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?
- CSR Review
- NIAID Review
- SROs Assess Completeness and Responsiveness, Assign Reviewers
- Noncompetitive Applications Are Sometimes Not Discussed
- At the Peer Review Meeting
- Most Reviewers Scan Each Application
- Foreign Applications Have an Extra Review Step
- If Your Application Is Not Discussed
- Reviewers Are Fair but Not Always Right
NIH peer reviewers are scientists, mostly from academia. Given that they must provide objective, fair, and timely reviews free from inappropriate influences, they are fully vetted for potential conflicts of interest, appropriate expertise requirements, and other requirements based on NIH peer review policies.
To prepare for their crucial role, reviewers receive orientation to the peer review process that covers pre-meeting responsibilities, activities at the meeting, and post-meeting responsibilities. For additional information, Go to For Reviewers on the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) website.
Additionally, reviewers receive ongoing education on various topics. For instance, at NIAID, they learn about unconscious bias (implicit bias) and are reminded how to “consciously” recognize it and minimize its influence, e.g., they are asked to periodically evaluate their judgment and consider whether unconscious biases may affect their decisions.
To facilitate this educational process, NIAID's Scientific Review Program (SRP) has developed standardized materials related to unconscious bias in peer review, including:
- Pre-Meeting Orientation—slides for peer review panels
- Minimizing Unconscious Bias in Peer Review—a document for peer reviewers
Staff have also prepared a document with relevant materials on managing unconscious bias for guiding review panel chairpersons.
Depending on the type of expertise required, peer review meetings are run by either CSR or an NIH institute.
To determine the review location for a particular funding opportunity announcement, check Section VII. Agency Contacts. The peer review contact’s organization will handle the review.
- NIAID typically reviews applications for program project grants, cooperative agreements, career awards, institutional training grants, conference grants, investigator-initiated clinical trial planning and implementation awards, resource grants, education projects, and applications responding to requests for applications (RFAs), as well as proposals for research and development contracts.
- NIH’s CSR reviews investigator-initiated grant applications for all other award types.
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.
- Program officer to provide programmatic input.
Each integrated review group 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 fellowship, small business, and some continuous submission applications.
NIAID has chartered review committees for AIDS; Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation; and Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.
These chartered committees review applications for training and career development awards. Find our standing review committees on Councils and Federal Advisory Committees.
For most applications for program projects, cooperative agreements, and applications responding to requests for applications, we set up special review groups, similar to CSR SEPs, that have knowledge relevant to the science proposed in the application received.
Your SRO does an initial check of your application to make sure the key parts are there.
If you're responding to an RFA, NIAID program staff also check to ensure your application is responsive to the RFA.
Choosing from the panel members, CSR SROs assign primary and secondary reviewers plus at least one reader to each application. SROs may also ask other members to serve as readers.
For reviews conducted by NIAID SRP, panels may have a variable number of reviewers, and at least three reviewers are assigned to assess each application. Sometimes, there may be more than three reviewers assigned based on the scientific needs of the application. SRP recruits reviewers de novo for each SEP, tailoring the composition of the review panel to the science represented in the applications received. Reviewers are then assigned to applications based on their expertise.
Several weeks before the meeting, SROs send each committee member a copy of all applications to be reviewed.
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.
NIH uses a process called streamlining so reviewers can focus on applications that are highly meritorious and may be in the fundable range.
Streamlined (not discussed) applications are those that reviewers consider to be noncompetitive among the pool of applications received. Though investigators whose applications are streamlined do not receive an overall impact score, they receive a summary statement with the reviewers' critiques but no resume of the discussion.
CSR and NIAID use a slightly different process for determining not-discussed applications.
In general, CSR study sections do not review approximately the bottom half of applications unless a reviewer asks to discuss a particular application. All reviewers must agree unanimously to not discuss the remaining applications. The number of discussed applications may vary by study section as well as the number and types of applications received.
NIAID may choose not to discuss applications based on how many applications are received and awards are to be made. The Institute does this because it is not an effective use of reviewers' time to review all the applications when there is a large response to a funding opportunity announcement and few awards are to be made.
Reviewers assess the applications nominated to be “not discussed” (those that received the worst preliminary scores) in a randomized order and decide whether there are any they would like to discuss. Any unconflicted reviewer may rescue an application for discussion. At NIAID, the streamlining process takes place at the beginning of the review meeting, after which reviewers discuss the rest of the applications. At CSR, the streamlining process may occur at different stages of the review meeting.
CSR review committees gather three times a year for a one- or two-day meeting. Initial peer review meetings at CSR take place three to four months (two months less if AIDS or AIDS-related) after application submission. Reviews taking place at an institute take a bit longer due to the time needed to recruit and schedule a review panel.
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 discuss applications in a randomized order, rather than in the order of preliminary overall impact scores, to better protect the integrity of the review process.
Where possible, CSR committees evaluate 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 for investigator-initiated R01, R21, or R03 applications. Discussion may last longer for other types of applications reviewed in SEPs, but in general, a discussion ends sooner if all reviewers are in agreement. Other reviewers ask the assigned reviewers questions and skim the application during the discussion.
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 CSR Peer Review Videos.
Assigned reviewers will read your application carefully, and all non-conflicted panel members will listen to the discussion and score the application accordingly. Therefore, you need to write and organize your Research Plan for two audiences, as we describe at Know Your Audience. Sometimes, unassigned reviewers with a related area of interest may also read your application. Because CSR reviewers 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.
Qualified foreign investigators who have unique expertise or resources not available in the United States have as good a chance of being funded as domestic investigators, assuming the funding opportunity to which they apply allows funding for foreign applicants.
NIH awards grants to foreign applicants if either the expertise or resources are not available here—for example, access to a unique study population.
Foreign institutions have an extra review step: reviewers assess whether comparable work is being done in the United States. If it is, the grant may not 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.
Three types of applications are not discussed—they do not receive a full review or overall impact score, and may or may not receive a summary statement containing reviewers’ critiques.
- Streamlined review. Applications that peer reviewers unanimously judge to be roughly in the bottom half (for CSR) or otherwise noncompetitive given the number of awards to be made (for SRP) 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 applications that are not discussed can still be high quality and ultimately fundable. Read more about this topic at Options if Your Application Isn’t Funded.
- 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. The principal investigators receive individual criterion scores and critiques from assigned reviewers.
- 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 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; this is 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.