Most research projects do not move along in a linear fashion, steadily progressing until inevitably reaching a scientific breakthrough. So how do you describe scientific progress in your annual Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) to demonstrate success and merit while the project is still ramping up?
What Program Officers Look For
A good first step is to know what your program officer is looking for. Program officers assess:
- Is progress satisfactory?
- Is there a change in the scope, goals, or objectives of the project?
- Is there a change in key personnel?
- Is there evidence of scientific overlap?
- Are there human subject issues or concerns?
- Are there animal welfare issues or concerns?
- Are there changes in the use of biohazards or select agents?
- Are there new or additional foreign components?
- If the award requires inclusion monitoring, is the enrollment date appropriate, on target, and updated in the Inclusion Management System?
- Were any products reported, such as publications, websites, technologies, inventions, or reagents?
- Is there compliance with sharing policies?
- If the award has special reporting requirements, was the information provided and acceptable?
- Is there an unobligated balance greater than 25 percent? Is the justification acceptable?
- Are there other issues that require action or documentation that must be resolved before issuing an award?
As you can see, many of these questions concern whether the project has changed since the award was made or when progress was previously reported. Therefore, detail any changes to your Research Plan in the RPPR. Keep in mind, you need our prior approval before making Changes to Project or Budget; do so by following the process laid out in our Prior Approvals for Post-Award Grant Actions SOP. If you requested approval before submitting the RPPR, refer to the previous correspondence.
List any changes in approach and reasons for the change. Describe any problems or delays and what actions you took or plan to take to resolve them. If there is an unobligated balance greater than 25 percent, provide a justification and be prepared to make a carryover request.
Your program officer will assess the progress, delays, and planned next steps you describe and compare that to your budget request and justification for approval. Providing sufficient information in the progress report avoids delays in your award.
Program officers will also verify compliance with sharing requirements, e.g., model organisms, public access policy, genomic data sharing; ClinicalTrials.gov registration and results reporting; and other policies for research with vertebrate animals, human subjects, biohazards, select agents, and foreign involvement.
Above all, program officers directly consider whether progress is satisfactory.
Completing the RPPR
Grantees can demonstrate progress when completing Section B—Accomplishments of the RPPR (see section 6.2 of the NIH and Other PHS Agency RPPR Instruction Guide). List publications and other products in Section C–Products (see section 6.3 of the NIH and Other PHS Agency RPPR Instruction Guide).
First, you list the scientific goals of the project (for NIH these are your Specific Aims) and whether they have changed. Then list your accomplishments:
For this reporting period describe: 1) major activities, 2) specific objectives, 3) significant results, including major findings, developments, or conclusions (both positive and negative), and 4) key outcomes or other achievements. Include a discussion of stated goals not met.
When your project is in its initial stages, this section will focus more on the activities you undertake, e.g., enrolling study participants, preparing reagents, or testing compounds in vitro before conducting animal studies. In future reports, the focus will shift to results and findings, e.g., showing whether variance among study interventions was statistically significant. Include data, graphs, and images to support your accomplishments section rather than relying solely on bullet-point text.
Remember, too, that NIH is placing increased emphasis on rigor and transparency, so you also need to describe how your research ensures reproducibility.
When you complete your annual RPPR, you should also address any special reporting requirements or deadlines listed in your Notice of Award. Many solicited grants include benchmarks or go/no-go criteria that must be met before NIAID will fund an award’s next budget period. Look at your latest Notice of Award in the eRA Commons to find any special reporting requirements.
Take the reporting of scientific progress seriously, including any pitfalls and ways you plan to overcome them. Doing so will help keep your research on track and lay the groundwork for a future renewal application. And in some circumstances your program officer can work with you to overcome some of the obstacles.
For additional help and resources, refer to NIAID’s Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) SOP.