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Finding Your Way Through the Peer Review Process at the National Institutes of Health

By Thomas A. Tatham, Ph.D.

 

Contact NIH Institute Staff Prior to Writing an Application


 

It is often helpful to contact an NIH institute with a mission related to your research prior to writing an application. A list of NIH institutes may be accessed from the "Institutes, Centers & Offices" link on the NIH home page (www.nih.gov). Most institute home pages have a link similar to "Funding Opportunities" leading to descriptions of content areas (known as "programs") and the scientist ("program official") responsible for each area. Program officials can be of great service in deciding whether your research topic is of interest to their institute and may be able to refer you to another institute if your research does not fit their institute's interests. The NIH has a broad array of funding options (grant mechanisms), including pre- and post-doctoral fellowships (F31 and F32 grants), Career Development Awards appropriate to various career stages and situations (K awards), Small Grants (R03), Academic Research Enhancement Awards (R15) for researchers at academic intuitions that do not have substantial NIH funding, and standard Research Grants (R01). Program officials can assist in selecting an appropriate grant mechanism, which is very important to obtaining funding. Institute staff can also provide guidance on the mechanics of preparing grant applications as well as offer scientific guidance.

 

Consider Requesting Dual Institute Assignment


 

Following receipt, grant applications are assigned, based on content, to a primary funding institute (such as the National Institute on Mental Health or the National Institute on Drug Abuse). The assigned institute will have the first opportunity to fund your application if it receives a favorable merit review by a study section. Your chances of being funded may be increased if your application has been assigned to one or more secondary institutes; secondary institutes have the option of funding an application if the primary institute declines and your research is consistent with their objectives. Both primary and secondary institute assignments may be requested in a cover letter submitted with your application; it is best to contact program staff at the relevant institutes prior to submission.

 

Consider the Audience


 

Study sections tend to be highly interdisciplinary so not every member of the panel will be an expert in your area. Furthermore, the several reviewers assigned to critique your application in detail may not be experts in all facets of your project. For example, a project applying a given technology to a special population might be critiqued by a reviewer with expertise in both the technology and population, a reviewer with expertise in the technology but not the population, and a third reviewer with expertise in the population but not the specific technology. Do not assume that methods or knowledge common to your field will be understood or accepted without justification by all members of the study section. The interdisciplinary nature of study sections may be seen by perusing the list of study sections run by the Center for Scientific Review (www.csr.nih.gov, which reviews approximately 75 percent of applications).

 

Ask Colleagues to Critique Your Application


 

It would be ideal to complete a draft of your application well before the submission deadline so that you can ask several colleagues to review it. However, avoid contacting a colleague serving on a study section that might review your application because this could prevent your application from being reviewed by that person. Related to the issues raised under "Consider the Audience", it would be ideal to have the application read by colleagues with varying levels of expertise in the area of your application.

 

Carefully Attend to Application Instructions


 

Application instructions may vary depending upon the type of application and across institutes. Be sure that your application conforms to the appropriate guidelines. Also be sure to use current application instructions and forms. Applications involving human subjects must fully address the protection of human subjects in a very specific format, and must also discuss the inclusion of women, minorities and children. Similar considerations apply to applications involving non-human vertebrate animals. Non-compliance in these areas can negatively affect your score, reduce your chances of funding, and could serve as a bar to funding until the issues are resolved.

 

The Budget Should be Appropriate


 

Study sections are not permitted to consider budgetary details when evaluating applications for scientific merit, so there is no advantage to attempting to convince the reviewers that your project is a "bargain". However, excessive requests may be reduced by study sections or program officials following scientific merit review and it is best to avoid having someone else bring your budget into line. In other words, make a realistic request.

 

Persist


 

Although there is considerable variability across institutes, most institutes award funding to no more than the top 20 percent of applications. However, many applications that are not initially funded receive a favorable score and funding following revision and resubmission. An area of special concern is "unscoring". In general, study sections designate 50 percent of the applications as falling in the lower half of the merit distribution, and these applications are not discussed at the study section meeting. This practice allows study sections to devote more discussion time to applications with a greater likelihood of funding. When study sections designate an application as unscored, they are not attempting to "send a message" to the principal investigator; they are simply making a dichotomous decision regarding the score. In many instances, initially unscored applications receive fundable scores upon revision and resubmission.

 

Attend Carefully to Prior Critiques


 

Principal investigators receive a summary statement following review (usually within six to eight weeks). The summary statement contains the essentially unedited critiques of the assigned reviewers (typically three people). It is essential to consider the critiques carefully and to explicitly respond to their concerns if it is necessary to revise and resubmit your application. Ignoring or responding dismissively to critiques is detrimental to receiving a favorable review; indeed it is likely that the previous reviewers will be asked to review your revision and prior summary statements are typically provided to the reviewers. If you feel that the reviewers missed or did not understand something that was already in the application, it would be wise to consider whether your presentation of the issues needs to be reworked. Program officials can assist in interpreting summary statements and formulating an approach to your revision.

 

Take Advantage of Helpful NIH Websites


 

The NIH home page: www.nih.gov.

 

Study section descriptions, study section rosters, and other peer review information is available on the Center for Scientific Review's home page: www.csr.nih.gov.

 

A portal to many forms, instructions and helpful information about applying for grants: www.grants.nih.gov.

 

An overview of the grant review process is available at http://grants1.nih.gov/grants/peer/peer.htm.

 

An NIH page with multiple links proving grant writing tips: http://grants1.nih.gov/grants/grant_tips.htm.

 

 

 

Modifed by Eddie Soh
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