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Strategy for NIH Funding
Ensure You Get the Right Assignments · How Reviewers Score Applications
Pages of Part 5. Assignment and Review
Who reviews your application? Why don't some applications get a full review? What is the role of the primary and other assigned reviewers? What happens at a review meeting? What are streamlined applications?
On this page, you can find answers to these questions and many others. After the review, be prepared to discuss the review outcome with your program officer.
(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)
Your application's most significant test is initial peer review.
Your application's overall impact score is the most important factor for a funding decision.
Peer review results in a numerical value, called the overall impact score, indicating your reviewers' judgment of the likelihood that your project will have a powerful impact on its area of science.
That number is the most important factor in determining your application's success.
NIH peer reviewers are scientists, mostly from academia, who participate in review meetings three times a year over several days.
Depending on the type of expertise required, peer review meetings are run by either the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) or an institute. The process is essentially equivalent in both venues in terms of policy, review criteria, committee composition, conduct of the meetings, and size of the group.
The key people involved in the meeting are:
CSR reviews investigator-initiated R01s and other award types not reviewed in institutes. CSR structures its review committees, also called study sections, into umbrella organizations called integrated review groups (IRG).
Each IRG houses several study sections, which have a narrower scientific focus. You can see an example of the organization of an IRG at Infectious Diseases and Microbiology IRG.
Find members of standing study sections on CSR's Integrated Review Groups. The roster links are at the top of the study section pages.
Additionally, CSR staff organize special emphasis panels (SEP) when specialized expertise is needed or when one or more standing study section member has a conflict and no other study section has the expertise to review an application fairly. CSR also uses SEPs for continuous submission, fellowship, and small business grant applications.
NIAID has chartered review committees for AIDS; Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation; and Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.
They review applications for program projects, cooperative agreements, training and career development awards, and applications responding to requests for applications. Find our standing review committees on Councils and Committees.
For many RFAs, we set up special review groups, similar to CSRs SEPs, that have knowledge relevant to the science.
Your SRO does an initial check of your application to make sure the key parts are there.
If you're responding to a request for applications, NIAID program staff also check to ensure it is responsive to the RFA.
Before sending your application to reviewers, SROs look at the application more thoroughly to make sure it's complete and may contact you if anything is missing. If this happens, send in the information quickly so reviewers receive it well before the review.
Choosing from the approximately 20 group members, SROs assign primary and secondary reviewers plus at least one reader. SROs may also ask other members to serve as readers.
Assigned reviewers read your application thoroughly and write a critique before the meeting. They also assign preliminary scores for each review criterion and an overall impact score. Read more on that topic at How Reviewers Score Applications in Part 5.
Several weeks before the meeting, SROs send each committee member a copy of all applications to be reviewed.
NIH uses a process called streamlining so reviewers can focus on applications that have a chance of being funded.
Review committees don't review any application the group unanimously feels is roughly in the bottom half of the applications being reviewed at the meeting (that percentage can vary by the type of grant as well as by study section).
The rationale for streamlining is since no institute funds 50 percent of its assigned applications, it is a poor use of the reviewers' time to review the bottom half.
Here is how streamlining works:
CSR review committees gather three times a year for a one- or two-day meeting. Initial peer review meetings take place three to four months (two months less if AIDS or AIDS-related) after you apply.
At the meeting, the chairperson facilitates the discussions, while the SRO makes sure the group complies with policy.
After the SRO opens the meeting, any peer reviewers with a conflict of interest leave the room before the group begins reviewing each application. Then the primary reviewer presents the application to the group and leads the discussion of it.
Order of applications. Reviewers review applications in the order of preliminary overall impact scores, which helps them calibrate their final scores.
Where possible, the committee evaluates applications from new investigators together as a separate group. Clustering these applications ensures that the group reviews at least half of them and that NIH can meet its targets for funding new investigators.
Discussion length. For the applications that are discussed, the group explores differences of opinion, interacting heavily during the discussion, which generally lasts 10 to 15 minutes. Other reviewers ask the assigned reviewers questions and skim the application during the discussion.
Generally, a discussion ends sooner if the members find a fatal flaw they agree to, for example, not protecting the safety of animals, proposing too much work for the award time, not recognizing a key paper in the field, or including a factual inaccuracy.
Review materials are confidential. Reviewers are not allowed to divulge any information outside the meeting. At the end of the meeting, NIH staff collect and destroy all materials used in the review.
To experience a meeting, watch CSR's simulation of a study section meeting at NIH Grant Review Process YouTube Videos.
Probably only two people carefully read through your application though all twenty will score it.
Generally, only assigned reviewers will read your application before the review.
Because they receive dozens of applications for each meeting, the other reviewers mostly read just your Abstract, Significance, and Specific Aims. In just a few weeks, they must read thousands of pieces of paper—they couldn't possibly read all of them in depth.
