Ask DrugMonkey: Should I go over my NIH Program Officer's head?

Jan 12 2017 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH, NIH Careerism

I get this question from grant applicants now and again so I thought maybe it was time to answer it on the blog. The latest version was from the Twitts:

Ok, first of all "escalate" is the wrong way to think about it. So don't do that. But you should absolutely explore the opinions and input of other Program Officers if you are unhappy with the responses (or lack thereof) that you are getting from your assigned PO.

As a brief reminder, many if not most of the NIH IC's have their POs arranged in a hierarchical structure. The smallest unit is typically a Branch, inhabited by ~2-5 POs, one of whom is the Branch Chief. The grant applications assigned to those POs will all share certain scientific properties, depending on how the Branch is designed. The individual POs in the Branch may have primary distinct roles and expertises in terms of their portfolios but there will be substantial overlap. The Branch Chief is responsible for all of the grants and applications in her Branch, obviously. These are small groups of people so, also obviously, they are closely interacting colleagues. They talk to each other a LOT about the business of the Branch. This is one practical reason you don't want to think about "escalating" and you want to approach matters carefully. The whole Branch may actually share your assigned PO's low opinion of your work. The Chief may be totally buddies with your assigned PO and not really appreciate you screaming about how she or he is incompetent, biased and shouldn't be working for the NIH at all.

Branches are collected into Divisions. I'm a little less certain about the universality of how ICs are organized on this but sometimes the Division director also functions, in essence, as a Branch Chief. She just also has the responsibility for overseeing the entire Division of related Branches.

Still with me? Take a stroll on the Organization page of your favorite IC to see what I mean if this is confusing.

Division directors are allowed to talk to God, aka the IC Director. What I mean by this is that when it comes to the hammer and tongs discussion of what is to be funded, what can possibly be picked up with exception funding, etc, it is the Division director level that is making the case. To all the other Division Directors and to the IC Director. I think they are the ones called upon in Council meetings, generally, if a specific question arises.

The point here is that the Division Director needs to know your applications too. They have a direct chain-of-command responsibility for them. And ultimately they have a responsibility for the performance of the entire Division portfolio of funded grants. They are involved.

Another thing to remember. POs get promoted up the ranks. The Branch Chief of today might be the Division Director of tomorrow. Your PO may become Branch Chief. Also, there can be some shuffling of individual POs across Branches (and even ICs as it happens).

This is why I continue to bang on about how it is in your best interest to meet POs, many of them, and to continue your relationship with them when opportunities arise (annual scientific meetings, for example).

So, back to the question. This usually arises because the applicant feels like their assigned PO is just not interested in their work. The PO may never return their calls. The PO may actively criticize their Specific Aims and tell them not to apply. The PO may be giving all sorts of unhelpful advice or just sticks to the mantra (I advise you to revise and resubmit). The PO may be refusing to push for a pickup for a grey zone score.

An obvious thing to do is to appeal. To try to get someone else.

This is a reasonably good idea. You just need to approach it judiciously. POs can be biased or they can just not "get" your work or proposal. They may have applications on their list that are higher priority to them. They may still be bitter about something that happened with your grad student advisor*!

If your PO is not your Branch Chief, that is probably your first stop. As I say above, it is possible that she knows all about your situation but perhaps she does not. So give it a try. It is also not impossible that she knows all about the limitations of PO X under her Branch but can only really act when someone complains.

When you take it up the chain, I always think the best approach is to be in a stance of seeking advice, rather than complaining about your rights.

"I don't understand...there is a lack of [feedback, enthusiasm, explanation]...perhaps my applications are being assigned to the wrong PO, would another one be better?"

That sort of thing. You can take this same approach with the Division Director. If you do this, however, you need to express doubt that the original Branch is the right one and find some key words in the description of another Branch to suggest perhaps that is a better fit.

Ultimately, sure, you can take this straight to the IC Director. Even the NIH Director, I suppose.

Your ability to get them to take your call or pay any attention to your concerns whatever will depend on your status in the world. I've definitely had senior colleagues who are in continual contact with IC directors and would for sure talk to them directly about grant matters. Things as specific as picking up a near-miss grant application for funding. If you happen to know an IC director well, sure, go for it when the situation is really critical. Other people are sure as heck doing it so why shouldn't you?

I'll close by reiterating that you need to be judicious about this. Keep entitled demanding far away from your thoughts. Keep angry complains about the bias and incompetence of the PO that is frustrating you out of your mind. Take the position of seeking information. Strike an attitude of not understanding why your experience is different from the advice you are getting to contact POs.


15 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    This is awesome.

