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Concept Papers and Program Officer Engagement

Writing a one to two-page concept paper is an excellent investment of time and effort. Not only does this summary set the stage for developing a full proposal, it can also solicit valuable feedback from an agency before proposal submission. 

To quote one of the resources below about contacting program officers: “A phone call or a brief e-mail can save you a great deal of effort and unproductive work … but do so for the right reasons and in the right circumstances.”

Concept Papers and Specific Aims

Concept Papers for the NSF/DoE/DoD/USDA and Other Agencies

Use the Heilmeier Catechism to draft a one to two-page summary of your proposed work that focuses on the impact of the work. These questions were drafted by George Heilmeier for DARPA, however, they are critically important questions for a PI to answer regardless of the funding agency. The first four are the most generally valuable for a concise research plan summary.

Specific Aims

For the NIH, the concept paper takes the form of a Specific Aims page for communicating with a program officer. You will note a considerable overlap with the Heilmeier guidance in terms of content, however there is a more standardized structure.

These NIH links provide excellent guidance:

Pre-Submission Feedback

Request an external review before reaching out to the agency to improve your proposal. The RO works with an external firm to get expert feedback from previous agency reviewers and panelists. You can use this feedback to refine and optimize your pitch before contacting a program officer. Typically, this process takes two to three weeks.


  1. Submit concept paper/specific aims
    (MS Word format)
  2. Include any RFP or solicitation notice
  3. Complete  External Review Request Form (DOC)
  4. Email form

Contacting a Program Officer

Start the process a few months before the anticipated submission deadline by emailing an appropriate program officer your concept paper/specific aims and requesting a brief call to solicit feedback.

Do’s and don’ts for engaging program officers: