Megan Columbus: Welcome to All About Grants. This is Megan Columbus from NIH's Office of Extramural Research, here again with Dr. Cathleen Cooper, the director of the Division of Receipt and Referral and NIH's Center for Scientific Review. Today we're here to talk about why it is so important to submit applications early. Cathy is indeed an expert in this, as it's her office that has the dubious honor of having to talk to applicants about why their applications may not be suggested. So, welcome, Cathy. Can you tell us why does NIH take deadlines so seriously? Why is it so important?
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: Well, enforcing the deadline is really a matter of fairness. All of our submission deadlines are announced months if not years in advance—years in advance, an example of that would be our standard due dates that have been the same for quite some time—so that all applicants have an equal opportunity to organize their research and application preparation schedules and deadlines to meet the deadline.
Megan Columbus: And there's a lot that goes into application submission, you know. Following NIH rules is not a trivial task and NIH certainly cares about whether or not people follow our rules, wouldn't you say?
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: Well, this is true, and I know that applicants are working very hard to try to bring together the instructions from the application guide and from the funding opportunity announcement to craft an excellent application, so NIH tries to check things as much as possible up front to see that the applications are compliant. We're particularly interested in things that are important for the peer review of the application and we'd like to give applicants time to fix things and get a successful submission rather than just withdrawing applications that are noncompliant.
Megan Columbus: So our system is, then, when the application is submitted, applicants get a series of warnings telling them you might want to check something in your application to see if you got it right, or errors, things that really we know are incorrect that need to get corrected in order for an application to be considered to be complete.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: Correct. eRA Commons checks at least 800 form fields and attachments. At the time a submission error in any one of those can prevent an application from being accepted and errors can take some time to correct.
Megan Columbus: And so as an applicant, if you submit the application early enough, then you get your errors and warnings pretty much immediately upon submission and you have the opportunity to correct those as long as it's before the submission deadline.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: You know, that's true. I mean, sometimes an applicant will get an error and they're not really quite sure what they did wrong or why it's wrong or how they can fix it. And so applicants need to leave themselves time to think about it and to reach out for help. We have a whole variety of people who are willing and eager to help them, a number of help desks, our preparation guide online, our NIH Grants Information support team. You know, and sometimes it's not obvious which of these people are going to be the best people to talk to solve their problems, so it takes some time. And on a major submission date, when we're receiving thousands of applications, there may be a lot of people asking for help and a given applicant may not be the first, second, or third person in line, so they have to wait.
Megan Columbus: And so even when you've done this many times, NIH changes our policies and they change our forms. And in fact, I know a big change in progress right now, we're implementing a new Human Subjects and Clinical Trial Information Form, and for anybody who has submitted a Human Subjects application in the past, what they're going to find on the form as of January 25, 2018 is going to be very different.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: Yeah, that's true. One significant change in our new forms, actually, is the Human Subjects and Clinical Trial Forms, and I cannot stress strongly enough how significantly different these forms are going to be and how different the applicant experience is going to be preparing those forms. In some cases, new content is going to be required. In other cases, familiar content is required but be placed in different spots on the form. And these forms, like all other forms in an NIH application, have numerous fields and attachment that are all electronically validated at the time of each submission, and so an error in any one of these fields or attachments will prevent an application from being accepted.
Megan Columbus: Which means two things. One is sometimes you might try and fill out a form without looking too closely at the instructions—this is not the time to do that.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: No. Instructions are your guide.
Megan Columbus: So read the instructions carefully. And number two is really do give yourself plenty of time to turn around changes if those are needed in the application ahead of time. What other advice do you have for applicants on this topic?
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: Well, you know, I think if the application is really important to them, they should be submitting early. This means you may have to set up an application preparation schedule for yourself, deadlines for your consultants and collaborators to get information that you need to you, and also take into consideration that your grants office, Office of Sponsored Projects, may need to have that application a week in advance of the deadline. And so you control the process, so that's what, you know.
Megan Columbus: So we're talking learn your internal deadlines.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: Right.
Megan Columbus: Right, so work with your institutional officials and whoever else, and then plan to submit days—right, not minutes—before the deadline.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: Right, generally we see applications starting to come in about 30 days before the deadline, but a good rule of thumb is to start a couple of days early, and particularly with these new forms, two days might not even be enough. I can recommend, actually, starting even earlier than that and not assuming that things will go smoothly and that applicants really need to give themselves time to methodically work through any things that arise.
Megan Columbus: What other advice do you have?
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: I would also really recommend that applicants follow their applications through to eRA Commons. During e-submission, both grants.gov and eRA will send a variety of courtesy email notifications to an applicant to let them know how their application is proceeding through the system, but email itself is not 100 percent reliable, and what is reliable is to keep watching eRA Commons to see the application appear. If it appears, it's successful, they have the application in the door. If it doesn't appear, they will be able to find any errors that arose that prevented it from being submitted and they can hop on those and fix them before the deadline, hopefully.
Megan Columbus: Right, and the key part is to fix those errors before the deadline for an on-time application.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: That's true. An on-time application is time/date-stamped from the time the successful submission was submitted, not when the first attempt at submission. And so we don't routinely accept applications when they're submitted late, so remember that all errors need to be addressed and a corrected and a successful submission needs to be in before the deadline, which is five p.m. local applicant organization time.
Megan Columbus: Great. You know, I think as a parting word, I looked back and Dr. Mike Lauer, who is NIH's Deputy Director for Extramural Research, he had a December 30th blog post on his Open Mike blog, and it's a grant submission New Year's Resolution. In this blog post, he puts data on the timing of application submissions and their eventual success. And let me just read a little piece of this, but it basically says the later applications were less likely to be discussed, and similarly, less likely to be awarded. And these findings really do suggest that there's no clear advantage to waiting until the last day, and so planning ahead is key.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: Absolutely.
Megan Columbus: Thank you for joining me again.
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: You're welcome.
Megan Columbus: For NIH and OER, this is Megan Columbus.