Disclaimer: The information in these pages are meant to provide general guidance. Instructions and procedures outlined in the Funding Opportunity Announcement and SF424 Application Guide take precedence over any information provided 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 Transformative Research Award is administered by the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR), which puts together a Special Emphasis Panel to review all Transformative Research 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 three phases with two different groups of reviewers (discussed below).
The second level of review is performed by the national advisory council called the Council of Councils, which advises the NIH Director on matters related to the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives. 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 FY2022 Transformative Research Award review process, which is piloting an anonymized review. Phase I and II reviews use anonymous application material that omit the identity of investigators and institutions. Reviewers will not have access to the identity of investigators or institutions until the last phase of the review in Phase III. It is important that applicants carefully follow the instructions in the Funding Opportunity Announcement and not include any identifying information in the Specific Aims and Research Strategy sections. Inclusion of information that reveals the identity of the investigator(s), other participating individuals, or institutions in the Specific Aims or Research Strategy sections will result in the application being administratively withdrawn. 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 Transformative Research Award differs from traditional NIH reviews in that the first level of review occurs in three phases by reviewers with different perspectives. Applications are reviewed by a broad thinking editorial panel in Phases I and III and by topic experts in Phase II.
The Transformative Research Award is designed to support exceptionally innovative research projects with the potential to have a profound effect on an area of research relevant to the broad mission of NIH. The innovation may be technical, conceptual, or (often) a combination of both. Given the high level of innovation expected, conventionally detailed experimental plans and extensive preliminary data are not required. Accordingly, reviewers will emphasize the strength of the conceptual framework, the level of innovation, and the potential to significantly advance our understanding or capability in a field relevant to NIH.
All standard NIH review criteria are used to evaluate applications (some are listed below), but emphases will be on innovation and broad impact of the research.
- 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 an editorial panel composed of scientists from an array of scientific backgrounds. The composition of the editorial panel attempts to capture a wide breadth of scientific expertise, experiences, and perspectives.
For this phase, the editorial panel only has access to the anonymized Specific Aims pages and does not have access to other application material or the identities of investigators or institutions. The editorial panel uses the anonymized Specific Aims pages to identify a subset of applications with the most transformative potential.
Phase II 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 comments, which are provided to the editorial panel for Phase III.
Topic experts only have access to the anonymized Specific Aims and Research Strategy components and do not have access to other application material or the identities of investigators or institutions. Topic experts use the anonymized Specific Aims and Research Strategy components to provide feedback on the significance, innovation and approach of the project.
In Phase III, the editorial panel, informed by the critiques from the topic experts, will select a further subset of applications to be discussed and scored by the panel. All other applications will be designated as "not discussed." During the discussion, panelists will have access to the complete applications and so will know the identities of participating investigators and institutions. To comply with regulations, the scoring will be based on the five standard review criteria (including Investigator and Environment) and other appropriate reviewable matters.
The panel discussion is captured by the scientific review officer and will be summarized in the summary statement. All review criteria will be assessed in the scoring by the panel. All other applications will be considered as "not discussed".
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 18-20% 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 significance of the problem, transformative potential of the project, 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 reach out to the scientific contact for the Transformative Research Award (listed in the Funding Opportunity Announcement). The scientific contact 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 NIH staff 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 NIH staff by email to schedule a time for a phone call. That gives staff time to read your summary statement and review any notes. And be patient. They 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 scientific contact will reach out to 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 Transformative Research 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 Transformative_Awards@mail.nih.gov.
This page last reviewed on July 30, 2021