  • 5th year PI says:

    My experience as a relative noob is that you're probably not going to get very far by complaining to higher ups by yourself. However, if you have senior colleagues who are respected by these people, having them intercede on your behalf can be beneficial. I was constantly getting very close to the payline scores, but I was never given select pay consideration because I never had the same PO two grants in a row even when my grants were on the exact same topic. Sometimes even upon resubmission the PO would change. So having no relationship with me whatsoever, the POs would just tell me to reapply. One even told me to change the entire focus of my lab. One call from my department chair, and I got the same supportive PO every time thereafter.

  • eeke says:

    I've selected POs based on their portfolios (use the "reports" page). One PO I had who was difficult to talk to, cold on my work, had a portfolio of 200+ projects. Of course, she had no time for me, with other fish to fry. Another one with a much smaller portfolio, who carried projects of my colleagues, was much warmer, easier to talk to, etc. I don't think anything is guaranteed, except that nothing good or productive will ever happen from bitching to other NIH people about how your PO sucks.

  • Microscientist says:

    eeke, Could you give a bit more on how you find this info? Which report/search panel within the reports tab of Reporter did you use?
    My cold fish of a PO finally retired, so I'm trying to determine now who is the best one to actively contact. I

  • drugmonkey says:

    Microscientist- There is a field for PO on the left hand side of the Reporter query form.

  • Yizmo Gizmo says:

    I don't even take NIH seriously anymore vis-a-vis major discoveries.
    The bureaucracy is so over-wrought, who's going to be allowed money
    to pay for a brand new paradigm shift--eg, an Alexander Graham Bell or Kary Mullis innovation.. Aint gonna happen, it's all geared toward incremental, conservative change and with each passing week you are increasingly expected to spill your guts to your superiors about the minutiae concerning your research plans.
    By them time it gets funded it's not even a secret anymore. By the time you want to
    publish, some NAS member already self-contributed in PNAS the same finding.
    Back to bathtub Science for me. My wife gets annoyed but at least I don't
    have a PI or PO to deal with...also the bubbles are fun to frolic in.

  • eeke says:

    @ Microscientist - What DM said. In the Reporter page, scroll down to the "Project Details" section, and there is a field to enter a PO's name.

  • Grumble says:

    Thanks, DM. This post should be required reading for all grad students, post-docs and early stage PIs. It highlights how important it is to have a good PO (who understands your work, is willing to advocate you, and does at least the minimum required to advise and help you), yet clearly not all POs are good POs. It also reveals something about how decisions get made by the program staff. All of this is typically a complete mystery to the youngsters.

  • Newbie PO says:

    "Take the position of seeking information."

    Honestly, if you're going over the PO's head, they'll probably never find out how you framed the problem; all they'll know is that you talked to the Branch/Division/IC Director. So, like DM said, you probably want to use this option judiciously. Also, remember that this is a zero sum game: a senior PI recently went (well) over my head and was rewarded for their trouble, but the junior PI I had recommended reaching for was now SOL.

  • DeeEmmm says:

    Yeah....I'm sure individual applicants are very concerned with the person who didn't get funded so that they could get their award and would forgo using every lever at their disposal in sympathy.

  • Newbie PO says:

    @DeeEmmm: If that was directed at me, I don't see where I suggested that applicants should forego anything. As a PO, I will always recommend that the PI do what's in their best interest. But I don't think the Director should be entertaining such requests, except in cases where there's real cause for concern, at least not while simultaneously expressing distress over attrition rates among junior and/or poorly connected PIs. Sure, "other people are sure as heck doing it so why shouldn't you?"but we all know only a particular subset of people is doing it successfully.

  • EPJ says:

    Agree with DM advice.

  • XCSR says:

    To add a bit more perspective, the size and nature of the IC is critical here. The larger IC can have branches with dozens of POs, and Divisions with hundreds. For large ICs, at Council meetings, it is actually the PO who usually defends or (more rarely) tears down the applications. Division Directors and even many branch chiefs will know only the bare bones of the grants in the portfolios. (with some exceptions of course).
    Smaller ICs are much cosier, and it is possible to get to know all the POs in a branch.

    I think DM's advice of moving with caution and keeping a civil tone is good. Everyone at NIH is used to dealing with irate PIs, after all, who else calls? But when someone goes over the top, their reaction will be to end the communication.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that POs have a very high turnover rate, and it is higher in the larger ICs. The bottom line is that if you have a pretty solid issue, talking to the branch chief, in the way DM suggests, (non confrontationally) is the best advice.

  • Jmz4 says:

    Out of curiosity, where do POs go afterwards?

  • drugmonkey says:


    To be clear. I *wish* the system was less subject to insider biases and was more objective. Of course. But it is not. And this blog splits time between complaining about the systemic limitations and trying to discuss how the applicant can succeed under conditions as they are.

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