Know the Basics of Review Criteria

Funding News Edition: August 04, 2021
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While peer reviewers assess each review criterion in turn, they are not plugged into a rubric or algorithm to derive an overall impact score.

Credit: NIAID

NIH provides peer reviewers with instructions to guide their assessments of grant applications. NIH does so to help reviewers provide consistent evaluations by examining the same key aspects of all applications they review.

Each time you apply, the funding opportunity announcement (FOA) will list an initiative’s exact review criteria in Section V. Application Review Information. Peer review panels (e.g., study sections, special emphasis panels) use only the review criteria published in a FOA as a basis for evaluating applications submitted to that FOA. Some of these review criteria are standard; others are unique to a given FOA. In other words, while a given FOA contains the NIH standard review criteria, it may also include additional FOA-specific review criteria.

Scored review criteria receive separate scores, and both scored review criteria and additional review criteria contribute to the overall impact score. Additional review considerations do not affect the overall impact score.

Overall Impact Score

The overall impact score reflects reviewers’ final assessment of a proposed research project’s likelihood to exert a sustained, powerful influence on the research fields involved. It is set directly by peer reviewers, as described at Assigning an Overall Impact Score.

Scored Review Criteria

Most research project grant FOAs, including those inviting investigator-initiated R01 and R21 applications, list five standard review criteria:

  • Significance
  • Investigators
  • Innovation
  • Approach
  • Environment

All are scored from 1 to 9, where a lower number is better. See How NIH Review Criteria Affect Your Score. While peer reviewers assess each review criterion in turn, they are not plugged into a rubric or algorithm to derive an overall impact score. The overall impact score is not an arithmetic average of the scored review criteria.

Other types of FOAs, such as those for fellowship or career development awards, may include other scored review criteria, like Training Program and Environment or Mentors.

Additional Review Criteria

There are several other factors that reviewers evaluate while determining the scientific and technical merit of an application and consider when formulating an overall impact score, but do not score separately. Examples include:

  • Human Subjects Protections
  • Inclusion of Women, Minorities, and Individuals Across the Lifespan
  • Vertebrate Animals
  • Biohazards
  • Resubmissions, Renewals, Revisions

When giving an overall impact score, reviewers account for whether an applicant adequately addressed the additional review criteria. NIH cannot award grants unless these factors are considered acceptable.

Additional Review Considerations

Reviewers will check applications for the acceptability of several elements but not weigh them when giving an overall impact score. Examples include:

  • Applications From Foreign Organizations
  • Select Agent Research
  • Resource Sharing Plans
  • Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources
  • Budget and Period of Support

If reviewers raise concerns about any of these areas, NIAID staff will require additional information from the applicant before making an award during the Just-in-Time process.


Many FOAs list certain types of studies that are not allowed, i.e., considered nonresponsive. This is distinct from the review criteria. Examples range from excluding clinical trials to requiring applications not propose research solely on a particular disease or approach.

NIH staff, rather than peer reviewers, verify that applications do not violate any of the responsiveness, compliancy, or completeness criteria. Applications proposing unsupported studies will not be accepted for review.

Ask for Help

Most FOAs list a scientific/research contact to whom you can direct questions related to the science called for by the initiative. They also list a peer review contact. These are the people to contact if you have questions related to an initiative’s review criteria or how peer reviewers will be instructed to interpret them.

Lastly, know that our guidance for peer reviewers is not secret. You can explore the standard materials reviewers themselves reference at Consolidated List of Reviewer Documents.

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