Applicants—Understand What a Cooperative Agreement FOA Signifies

Funding News Edition: October 19, 2022
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A cooperative agreement is needed for substantial staff involvement, such as approving a stage of a clinical trial or other collaborative project before the next stage starts.

Credit: NIAID

Among all of NIH’s Activity Codes, you might be most familiar with those starting with an “R” (as in R01 and R21) and less so with those beginning with a “U,” for example, U01 and U19. Read along so that next time you spot a funding opportunity announcement (FOA) relevant to your research interests, say Immunity in Older Adults (U01, Clinical Trial Not Allowed), you’ll know what the U activity code should prompt you to expect.

What Is a Cooperative Agreement?

A cooperative agreement (U) is a support mechanism that NIH frequently uses for high-priority research areas that require a level of involvement from NIH staff that is higher than for a typical research project (R) grant. This substantial involvement is usually needed for oversight, coordination, or facilitation; we explain the term "substantial staff involvement" in more depth, below.

As a funding assistance mechanism, all NIH grant policies and processes apply.

Cooperative agreements are usually awarded in response to requests for applications (RFAs), which outline the scientific scope, required activities, any special peer review considerations, the nature of NIH staff involvement in the award, and specific responsibilities of NIH staff and the project director/principal investigator (PD/PI) during the project period.

What Is Meant by "Substantial Staff Involvement"?

Fundamentally, NIH staff work jointly with a research project grant’s PD/PI, acting as a partner to support and stimulate the research. Staff are not meant to play a dominant role nor assume direction or primary responsibility for awardee activities. Normal staff involvement does not necessitate a cooperative agreement.

However, a cooperative agreement is needed for substantial staff involvement, examples of which include:

  • Participating in study design, data collection, and data analysis and interpretation
  • Approving a stage of a clinical trial or other collaborative project before the next stage starts
  • Coordinating overall efforts of the project or providing training to grantee staff

More examples are listed under Substantial Staff Involvement at Determining When To Use a Cooperative Agreement.

Additionally, as discussed at NIH Staff Involvement on Extramural Awards—Cooperative Agreements, NIAID will convert a research project grant (R) or program project grant (P) into a cooperative agreement if planned or actual collaboration with an intramural scientist is substantial. That process is described in our Conversion of Grants to Cooperative Agreements SOP.

Before Applying, Points to Ponder

When you're thinking about applying for an NIAID-supported "U" funding opportunity, keep in mind a couple of key points.

Why a Cooperative Agreement?

First, consider why the Institute is using a cooperative agreement rather than an R series grant and what that will entail for you as PD/PI.

As we mentioned, a cooperative agreement allows our staff significantly more involvement in the project, but that covers a wide range of tasks.

For instance, we sometimes use the U mechanism to form a study group or collaborative network centered on a particular topic. In such a case, the day-to-day feel of the project won’t differ much from a typical R grant. However, when we use a cooperative agreement for clinical trials, the PD/PI and our staff will be working very closely together several hours a week to develop and execute a trial and associated studies.

Check Out the FOA for Need-to-Know Information

Since cooperative agreements are generally used for complex or targeted projects that require the close coordination of multiple grants or resources, you should go through the FOA thoroughly and take into account the experience, intensity, and level of collaboration required to manage the cooperative agreement.

When reading a cooperative agreement FOA, pay special attention to the following sections of Part 2. Full Text of Announcement:

  • Section I. Funding Opportunity Description—covers requirements for applications that might include access to resources, certifications, definitions, milestones, or special considerations. Note certain areas of research that may be required or excluded, as well as other mandatory items, such as participating in meetings or workshops, data and model organism sharing, as well as using specific databases.
  • Section IV. Application and Submission Information Part 2. Content and Form of Application Submission—has instructions for Other Attachments and the Research Strategy and may provide details about where you should put certain information.
  • Section V. Application Review Information—often includes special or additional review considerations for cooperative agreements to focus reviewer attention on the critical aspects needed for a project's success.
  • Section VI. Award Administration Information—contains the Cooperative Agreement Terms and Conditions of Award that 1) outline specific special terms of award and 2) define and describe the responsibilities of the PD/PI and NIH staff. Be sure you can abide by the provided framework since this information will also be in the Terms of Award, which will be part of your Notice of Award.

Check In with the FOA Contact, Too

Though a FOA will give you essential information, you should talk to the scientific/research contact listed in the announcement to better understand the motivations behind our using a cooperative agreement and the expectations we have of the PD/PI.

Application Submission, Peer Review, and Other Considerations

Given the complex requirements of a cooperative agreement, you'll likely spend more time preparing for and writing your application. If you have questions or concerns along the way, we encourage you to communicate with the appropriate contacts listed in the FOA.

Other processes for cooperative agreement applications are “business as usual” relative to other activity codes:

  • Peer review—as with most applications in response to an RFA, a special emphasis panel will review the applications using the criteria described in the FOA. Reviewers will be aware of the need for NIAID staff involvement. Like other RFAs, applications will not be assigned a percentile.
  • Funding—applications submitted in response to an RFA are funded by a pay plan, not a published payline. A pay plan is the list of meritorious applications that were received and scored and that program officials have selected for funding. The number of awards depends on the total funds set aside for the RFA.
  • Just-in-time—will be similar to any other application submitted in response to a FOA.

During an Award and After

Given the nature of cooperative agreements, you can expect NIAID staff to work more closely with you and schedule more frequent communications than they would for a PD/PI on a research project grant. You may also need to get their approval to initiate or continue stages of work, as we mentioned above.

Note that administering cooperative agreements may also differ slightly from R-series awards; for example, carryover of unobligated funds in cooperative agreements is not automatic and must be requested and justified.

Depending on the formal arrangements governing the cooperative agreement, your responsibilities regarding the Public Access Policy or clinical trial reporting may differ from a research project grant.

As you near the end of your project period, you may wonder about submitting a renewal application to continue the funding of your research. The FOA will specify whether renewals are permitted. Since cooperative agreements are generally used to target and support high-priority areas of science, the option for renewing depends on NIAID's continued interest and funding availability.

But the bottom line for renewing a cooperative agreement: Don't plan on the same program being continued in five years. In most cases, applicants will submit a new application at the end of their award.

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