How Cover Letters Aid NIH Application Reviews

By Meg Bouvier

I stay current on NIH happenings and I’d be delighted to keep you informed.

I am often asked whether one should write a cover letter to accompany an application. Many of my clients feel it is a waste of time. I completely disagree. Here is a section on the topic from the May 2011 “Peer Review Notes”, a newsletter put out by the Center for Scientific Review:

NIH encourages applicants to submit cover letters to help guide applications to our review groups and give us other information that will help us review them. A majority of applicants now take advantage of this opportunity.


Popular Reasons to Use a Cover Letter

• Suggest we assign your application to a review group you think is best.

• Suggest we assign your application to an NIH institute(s) or center(s) you think would be interested in your research.

• Describe the kinds of expertise needed to review your application.

• Let us know about potential reviewers who you think might be in conflict with your application.

Our scientific staff members make the final decisions after they carefully consider your suggestions and explanations.


Suggesting a Study Section

We designed our study sections with a deliberate amount of overlap, so more than one study section may have the expertise to review your grant application. You may express a preference, and we will work to accommodate you if possible.


• Check our online study section descriptions to identify a review group you think is best suited to review your application. Last year, this area of our Web site registered nearly 1.7 million page views.

• Examine recent study section rosters to help you gauge the scope of our study sections. But note that CSR study section rosters can change significantly from round to round since we recruit reviewers for a meeting based on the specific scientific content of the applications to be reviewed.

• Consider seeking guidance from a CSR scientific review officer overseeing a study section you think could best review your application. Program officers can also give guidance on suitable study sections.


Requesting Assignments to NIH Institute(s) and Center(s)

You can also request that your application be assigned to one or more NIH institutes or centers you think would be interested in your research. It’s usually a good idea to contact one or more NIH program officer(s) to get guidance. You can identify program officers via the NIH Institute and Center staff listings on their respective Web sites.


Helping Ensure Your Review is Appropriate and Unbiased


• Note essential expertise needed to evaluate your application in your cover letter. You

should not, however, list the names of potential reviewers.

• Identify reviewers who you think could be in conflict with your application. Learn

about these conflicts here.


Your scientific review officer (SRO) will consider the situation and make the final decision. If he/she agrees there is a conflict, the reviewer will not be assigned to your application and will not be in the room when it is discussed. Rosters are typically posted online 30 days before your review meetings, and if you see a reviewer on it who could be biased, contact your SRO as soon as possible.


Notifying NIH that You Are a Reviewer Eligible to Submit an Application Without a Deadline

Learn more about this and other uses of cover letters by checking out our new cover letter Web page.



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