters of support confined to talking about the collaboration in terms of the collaboration. We end up withdrawing applications all the time because there’s extra information in those letters, and of course we don’t want you to have your application withdrawn so follow that.

The other information is only submit the letters you need, because we’re going to be looking at who signed those letters and they could potentially, and often times, likely, be in conflict with your application and you might not get the reviewers you need.

David Kosub:                    Wonderful. Thank you very much, Cathy, for this opportunity to hear more about letters of support in a grant application. This has been David Kosub with the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research. Thank you.