Disclaimer: The information on this page is meant to provide general guidance. Instructions and procedures outlined in the Funding Opportunity Announcement and SF424 Application Guide take precedence over any information provided on this page and should be referred to for complete and comprehensive directions.
NIH seeks the highest level of ethical standards for peer review. NIH policy is intended to promote a bias-free process that evaluates grant applications in a fair, equitable, and timely manner. Peer review is conducted at two levels as mandated by statute and federal regulation. All review criteria and considerations are specified in the Funding Opportunity Announcement.
The first level of review for the Early Independence Award is administered by the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR), which puts together a Special Emphasis Panel to review all Early Independence Award applications (applications are automatically sent to the Special Emphasis Panel). The Special Emphasis Panel is assembled by the scientific review officer, and members change from year to year. The first level of review is divided into two phases with different groups of reviewers (discussed below).
The second level of review is performed by the NIH Office of the Director’s national advisory council called the Council of Councils. The council is composed of both scientific and public representatives chosen for their expertise, interest, or activity in matters related to health and disease. Applications must receive approval at both levels of review to be eligible for funding.
Below is a diagram of the Early Independence Award review process. Each aspect is discussed in more detail below.
Role of the Scientific Review Officer
The scientific review officer (SRO) is responsible for ensuring that each application receives an objective and fair initial peer review, and that all applicable laws, regulations, and policies are followed. The duties of the scientific review officer include:
- Analyzing the content of each application and checking for completeness
- Documenting and managing conflicts of interest
- Recruiting qualified reviewers based on scientific and technical qualifications and other considerations, including
- Authority in their scientific field
- Dedication to high quality, fair, and objective reviews
- Ability to work collegially in a group setting
- Experience in research grant review
- Balanced representation
- Assigning applications to reviewers for critique preparation and assignment of individual criterion scores
- Attending and overseeing administrative and regulatory aspects of peer review meetings
- Preparing summary statements for all applications reviewed
The scientific review officer is the point of contact for all review-related questions and issues, including post-submission materials.
First Level of Review
The Early Independence Award differs from traditional NIH reviews in that the first level of review occurs in two phases by reviewers with different perspectives. Applications are reviewed by topic experts in Phase I and by a broad thinking editorial panel in Phase II.
The Early Independence Award is designed to accelerate the entry of exceptional junior investigators into positions of independent research by providing support to individuals who have recently completed their terminal doctoral degree or post-graduate clinical training and are ready to skip the traditional post-doctoral training period. Accordingly, the review emphases will be on the qualities of the investigator and on the environment provided by the host institution.
All standard NIH review criteria are used to evaluate applications (some are listed below), but emphases will be on the qualities of the investigator and on the environment provided by the host institution.
- Significance of the problem
- Qualifications of the investigator
- Innovation of the approach
- Strength of the approach
- Environmental support and resources
Full review criteria are listed in the Funding Opportunity Announcement.
Phase I is conducted by topic experts (also called "mail" reviewers) who are knowledgeable in the application’s subject area and are assigned based on close matching of their expertise to the application topic. Each application will have three topic experts assigned to review it. Each expert will provide scores and comments, which are used in Phase II.
Phase II is conducted by an editorial panel composed of scientists from an array of scientific backgrounds. The composition of the panel attempts to capture a wide breadth of scientific expertise, experiences, and perspectives.
In Phase II, the editorial panel uses the comments and scores from the topic experts to help identify a subset of the most meritorious applications. Each application in the subset is assigned to three panel members and is not matched to the panelist member’s area of expertise. Panel members are tasked with reviewing the proposal from a broad viewpoint with the aid of the reviews from the topic experts.
The assigned reviewers for each application provide a preliminary overall impact score and lead a panel discussion of the application at an in-person or virtual meeting. The full panel discusses each application, followed by final scoring by panel members. The panel discussion is captured by the scientific review officer and will be summarized in the summary statement.
Scoring & Summary Statement
Each panel member privately scores each discussed application. A raw score of 1 is the best, while 9 is the worst. The scientific review officer collects and averages all the panel scores and multiplies the resulting number by 10 to yield an overall impact score. A discussed application can have an overall impact score of 10 (best) to 90 (worst). Typically, only about 50% of the applications are chosen for discussion; the panel has access to the full range of scores to provide discrimination among applications within this select subset.
After the meeting, all discussed applications will receive an overall impact score within three business days through the PD/PI's eRA Commons account. The overall impact score indicates the reviewers' judgment of the qualifications of the investigator, the institutional support, and the innovativeness of the approach. There is a correlation between a strong impact score and funding. However, there is no strict cutoff or pay line for funding. And because applications are responding to a Request for Applications (RFA), the scores are not percentiled, which makes their interpretation difficult. NIH staff cannot disclose where an impact score falls relative to other application scores.
A summary statement prepared by the scientific review officer will be available within 30 days of the review through the PD/PI's eRA Commons account. The summary statement of discussed applications includes critiques from the assigned editorial panel members and a brief summary of the panel discussion. Applications that are considered "not discussed" are given a summary statement with critiques form the mail reviewers but no comments from the editorial panel. The information provided in the summary statement is valuable and provides critical feedback. However, it is not intended to be an exhaustive critique and will not contain every point reviewers found to be problematic.
After Receiving the Summary Statement
If you have any questions about your summary statement, you should contact the program officer for the Early Independence Award (listed as the scientific contact in the Funding Opportunity Announcement). The program officer attends the review and may be able to provide more insight into the panel discussion and help clarify some of the comments. You can also ask about the probability of funding and get advice on what to do if your application is outside of the likely pay range. Contacting the program officer to “sell” your application or to express differences in scientific opinion related to the reviewers’ comments will not affect the likelihood of funding.
It is best to contact the program officer by email to schedule a time for a phone call. That gives the program officer time to read your summary statement and review any notes. And be patient. The program officer may receive numerous inquiries and may not be able to respond to yours immediately.
PD/PIs of discussed applications are given an opportunity to submit an optional two-page response to their summary statement. The response should address issues and concerns brought up by reviewers, but the response will not be seen by reviewers and is not a part of the review. The response remains an internal NIH document used only by NIH staff during funding deliberations. The program officer will contact eligible applicants directly with more information on the response and the deadline.
Second Level of Review
The Council of Councils performs the second level of review for the Early Independence Award and assesses the first level of review for fairness and uniformity in the application of review criteria. It is meant to ensure the initial review was conducted with the appropriate expertise, procedures, and without conflicts of interest. The Council of Councils is not tasked with reviewing the applications for scientific or technical merit. The Council of Councils votes en bloc for concurrence with the first level review recommendations. Applications must receive approval from the council to be eligible for funding.
More questions? Contact us at EarlyIndependence@od.nih.gov.
This page last reviewed on July 16, 2020