James H. Shannon Building (Building One), NIH campus

Questions about NIH proposal evaluation answered

Three people site behind a table. The one in the middle holds up a card that says, "4. I like it."

While the process for proposal evaluation at the NIH is transparent and outlined on the NIH website, the steps and expectations can be overwhelming for those unfamiliar with NIH or its processes. A recent NIH webinar demystified the process as outlined below:

What happens to my application after it is submitted to NIH?
A majority of applications submitted to the NIH are assigned to the Center for Scientific Review (CSR). The CSR checks each application for completeness and assigns applications to a specific NIH Institute or Center (I/C). Applications are then assigned to a Scientific Review Group (SRG) or review committee that will evaluate the proposal based on NIH review criteria. Read more about application receipt and referral here.

On what criteria is my application evaluated?
Proposals are scored based on 5 core review criteria:

Significance– When ascertaining a proposal’s significance, reviewers ask questions such as, “Will the proposed work have a sustained and powerful impact on the field?” “Should this work be done and why?” and “Does the project address an important problem or barrier to progress within a certain filed?” and then assigns a score based on how well the proposal answers these questions.

Investigator(s)– What abilities, qualifications, and training do the investigators have to conduct the proposed work? There is an expectation that investigators demonstrate a record of success as evidenced by publications and prior funding. Some leeway is given for new and early stage investigators. New Investigators are those investigators who have never received an NIH R01 research grant, while early stage investigators (ESIs) are new investigators who have completed the terminal degree within the last 10 years. NIH is committed to accelerating the transition from new investigator to independent researcher, thus new investigators and ESIs do not have to demonstrate the same amount of prior success in order to receive NIH funding. If applicable be sure your NIH eRA Commons profile is up-to-date in order to reflect your status as a new investigator or ESI!

Innovation– The criterion of innovation addresses how well an application challenges or seeks to shift current research or procedures. Reviewers look to see if concepts, approaches, and methodologies are novel.

Approach– Is the proposed work appropriate in scope? Is it realistic? Are pitfalls and limitations anticipated, and if so, is an alternate plan laid out to address potential setbacks? It’s here that a sound evaluation plan becomes important to ensure the work is moving along in the proposed direction.

Environment– Are there adequate resources and institutional support for carrying out the proposed work?

Additional considerations include protections for human subjects; inclusion of women, minorities, and children; appropriate use of vertebrate animals; and management of biohazards.

What else do reviewers look for?
While all proposals are evaluated and scored on the five NIH core criteria, reviewers also look for: clear objectives with an obvious impact on the field; exciting ideas; realistic aims and timelines; brevity on obvious things; noted limitations; and a clear, well-written application that is free of grammatical errors.

How is my application scored?
Applications are scored on a scale from 1-9 as follows:

1- Exceptional
2- Outstanding
3- Excellent
4- Very Good
5- Good
6- Satisfactory
7- Fair
8- Marginal
9- Poor

After review, the scores of individual reviewers are averaged and that average is multiplied by 10 to give impact scores ranging between 10 (high impact) and 90 (low impact). Note: Only applications that are discussed are given impact scores. Reviewers may not discuss an application if they believe it is not meritorious enough to warrant discussion.

Where can I track my application status?
Grant status can be tracked via eRA Commons. eRA Commons contains the following: a PDF file of the submitted application; contact information for the Program Officer (PO), Scientific Review Officer (SRO), and Grants Management Specialist (GMS); council meeting dates; scientific review group; study roster; status history (including dates); funding outcome; summary statement; and award number, if applicable.

Who do I contact for assistance?

Before you submit your proposal: The Program Official (PO) is responsible for the programmatic, scientific, and technical aspects of a grant. If you have questions about the relevance of your work to the program, questions about the program not addressed in the announcement, or questions regarding the most appropriate study section for your application, contact your PO.

After you submit and prior to review: The Scientific Review Officer (SRO) is responsible for the scientific and technical review of proposals. The SRO is the point of contact for applicants during the review process.

After review (if funded): The Grants Management Specialist (GM) is responsible for the business management requirements of the award. You may also need to contact your Program Official if you need to request changes to your personnel, budget, or scope of work after an award has been issued.

After review (if not funded): After you’ve read your summary statement, you may want to talk to your PO about revising and resubmitting your application.

What is the typical timeline between submission and award?
For most applications, it takes about 9-10 months between proposal submission to receiving an NOA (Notice of Award).

If I am not funded, will I receive feedback regarding my application?
The NIH summary statement contains scores for each of the five review criteria, critiques from assigned reviewers, and a summary discussion of the overall review. For those proposals receiving an impact score, the summary statement will also show the overall impact score and percentile ranking. For those proposals not discussed, no overall impact score is given. Summary statements may also contain recommendations of the study section, a recommended budget, and additional administrative notes.

How can I learn more about the NIH Review Process?
Videos and information on the NIH review process are available on the NIH website. 
Additionally, depending on your accomplishments and expertise in a given area, you can become an NIH reviewer. Becoming a reviewer gives you valuable experience, as well as an insider’s perspective on the NIH review process. Learn more about becoming an NIH reviewer here.

Written by Tricia Callahan, Director of Proposal Development, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of James H. Shannon Building (Building One), NIH campus by Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health, via Flickr. Score photo by uncoolbob via Flickr. Both used under Creative Commons license


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