The NIH Peer Review Process is a multi-stage process that begins with study section review and ends with Advisory Council/Board review.

When an application is submitted to the NIH, an official known as the Scientific Review Officer (SRO) examines the application for completeness and compliance with NIH policies. All applications deemed complete are assigned to 3 or more reviewers by the SRO approximately 6 weeks before the study section meeting. Assigned reviewers are the only individuals that carefully read your grant application. Because they receive dozens of applications for each study section meeting, the other reviewers mostly read just your Abstract, Significance, and Specific Aims.

Step 1: Assigned reviewers provide preliminary scores

NIH scoring system

NIH 9-point scoring system

Prior to the study section meeting, each reviewer is tasked with determining individual criterion scores for your application based on the NIH’s 9-point rating scale (at right). At least five (5) individual criteria are scored by each reviewer:

  • Significance
  • Investigator(s)
  • Innovation
  • Approach
  • Environment

Assigned reviewers are also required to provide the SRO a preliminary overall impact score, which reflects their assessment of the likelihood for the project to exert a sustained, powerful influence on the research field(s). All applications receive preliminary impact scores, but not all applications are brought before study section.

Step 2: SRO convenes the Scientific Review Group (SRG) 

The SRO utilizes reviewers’ preliminary impact scores to rank all applications from best to worst and only brings the top half of applications before study section for a full review. At the study section meeting, assigned reviewers share their preliminary overall impact score with the group and explain the significance of the proposed research and the overall impact it will have on the field. Reviewer presentations are followed by group discussion. Each discussed application is given a score by all reviewers who are eligible to vote on that application. The scores from all eligible reviewers are averaged (calculated to one decimal point) and multiplied by 10 to determine the final overall impact score.

Step 3: Advisory Council/Board performs the second level of review

The Advisory Council/Board of the potential awarding Institute or Center (IC) performs the second level of review. Advisory Councils/Boards are composed of scientists from the extramural research community and public representatives. NIH program staff members examine applications, their overall impact scores, percentile rankings (if applicable) and their summary statements and consider these against the IC’s needs. 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.

Step 4: PI obtains feedback via eRA Commons

Within a few days after the SRG meets, impact score and percentile rankings (if applicable) are available to the PI online via his/her eRA Commons account. Typically within 30 days, the summary statement is also available through the PI’s eRA Commons. Summary statements for proposals Not Discussed (ND) at study section will include the written critiques produced by the assigned reviewers along with each reviewer’s preliminary scores for each review criterion. Summary statements for proposals brought before study section for discussion will include all of these items, plus the SRO’s summary of study section discussion and administrative notes of special consideration. Only the PI can view the summary statement via his/her eRA Commons account.

Summary Statements

Summary statements are compiled by the SRO who runs the study section meeting. All applications that a SRO brings before study section will receive a summary statement. These written evaluations of an application include each reviewer’s written critiques along with their criterion scores. For applications discussed at study section, summary statements will also include an overall impact score, which reflects the overall impact of an application. The impact score on a summary statement represents the average of all individual impact scores assigned by eligible reviewers that participated in study section.  Summary statements are made available to a PI through his/her eRA Commons account roughly 30 days after the study section meeting.

Additional Resources:

Center for Scientific Review (CSR) – Peer Review Process Revealed –  Each year, the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) handles approximately 80,000 applications and manages some 20,000 reviewers. This video gives an inside look at the peer review process and shows a mock study section. In addition, a section of the NIH’s website is dedicated to providing resources to peer reviewers.

Peer reviewer documents Visit the NIH website for a consolidated list of reviewer documents.

Insider’s Guide – In May 2012, the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) sought input from 6 current and retired study section members, who shared what makes a good NIH grant application.

NIH Peer Review Process – The NIH website provides a step-by-step guide through peer review.

You Tube Videos – The Center for Scientific Review (CSR) produced a series of videos on the grant review process. These videos are available for free viewing on You Tube and cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • NIH Peer Review Process
  • NIH Early Career Reviewer Program
  • What Happens to Your NIH Grant Application
  • Tips for Applicants