First-Level Peer Review

First-Level Peer Review

Your application's most significant test is initial peer review. Learn who reviews your application, the role of different reviewers, what happens at a review meeting, how to interpret your summary statement, and your next steps.

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.

Your application's overall impact score is the most important factor for a funding decision.

Table of Contents

Who Peer Reviews Your Application?

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

  • Chair—a committee member who leads the discussions.
  • Scientific review officer (SRO)—NIH staffer who manages the review. SROs, who usually have a Ph.D. in a relevant field, recruit reviewers, state policies, create streamlined application lists, and write summary statements.
  • Members of the committee assigned to your application.

CSR Review

Each IRG houses several study sections, which have a narrower scientific focus.

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 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 Review

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 Council and Federal Advisory Committees.

For many RFAs, we set up special review groups, similar to CSRs SEPs, that have knowledge relevant to the science.

SROs Assess Completeness, Assign Reviewers

Your assigned reviewers read your application and write a critique before the meeting.

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 Scoring and Summary Statements.

Several weeks before the meeting, SROs send each committee member a copy of all applications to be reviewed.

Noncompetitive Applications Get a Streamlined Review

Streamlined applications are considered to be noncompetitive. They get a short summary statement with the reviewers' critiques.

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:

  • One week before the study section meets, SROs ask members for a list of applications they feel should not be reviewed and prepare a consolidated list.
  • If any reviewer disagrees with a call, the group will review that application.

At the Peer Review Meeting

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. If they attended the meeting, program staff may be able to give you additional insight into the discussion.

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.

Most Reviewers Scan Each Application

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 at Know Your Audience (also learn about requesting a study section at Use the PHS Assignment Request Form).

Foreign Applications Have an Extra Review Step

Qualified foreign investigators who have unique expertise or resources not available in the U.S. have as good a chance of being funded as domestic investigators.

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 United States. If it is, the grant will not likely be funded.

Reviewers also consider the relevance of the proposed research to the NIAID 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 Grants That Include Foreign Institutions.

If Your Application Is Not Discussed

These applications do not receive a full review, score, or summary statement. 

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 Options if Your Application Isn’t Funded.
  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.

Reviewers Are Fair but Not Always Right

Reviewers do their best, but they could misunderstand your application.

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.

Learn about your Options if Your Application Isn’t Funded.

Have Questions?

Contact your assigned scientific review officer, found in your eRA Commons account or in your funding opportunity announcement. If you do not have a scientific review officer, go to Scientific Review Program Contacts.

Content last reviewed on August 11, 2016