The NIH FOAs come in many flavors of specificity. Some, usually Program Announcements, are very broad and appear to permit a wide range of applications to fit within them. My favorite example of this is NIDA's "Neuroscience Research on Drug Abuse" PA.
They also come in highly specific varieties, generally as RFAs.
The targeted FOA is my topic for the day because they can be frustrating in the extreme. No matter how finely described for the type, these FOA are inevitably too broad to let each and every interested PI know exactly how to craft her application. Or, more importantly, whether to bother. There is always a scientific contact, a Program Officer, listed so the first thing to do is email or call this person. This can also be frustrating. Sometimes one gets great advice, sometimes it is perplexing.
As always, I can only offer up the way I look at these things.
As an applicant PI facing an FOA that seems vaguely of interest to me, I have several variables that are at play. First, despite the fact that Program may have written the FOA in a particular way, this doesn't mean that they really know what they want. The FOA language may be a committee result or it may just not have been thought that a highly specific type of proposal was necessary to satisfy what goals and motivations existed.
Second, even if they do know what they want in Programville, peer review is always the primary driver. If you can't escape triage it is highly unlikely that Program will fund your application, even if it fits their intent to a T. So as the applicant PI, I have to consider how peers are likely to interpret the FOA and how they are likely to apply it to my application. It is not impossible that the advice and perspective given to the prospective PI by the contact PO flies rather severely in the face of that PIs best estimate of what is likely to occur during peer review. This leaves a conundrum.
How to best navigate peer review and also serve up a proposal that is attractive to Program, in case they are looking to reach down out of the order of review for a proposal that matches what they want.
Finally, as I mention now and again there is an advocacy role for the PI when applying for NIH funding. It is part and parcel of the job of the PI to tell Program what they should be funding. By, of course, serving up such a brilliantly argued application that they see that your take on their FOA is the best take. Even if this may not have been what was their intent in the first place. This also, btw, applies to the study section members. Your job is in part to convince them, not to meet whatever their preconceptions or reading of the FOA might be.
Somehow, the PI has to stew all of these considerations together and come up with a plan for the best possible proposal. Unfortunately, you can miss the mark. Not because your application is necessarily weak or your work doesn't fit the FOA in some objective sense. Merely because you have decided to make choices, gambles and interpretations that have led you in a particular direction, which may very well be the "wrong" direction.
Most severely, you might be rejected without review. This can happen. If you do not meet the PO's idea of being within the necessary scope of what they would ever plan to fund, no matter the score, you could have your application prevented from being routed to the study section.
Alternately, you might get triaged by a panel that just doesn't see it your way. That wonders if you, the idiot PI, was reading the same FOA that they are. It happens.
Finally, you might get a good score and Program may decide to skip over it for lack of responsiveness to their intent. Or you may be in the grey zone and fail to get a pickup because other grants scoring below yours are deemed closer to what they want to fund.
My point for today is that I think this is necessary error in the system. It is not evidence of a wholesale problem with the NIH FOA approach if you shoot wide to the left. If you fail to really understand the intent of the FOA as written. Or if you come away from your initial chat with the PO with a misguided understanding. Or even if you run into the buzzsaw of a review panel that rebels against the FOA.
Personally, I think you just have to take your chances. Arrive at your best understanding of what the FOA intends and how the POs are going to interpret various proposals. Sure. And craft your application accordingly. But you have to realize that you may be missing the point entirely. You may fail to convince anyone of your brilliant take on the FOA's stated goals. This doesn't mean the system is broken.
So take your shots. Offer up your best interpretation on how to address the goals. And then bear down and find the next FOA and work on that. In case your first shot sails over the crossbar.
It always fascinates me how fairly wide-flung experiences with NIH funding coalesce around the same issue sometimes. This particular post was motivated by no less than three situations being brought to my attention in the past week. Different ICs, different FOA, different mechanisms and vastly different topics and IC intentions. But to me, the answers are the same.