Peer Review Process
NIH policy is intended to ensure that grant applications submitted to the NIH are evaluated on the basis of a process that is fair, equitable, timely, and conducted in a manner free of bias. The NIH dual peer review system is mandated by statute in accordance with section 492 of the Public Health Service Act and federal regulations governing "Scientific Peer Review of Research Grant Applications and Research and Development Contract Proposals" (42 CFR Part 52).
The first level of review is carried out by a Scientific Review Group (SRG) composed primarily of non-federal scientists who have expertise in relevant scientific disciplines and current research areas. The second level of review is performed by Institute and Center (IC) National Advisory Councils or Boards. Councils are composed of both scientific and lay members chosen for their expertise, interest, or activity in matters related to health and disease. Only applications that are favorably recommended by both the SRG and the Advisory Council may be recommended for funding.
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The first level of review for an application is the initial peer review. Depending on the grant assignment, initial peer review meetings are administered by either the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) or an individual NIH IC. Peer review meetings are announced in the Federal Register. The meetings are closed to the public, although some meetings may have an open session; the Federal Register provides the details of each meeting.
The peer review meeting is a committee process and the summary statement reflects the individual comments of the assigned reviewers and the collective input of the committee.
A. Peer Review Roles
Scientific Review Officer:
Each study section is led by a Scientific Review Officer [(SRO), formerly Scientific Review Administrator (SRA)]. The SRO is an extramural staff scientist and the Designated Federal Official responsible for ensuring that each application receives an objective and fair initial peer review, and that all applicable laws, regulations, and policies are followed.
- Analyze the content of each application, and check for completeness.
- Document and manage conflicts of interest.
- Recruit qualified reviewers based on scientific and technical qualifications specifically related to each grant application, including:
- Authority in their scientific field (42 CFR 52h.4)
- Dedication to high quality, fair, and objective reviews
- Ability to work collegially in a group setting
- Experience in research grant review
NOTE: SRG rosters are posted on the NIH website thirty days in advance of each meeting.
- Assign applications to reviewers for critique preparation.
- Attend and oversee administrative and regulatory aspects of peer review meetings.
- Prepare summary statements for all applications reviewed.
Peer Review Study Section Members
- Serves as moderator of the discussion of scientific and technical merit of the applications under review.
- Is also a peer reviewer for the meeting.
- Receive copies of the grant applications approximately six weeks prior to the peer review meeting.
- Prepare a written critique for each application assigned per the SRO, based on review criteria and judgment of merit.
Other NIH Staff
- Federal officials who have need-to-know or pertinent related responsibilities are permitted to attend closed review meetings.
- NIH IC or other federal staff members wishing to attend an SRG meeting must have advance approval from the responsible SRO. These individuals may provide programmatic or grants management input at the SRO's discretion.
B. Initial Peer Review Meeting
- Most SRGs convene for one-two days.
- Applications are reviewed based on established review criteria (see below).
- Assigned reviewers present their prepared critiques to the group.
- An open discussion follows.
The initial scientific peer review of most research applications also will include a process in which only those applications deemed by the reviewers to have the highest scientific merit, generally the top half of the applications under review, will be discussed at the SRG meeting, assigned a priority score, and receive a second level review. Applications in the lower half are not discussed or scored at the Scientific Review Group meetings. This process allows the reviewers to focus their discussion on the most meritorious applications.
Summary statements for streamlined applications contain the written critiques submitted by the assigned reviewers but do not contain a resume and summary of discussion. Streamlined applications are not barred from potential funding and may be revised and re-submitted.
NIH applications are evaluated using established review criteria (42 CFR 52h.8). Specific initiatives or programs may indicate review criteria in addition to the following required criteria:
- Does this study address an important problem?
- If the aims of the application are achieved, how will this advance scientific knowledge? What will be the effect of this study on the concepts or methods that drive this field?
- Are the conceptual framework, design, methods, and analyses adequately developed, well integrated, and appropriate to the aims of the project?
- Does the applicant acknowledge potential problem areas and consider alternative tactics? For applications designating multiple Project Directors/Principal Investigators (PDs/PIs), is the leadership approach, including the designated roles and responsibilities, governance and organizational structure consistent with and justified by the aims of the project and the expertise of each of the PDs/PIs?
