I recently attended a scientific meeting where I had the opportunity to talk with investigators at all stages of their scientific careers. I was surprised to learn that many didn’t know that they could submit a cover letter with their electronic grant application. Here I briefly explain some reasons to provide a cover letter, including situations that require one.
1. Suggest a particular review group for your application.
The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) assigns applications to scientific review groups (SRGs), but sometimes an application could be a scientific match for more than one study section. In a cover letter, you can request assignment to a particular study section and explain why you think that study section would be the best fit. Appropriate assignment requests are honored in the majority of cases. Study section descriptions, recent study section rosters and the NIH RePORTER database of funded grants can help you identify an SRG suitable for your application.
2. Suggest a particular institute or center (IC) for funding your research.
Your research might be relevant to the mission of more than one NIH IC. You can use a cover letter to suggest that your application be assigned to a specific IC. The NIH RePORTER database is a good place to investigate the types of research supported by different ICs. Before making a request in a cover letter, you should also consult with program officers at the IC to determine whether your application would be an appropriate scientific match.
3. List the areas of expertise needed to evaluate your application.
It helps the SRG’s scientific review officer (SRO) assign appropriate reviewers to your application if you describe the scientific expertise needed to properly evaluate it. It’s important, however, that you don’t identify potential reviewers. The very fact that you recommend someone raises a concern about possible bias and usually puts that person in conflict with your application.
4. Identify potential reviewers who may be in conflict with your application.
If there is someone you feel may provide a biased evaluation of your application, let the SRO know by putting that information in a cover letter. You must explain the conflict; an example would be a longstanding scientific disagreement with an individual. Usually, there’s no conflict when someone works in a very similar area, holds a different scientific opinion or has been on the review panel for a previous application that didn’t do well. The SRO can use his/her judgment in deciding whether your explanation justifies placing that person in conflict with your application.
5. Include required information.
You need to provide a cover letter when you submit your application late or plan to send video files. Some applications, such as those for conference grants, require pre-approval for submission, so the submitted application must include a cover letter with a copy of the approval letter. For a more comprehensive list of situations that require a cover letter, visit the Create a Cover Letter webpage from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Who sees these cover letters? Only NIH staff with responsibilities relevant to application receipt, referral and review can see the cover letters; the letters are not shared with other NIH staff or reviewers.
These are some of the major, but not the only, reasons you might want to include a cover letter with your application. For more information on why and how to write a cover letter, see the Cover Letters Help Us Refer and Review Your Application webpage from CSR. Instructions for submitting a cover letter as an attachment to your application are in the NIH SF424 (R&R) Application Guide.
Note: New NIH application policies, instructions and forms are coming soon for grant applications submitted for due dates on or after May 25, 2016. One of the changes will be a new PHS assignment request form. This form provides a place to enter the information needed to process a request for a study section or funding institution assignment, as well as information about expertise needed and persons with a potential conflict. The use of this form is required for your request to be brought to the attention of the appropriate review staff. Cover letters should still be used to provide information required for application submission.
Does your application need a cover letter? In some cases, it does, in others, it is optional. Note that only the scientific review officer sees your cover letter, not the reviewers or program officers.
When a Cover Letter Is Required
You must have a cover letter for the following:
- Approvals to submit. For applications requiring our approval to submit, state that you have attached a copy of the NIAID acceptance letter to the PHS 398 Cover Letter attachment for:
- Grants requesting $500,000 or more in direct costs for any year.
- Conference grants (R13 or U13).
- Investigator-initiated clinical trial planning and implementation awards.
- Genomic data. Explain that the proposed study will generate large-scale human or non-human genomic data. Also note if you plan to access data in the NIH genome-wide association study (GWAS) data repository.
- Corrected applications. Include a complete cover letter if you did not pass validations and submitted a corrected application after the deadline. Note that this will render your application late. See the next bullet.
- Late applications. Include the reason your application is late. Learn more at Late Applications and Post-Submission Materials.
- Continuous submission. Indicate that you are a member of an NIH study section qualified to submit at a nonstandard time.
- Video. Indicate that you plan to send video files later.
Optional Uses for the Cover Letter
You may choose to use a cover letter for the following purposes:
- Point out RFAs and PAs. State the title if you're responding to an initiative.
- Note special areas. Note the involvement of human subjects, select agents, or other areas with special requirements.
- Note a subaward that will be active for only some of the grant's years.
In the past, applicants also used the cover letter to list expertise needed to review the application and to request assignment. Use the PHS Assignment Request Form instead.
Creating Your Cover Letter
Here's how to create and format your cover letter:
- Start with the title and a brief description of your application.
- Use the PHS 398 Cover Letter File in the grant application—don't confuse it with the mandatory PHS 398 Cover Page Supplement form.
Follow the format NIH gives you in the SF 424 Form Instructions.