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Read the Funding Opportunity Announcement and Instructions!

October 01, 2014
Dale Birkle Dreer, Ph.D.
Dale Birkle Dreer, Ph.D.

Chief, Office of Scientific Review
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Applying for an NIH grant? Read the instructions! Read the funding opportunity announcement (FOA), all of it, not just the first section! Read all of the NIH Guide Notices that are linked to the FOA. Believe it or not, NIH has shortened the FOA, referring you to the application instructions (PHS398 and SF424 [2.5MB PDF]). But the FOA highlights what differs from the standard instructions, so it’s critical to read it all.

Recent problems with applications received at NIH have brought to light a phenomenon that I’ve seen often during my time as a scientific review officer. Many applicants do not read the instructions for the NIH forms and they don’t read the FOA beyond the first few paragraphs. I have observed this with both new investigators and seasoned researchers. While this may save some time during the preparation of the application, in the end, it will likely cause an application to fail. Sometimes an application cannot even make it through and on to NIH because of failure to follow instructions, particularly leaving out or misplacing information. NIH policies prevent the acceptance of additional materials (or deletion of extra materials) after the receipt date, so once an application is submitted, there’s no way to fix anything. Missing and misplaced information creates problems! Reviewers can’t assume anything when required information is missing. Some reviewers conclude that the applicant is careless. A carelessly prepared application implies careless scientific work and may doom an application.

The FOA has a lot of information in it about what the program officers are looking for scientifically, what research areas are high priority, and what NIH would like to see as the emphasis of the project. But that is only part of the FOA. There are also sections on what to submit, specifically highlighting any deviations from the standard instructions. Nowadays, FOAs present ONLY what deviates from the standard instructions. So it’s critical to also read the instructions for the SF424 ( [4.5MB PDF]) and PHS398 forms ( [550K PDF]), and to make sure you’re reading the most recent versions of those instructions. Admittedly, these instructions are not the most scintillating reading, but understanding and following the requirements will prevent your project from going down in flames because of preparation errors.

NIH procedures and requirements change often. The “new” policy about appendix material, limiting the number of publications to three, and limiting those to publications not available online, has been in place for more than 7 years (see In every round there are a number of applications that include the previous limit of 10 reprints in the appendix and those applications are either returned without review or get a note in the summary statement about “disallowed” appendix material. The requirement for a personal statement in the biographical sketch has been in place for more than 4 years, but many, many biosketches still lack this information, to their detriment.

A recent change in the instructions for predoctoral fellowship applications has been especially troublesome. Many applicants have not noticed the new requirement to include additional information about the candidate’s graduate program. NIH has been allowing applications to go to peer review without this required information, but starting with the next set of receipt dates (December 8, 2014) and beyond, applications that are missing this information will be returned without review. The new guide notices have all the details, including links to prior notices on this topic and links to the FOAs. (See related notices at the end of the blog.)

We’re trying to get the word out about problems with missing or disallowed information in applications. In addition to publishing notices in the NIH Guide, NIH is highlighting important changes in policies or requirements through blogs, grantsmanship workshops, videos, mobile-friendly Web sites, and other channels.

Consider subscribing to the NIH Guide and the NIH Commons. NCCAM also has two useful communication channels to inform researchers about important news: NCCAM Update and Resources for Researchers. Subscribe to keep up-to-date! We welcome your feedback and your suggestions for improvement.

Related Resources

New NIH Guide Notices


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Thank you. Understanding prior errors helps to avoid making them. As a new investigator, this information is paramount to my success.

This page last modified December 22, 2016