Description: Administrative positions within the government apart from policy and regulation (which are treated separately) – at least those in which an advanced degree in the biomedical sciences can prove advantageous – devolve primarily to those in grants review and management. Positions of this nature are relatively numerous, of course, in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), but they also exist in the Center for Disease Control, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Food & Drug Administration, Health and Human Services, National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and Public Health Service.
The perspective for NIH with regard to grants management can be generalized reasonably to other institutes, although distinctions certainly exist. The following description was compiled from NIH websites and slide presentations.
The NIH describes grant officers, formally a Health Science Administrators (HSAs), as individuals responsible for the initial administrative, scientific, and technical review of NIH research grant applications pertaining to scientific and technical fields. The responsibilities of the HSA include, but are not limited to: organizing and managing peer-review groups to evaluate research proposals on the basis of their scientific merit; managing extramural research and research training programs, and identifying research areas warranting either increased or decreased funding emphasis; developing Requests for Applications (RFAs) and Requests for Proposals (RFPs) designed to elicit research grant and contract proposals from the scientific community; providing technical assistance to applicants and grantees; serving as project officer on research contracts and program administrator/director on research grants; conducting site visits to applicant and grantee institutions to determine the adequacy of research and training facilities; and serving as spokesperson for agency programs in dealing with the scientific community, the Congress, and other Federal agencies.
Many HSAs serve as Scientific Review Administrators (SRAs, or sometimes SROs (Scientific Review Officers)) to Initial Review Groups (IRGs). IRGs evaluate the scientific merit of grant applications and contract proposals. SRA’s, through the use of consultants, determine whether adequate facilities and qualified investigators are available to carry out the program for which financial support is sought. They recommend guidelines and implement criteria for establishment of scientific merit priorities for financial support of research, its resources and facilities, and research for training. SRA’s are responsible for preparation of comprehensive reports of the evaluations of all applications reviewed.
Some HSAs are Program Officials (POs). POs are responsible for the programmatic, scientific, and/or technical aspects of assigned applications and grants. They serve as a source of scientific and medical knowledge, manage research portfolios, make recommendations regarding national and international policy formulation, scientific directions, and funding, and coordinate a variety of program activities with federal and private institutions.
Please note that not all administrative positions within governmental agencies in which PhD or MD degrees can prove advantageous devolve to grants management. Executive positions also exist. Individuals who hold these positions have either ‘moved up’ internally or have attained a high degree of stature elsewhere. It useful to note, however, the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program, which is described as the Federal Government’s premier leadership development program for advanced degree candidates. Also of potential relevance is the PMF STEM track, created as a pilot 2014, to close the skills gap for mission critical occupations in STEM disciplines. The links to both programs are provided below in ‘Additional Resources’.
Advantages of advanced degree: An advanced degree (PhD or MD) in the biomedical or behavioral science (or equivalent training and experience) is in fact a requirement, as is a record of independent research accomplishments. What constitutes “independent” is not altogether clear. The pendulum appears to swing a bit on this – at one point NIH (CSR, in particular) had an internship program from which it recruited, and at another NIH appeared to prefer older, more established investigators. NIH is nonetheless most interested is one’s depth of research accomplishments and networking with the field. As an aside, NIH requires US citizenship. It’s not clear the extent to which other agencies require citizenship, or how being a contractor might fit into that picture.
Key competencies: Considerable experience in scientific thought and procedure, with perhaps a special emphasis on methodology, is absolutely required, together with a sense of what’s going on generally in biomedical research. Excellent communication and networking skills are a must.
On-campus student organizations: None
First steps: The expectations of NIH (and by extension other governmental agencies) regarding scientific development were discussed above: having developed a record of independent research and being especially proactive in following and otherwise networking with other investigators. With regard to the latter, scientific societies are always seeking the membership of pre- and postdoctoral students – participation at national meetings sponsored by these societies and a willingness to pitch in administratively provide immense benefits. There is also some intimation from NIH that that experience in review work is helpful. Experience of this nature can begin to take form for predoctoral students with the review of manuscripts received by one’s mentor, of course with the agreement of the managing editor. In later stages of a scientific career, experience can be achieved through review of manuscripts and also, of course, grant applications. With regard to the latter, getting on an SRA’s (or equivalent’s) radar early can be quite useful. Sometimes this happens naturally because one’s grant has been successfully reviewed in that SRA’s study section. But there are other ways as well, for example having a colleague who is a member of a relevant study section putting in a good word for you. Additionally, take every opportunity to talk with POs familiar with your work, which is made easier if you are supported by an individual fellowship, through a training grant, or, in later stages, research grants. Lastly, keep an eye on the employment sites of the Center for Scientific Review (NIH) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which provide various kinds of background and openings information (see ‘Additional Resources’ below for links.)
Videos: None available yet.
Alumni network: Contact Rebecca Lopez