Though only a few people will read your application thoroughly, all twenty (or so) will score it, the reason you need to write and organize your Research Plan for two audiences, as we wrote in Know Your Audience in Part 3 (also see Ensure You Get the Right Assignments in Part 5).
Read more about scoring at How Reviewers Score Applications in Part 5.
Three types of applications are not discussed—they do not receive a full review, overall impact score, or summary statement.
1. Streamlined review. Applications that peer reviewers unanimously judge to be roughly in the bottom half are not discussed and do not receive an overall impact score. Instead, principal investigators get the individual criteria scores and critiques from assigned reviewers.
It's important to keep in mind that streamlined applications can still be high quality and ultimately fundable. Read more about this topic at What to Do if You Get Bad News in Part 6.
2. Not recommended for further consideration. NRFC is used for applications that lack significant and substantial scientific merit or have serious hazards or ethical issues. Such applications do not warrant a review and are generally not eligible for funding.
3. Deferred. A scientific review group can postpone the review of an application if unable to determine its scientific merit because information is missing. The group may contact the applicant right away or request another review at a later review date.
Bias is extremely rare.
Peer reviewers themselves go through the same process you're going through. If they aren't fair to you, how could they expect to be treated fairly themselves?
If anything, reviewers have tried to capture more funds for their field by giving applications increasingly better scores. Further, reviewers and SROs are alert to bias and will argue vigorously against it if they perceive a competitor is not being fair.
Though reviewers generally are fair, they are not always right. They do their best based on the knowledge they have but could miss a point or misunderstand what you've written, the reason you need to do an outstanding job writing and organizing your application.
Any reviewer who has a conflict of interest with an application is not allowed to review it. Reviewers sign conflict of interest statements stating they don't have a financial or other interest in your work.
For details on this subject, see our Conflict of Interest in Peer Review SOP and Privacy, Conduct, Conflict of Interest, and Clinical Research Ethics questions and answers.
NIH awards grants to foreign applicants if either the expertise or resources are not available here—for example, access to a unique study population.
Qualified foreign investigators who have unique expertise or resources have as good a chance of being funded as domestic investigators.
Foreign institutions have an extra review step: reviewers assess whether comparable work is being done in the U.S. If it is, the grant will not likely be funded.
Reviewers also consider the relevance of the proposed research to NIAID's mission and check whether there is a need for the research.
Foreign investigators researching select agents must follow the NIAID Select Agent Research Review and Approval Procedure for New and Continuing Grants That Include Foreign Institutions. If using select agents, read the Select Agent Awards SOP.
Find more information online:
After the meeting, all reviewed applications receive an overall impact score and summary statement prepared by the SRO.
NIH releases scores to you and your program officer in the Commons within three business days and uploads your summary statement within 30 days.
New R01 investigators get their summary statements in time to have at least one month to resubmit for the next cycle: no later than July 10, November 10, or March 10 (depending on the review cycle).
They can also resubmit later: August 10, December 10, or April 10, giving them one month to revise and resubmit for the next receipt date.
Note that as of 2010, less than 13 percent of new investigators who received summary statements in that timeframe were able to resubmit for the next receipt date.
Your summary statement has a lot of information:
If necessary, you'll use this information to revise a fixable application as we describe in Part 6. If Not Funded.
But keep in mind that although your summary statement gives you critical feedback, it is not an exhaustive critique or a teaching tool containing every point reviewers found to be problematic. We tell you more in Assess Peer Review Results in What to Do if You Get Bad News in Part 6.
If your summary statement has a code that creates a bar to award, we can't give you an award until you resolve the issue.
See our Sample Applications and Summary Statements for examples of summary statements.
After peer review, your application moves to an NIH institute program division for a funding decision.
At that point, your main contact person becomes the institute program officer assigned to your application. His or her name is listed in your summary statement together with that of your grants management specialist. Read about funding in Part 7. Funding.
(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts.)
First, ask about the probability of funding. Then, get advice on what to do if your application scores above the payline.
Ask your program officer if he or she (or a representative) attended the review meeting as an observer and can give you additional insight into the discussion.
Though they do not participate, institute program staff may attend the meeting and can become a source of additional insight into the discussion.
If you will need to revise, that feedback can be a valuable supplement to the information in the summary statement. We discuss this further in What to Do if You Get Bad News in Part 6.
Also review the summary statement so you can discuss any actions you might need to take in advance of the just-in-time request (see Prepare Your Just-in-Time Information in Part 3).
If your application misses the payline or is streamlined and its faults are fixable, start revising as soon as you can since you may not have much time to revise after you get the summary statement.
First, determine whether the problems are fixable—read What to Do if You Get Bad News in Part 6.
If funding is deferred, read Revise, Don't Wait for Later Funding in Timing Factors That Affect Your Application and Award.
Strategy for NIH Funding
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Part 5. Assignment and Review
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Last Updated April 04, 2012
Last Reviewed December 01, 2011