Writing a Winning Application—Consider the Review Committee

Funding News Edition: January 21, 2021
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researcher uses a dissecting microscope

Take a close look at the comprehensive information resources on the Center for Scientific Review website to determine which review committee may be appropriate for your application.

Credit: NIAID

Thus far, our series has covered several bases, from conducting a self-assessment to drafting Specific Aims, to creating an appropriate budget—find hyperlinks to those previous steps at the bottom of this article. This installment covers considering the review committee that has the best fit with the proposed project. Then it peers even further, into the minds of your reviewers.

Tell It to the Judge

Not only are your reviewers the main audience for your application, they are its judge and jury too.

At the end of the day, the primary basis for our funding decision—your overall impact score or percentile ranking—is the result of the structured deliberations that occur during the review meeting. Since only a small percentage of applications succeed in getting funded, you'll want yours to stand out.

Lay the groundwork for success by proposing research that reviewers will find exciting and likely to have impact in the field.

Create an application that appeals to the reviewers by proposing concepts and preliminary data they would regard as innovative to catch their interest.

Keep in mind that reviewers will look at your ideas from the perspective of their feasibility in the time proposed, readily available resources, and whether the requested budget is realistic for conducting the project proposed. Be sure that the scope of your proposed research is appropriate for the time and budget allowed for the funding mechanism.

You've Got Homework

NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR) manages many review committees. Review activities of CSR are organized into Integrated Review Groups (IRGs). Each IRG represents a cluster of study sections around a general scientific area. Applications generally are assigned first to an IRG, and then to a specific study section within that IRG for evaluation of scientific merit.

The IRGs cover the gamut of scientific pursuits from basic to clinical and behavioral research, technology-based studies, and applied research for all human diseases and a plethora of scientific disciplines.

If you are submitting an investigator-initiated application, you'll be well served by taking the time to learn about the review committees (and their members) that are most likely to receive your application. You may consider exploring the research of the committee members by visiting their websites.

Be sure to take a close look at the comprehensive information resources on the CSR website, and explore the Assisted Referral Tool (ART) to determine which review committee may be appropriate for your application. The CSR website details the review process, including how applications are assigned to a review group. You can also find helpful Frequently Asked Questions geared towards applicants.

After homing in on a couple of review groups, contact the scientific review officer (SRO) in order to assess whether that committee typically reviews applications in the same general scientific area as your proposed research and would appreciate the significance of your field and project. Not every fit is perfect, and SROs frequently bring in ad hoc reviewers to provide additional technical expertise for a fair review.

NIAID program officers (POs) can also serve as a resource as to whether your research might be a good fit for the Institute’s grant portfolio. A good start would be to reach out to the Scientific/Research Contact listed in Section VII of the funding opportunity announcement to which you are applying.

Though you can't know for certain whom your reviewers will be, learning about review committees, speaking with the SRO and a PO, and researching committee members can help you request the review group that's right for you. Should you decide to do so, use the optional PHS Assignment Request Form.

Applications for career development awards (K) and training grants (T) are reviewed by NIAID in our Scientific Review Program (SRP). See the rosters for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome Research Review Committee (AIDS); Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Research Committee (MID); Microbiology and Infectious Diseases B Subcommittee (MID B); and Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation Research Committee (AITC).

SRP also conducts peer review for applications and proposals that address NIAID-specific needs including research projects (R01); program projects (Ps); cooperative agreements (Us); conference grants (R13s); and contracts (N01s) in response to NIAID-initiated funding opportunity announcements and contract solicitations. These reviews are conducted through ad hoc special emphasis panels.

Cover Your Bases

Having your grant application reviewed by a review group that will appreciate your research is so critical that we strongly advise you to do the analysis we've described as well as the following:

  • Request the expertise needed (do not name individual people) in your cover letter.
  • After you apply, check the final roster online. It's posted around 30 days before the review meeting; you may want to add this important event to your calendar.

Given the broad range of expertise that is present in any review group, if there are any nuances specific to your research, consider how you can write your application to be certain that the reviewers appreciate these aspects of your research. To help with this, ask investigators working in a different field from yours to read your application.

For multidisciplinary work and technology-intensive work, it can be challenging to find a review committee that includes the full range of expertise. In such a case, the onus is on you to explain the critical areas that might be unfamiliar to the reviewers on the committee. You could also use the optional PHS Assignment Request Form, which we mentioned above. With it, you can list up to five general or specific types of expertise needed for the review of your application. The SRO may add expertise to the committee if it is not already present.

If you don't think NIH has an appropriate review group for the research you are planning, you may need to rethink the project.

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