Dr. Yun Gun has been listening to all of her mentors on the value of keeping in contact with the Program Officials at her favorite Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Finally working up her courage, she calls the PO.
Next thing I know, she's in my office smacking me upside the head and ranting about what a frustrating waste of time it is trying to get the critical information she wanted out of Program. "could they be any less helpful?.....revise and resubmit? no duh! I want probabilities...I'm not asking for guarantees, I just want to know how this borderline score app is looking...they asked for JIT, the app is within the hard payline so why can't they just say when....what, are they afraid of getting sued?!!?!!"
Is it permissible to approach program officers via email? Or do they avoid written communication for fear of legal concerns?
to which PhysioProf responded:
Of course not. The only thing they avoid is making promises of funding until awards are actually issued.
Oh yeah, you betcha!
It makes perfect sense to applicants. You get a borderline score on a grant application- decent but off the hard funding line that the IC in question is willing to discuss. Yet still within a few percentage points giving you hope that you may make it into the grey zone and actually get picked up. So what you are looking for is just a little bit of help as you are triaging your effort for the next grant round. Instead you get the Program-zombie-mantra:
"I advise you to revise and resubmit in hopes of improving your score"
Don't they get it? You aren't looking for a guarantee of funding for cripes sake! And you are already quite familiar with the need for continual revision and score improvement, thankyouverymuch! Here's the thing: Your time is finite and you need to choose which of about a half dozen applications you might be working on this submission date. Revising and resubmitting is not necessarily a guarantee of funding even if you were off the line by only a couple of percentage points. So each and every grant you choose to work on is subtracting from a chance to work on another revision, new app or different mechanism that might eventually lead to funding. PIs who are deep in the swing of things are making these calculations for each and every round. Which proposal has the best chance of improvement this time?
Is this really news to that frustratingly obtuse PO at the other end of the line?
No, it is not. Of course not. They know perfectly well what you are asking about, even if they play really dumb. (Ok, that's actually a leap of faith, some of them are really, really good about pretending they do not have the foggiest notion what time it is on PI street!)
I've seen a couple of Program staff respond to a question about this at a meet-n-greet session at a meeting once. Even your cynical narrator was a bit taken aback.
Audience Member: "I mean, c'mon, it isn't like anyone is going to sue you!"
PO: "Umm, actually that's not true. Let me tell you about the time we....."
Thereafter were a few vignettes about the nutty PI who threatened (or worse) to sue a PO for allegedly "promising" a grant which did not subsequently get funded and the like.
That made me reflect on how different mindsets are for those of us who came up in the current environment and just expect by default to have to revise grants like crazy, absorb triages, put in multiple apps, etc. Different from those who had never been triaged, may have never even had to ever resubmit an application and basically got their fish every time they dropped a lure in the pond.
Yes, Virginia, these people exist. Or at least they did up until about 5 years ago. They feel...entitled. When you see the odd ranting from senior PIs about the broken review system and how "some assistant professor from nowhere is denying me my money" (sigh, yes, a quote)...suing Program Officers who are just trying to do their job is not such a stretch.
So yes, Dr. Gun, it is very frustrating to get certain types of information out of your PO. It would be helpful to recognize that they have legitimate reasons for keeping mum on the chances of even a 1%-ile application until the Notice of Grant Award (NGA) has actually been issued. Understanding what you cannot extract from a PO (I'm not saying I don't still go fishing myself...) helps you to keep your conversations focused on what useful information you can get out of the Program staff.