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:
What to do if unhappy with PO. Escalate to branch chief? Something else? cc @drugmonkeyblog
— A+ Scientist (@AListScientist) January 12, 2017
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.