- Does the project employ novel concepts, approaches or methods?
- Are the aims original and innovative?
- Does the project challenge existing paradigms or develop new methodologies or technologies?
- Are the PD/PI(s) and other key personnel appropriately trained and well suited to carry out this work?
- Is the work proposed appropriate to the experience level of the PD/PI(s) and other researchers?
- Do the PD/PI(s) and investigative team bring complementary and integrated expertise to the project (if applicable)?
- Do(es) the scientific environment(s) in which the work will be conducted contribute to the probability of success?
- Does the proposed study benefit from unique features of the scientific environment, or subject populations, or employ useful collaborative arrangements? Is there evidence of institutional support?
In addition to the above criteria, the following items will be considered in the determination of scientific merit and the priority score:
- Recombinant DNA research
- Protection of human subjects from research risks
- Inclusion of women, minorities, and children
- Vertebrate animal research
- Select agents
The following considerations do not contribute to the priority score:
- Resource sharing *
- Foreign Institution
* Certain programs and initiatives may include this as a review criterion that may affect the score, as indicated in the funding announcement or program guidelines.
Review of revised applications
Revised applications are reviewed in the same manner as new applications, although reviewers are instructed to evaluate the appropriateness of the responses to the previous review. Applicants submitting a revised application are reminded to include an introductory statement providing responses to the major points raised in the prior critique.
Each reviewer marks a score sheet with a numerical score or other designation for each application, based on the presented critiques and meeting discussion. Subsequently, the scores from all of the SRG members (except those who have a conflict of interest with the application) are averaged to produce a single "priority score".
D. Summary Statement
Within one or two months of the SRG meeting, a summary statement will be available to the Principal Investigator via his/her NIH Commons account. The summary statement contains information about the application's review including:
- Contact information for the Program Officer handling the application
- Priority score
- Percentile (if applicable)
- Resume and summary of the discussion
- Reviewer critiques
- Committee recommendations concerning the budget
- Human subject and vertebrate animal concerns (if applicable)
- Additional administrative comments (if applicable)
- Official meeting roster
Understanding the Priority Score
Priority scores reflect the relative strengths and weaknesses of an application, with the lowest scores indicating the highest level of merit:
- 100-150: Outstanding
- 150-200: Excellent
- 200-250: Very Good
- 250-350: Good
- 350-500: Acceptable
Applicants should contact the program official for the application to seek additional feedback on the score and summary statement.
Rarely, an application will receive an “NR” score, indicating that it is not recommended for further consideration because it l acks significant scientific merit, or because it presents serious research risks and protections against risks are inadequate.
An application with an “NR” cannot be moved to second level of review and should not be resubmitted until the problems are resolved.
Understanding the Percentile
The priority score is used to determine an application's rank relative to other applications reviewed by the same SRG. This is referred to as the percentile ranking of an application. Some application types are not given percentile rankings.
TIP: An application's priority score and percentile ranking are posted to the PI's NIH Commons account, typically within three business days from the close of the peer review meeting.
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Second Level Of Review - Advisory Council or Board
Who Reviews the Application?
The Advisory Council/Board of the potential awarding IC performs the second level of review. Advisory Councils/Boards are composed of scientists from the extramural research community and public representatives ( NIH Federal Advisory Committee Information ). Members are chosen by the respective IC and are approved by the Department of Health and Human Services.
- NIH program staff members examine application priority scores and consider these against the IC’s needs.
- Program staff provide a grant-funding plan to the Advisory Board/Council.
- The Advisory Board/Council also considers the IC’s goals and needs and advises the IC director.
- The IC director makes final funding decisions based on staff and Advisory Council/Board advice.
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- Not Funded – What Next?
The NIH receives thousands of applications for each application receipt round. Funding on the first attempt is difficult, but not impossible. If an application does not result in funding, NIH has resources available to help applicants prepare a possible application revision and resubmission. Applications in response to a specific initiative with set aside money typically cannot be resubmitted, but you the program officer should be consulted about next steps.
- Fundable Score – What Next?
If an application results in an award, the applicant will be working closely with the IC program officer on scientific and programmatic matters and a grants management officer on budgetary or administrative issues.