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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a major source of funding for biomedical research at the College of Medicine. The NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability. The NIH is made up of 27 Institutes and Centers, each with a specific research agenda, often focusing on particular diseases or body systems.
Parent announcements are arguably the most common funding mechanism used by the NIH. These omnibus funding announcements enable applicants to submit investigator-initiated grant applications to any participating Institute or Center (IC). With any parent announcement, it would be a mistake to assume that all participating ICs use the mechanism in the same manner. Each participating IC may have unique goals or requirements that may very well impact your decision to pursue funding with that IC. Once you identify a funding mechanism that is right for you, review the latest parent announcement to identify which ICs participate, then follow-up by contacting the relevant ICs to discuss how they utilize the mechanism to see if it is a good fit.
Paylines, Percentiles and Success Rates
Paylines are used by a number of institutes and centers (ICs) to establish a cutoff point beyond which they will not fund applications. Some ICs establish paylines at the beginning of the fiscal year, while others do not calculate paylines until they have a clear idea of their budget capacity. Having a score less than or equal to the payline is a good indication, but not a guarantee of funding. For example, some ICs may reach beyond the payline to fund an application to maintain mission focus, balance portfolios, or to limit redundancy.
The NIH uses percentiles to adjust for scoring discrepancies. Each application is ranked by impact score relative to other applications reviewed by the same study section in the current and previous two meetings. An application that was ranked in the fifth percentile is considered more meritorious than 95 percent of the applications reviewed by that committee. This kind of ranking permits comparison across committees that may have different scoring behaviors. Not all applications are percentiled. Whether an application is percentiled depends on the grant mechanism, the institute, and the funding opportunity. For example, applications submitted in response to a request for applications (RFA) are never percentiled.
Success rates represent the percentage of applications an IC funded as compared to the number referred to it. The NIH RePORT website provides a wealth of information on current success rates by Institute and Center.
Some Institutes and Centers post their current paylines and success rates; some do not. For a discussion on how to interpret paylines and success rates, refer to this 2011 blog post from Dr. Sally Rockey, the Deputy Director for Extramural Research at the NIH
NIH Career Development (“K”) Awards provide support for individuals who have demonstrated independent research accomplishments and need additional experience to establish or sustain an independent research program. The NIH offers two types of “K” awards – mentored and unmentored.
This table illustrates the key differences between these funding mechanisms.
Not sure where to get started? The NIH’s center for Research Training and Career Development has an interactive tool that matches you with potential career awards based on your career level.
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 three or more reviewers by the SRO approximately six 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
Prior to the study section meeting, each reviewer is tasked with determining individual criterion scores for your application based on the NIH’s nine-point rating scale, as follows:
At least five individual criteria are scored by each reviewer:
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 their eRA Commons account.
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 their eRA Commons account roughly 30 days after the study section meeting.
- Center for Scientific Review – 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 six 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.
- Center for Scientific Review Video Series: The Center for Scientific Review produced a series of videos on the grant review process. These videos are available for free viewing 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
To find out what an Institute or Center has funded through different mechanisms, explore the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool (RePORT), a publicly accessible website that provides a central point of access for reports, data, and analyses of federally funded research from the NIH and several other federal agencies.
Matchmaker is a new extension of the NIH RePORTER system that makes it easy to find similar projects already funded by the NIH. Are you an investigator looking for the right home for your grant? Matchmaker can help you find which NIH institutes and Centers have funded similar work, and where that work was reviewed. Enter abstracts or other scientific text and Matchmaker will return a list of 100 similar projects, listing them in decreasing similarity via a “match score.”
The Center for Scientific Review (CSR) at the National Institutes of Health recruits up and-coming researchers into its Early Career Reviewer Program to help meet the needs for reviewing NIH grant applications now and in the future.
CSR organizes the peer review groups that evaluate the majority of the 80,000 grant applications researchers submit to NIH each year. It recruits over 16,000 experienced and respected researchers to participate in peer review groups each year.
The Early Career Reviewer Program helps emerging researchers advance their careers by exposing them to review experience and it enriches the existing pool of NIH reviewers by including scientists from a wide range of disciplines.
ECRs remain in the program until they have had a chance to serve on a CSR study section or have received an NIH R01 award or the equivalent. Following service as an ECR, you may be asked to attend subsequent review meetings as a temporary reviewer.
Written by an internationally recognized cancer researcher, the article provides some practical advice for identifying the right funding opportunity and developing a winning proposal.
This article discusses the art and science of writing competitive proposals. It was written by Caroline Wardle, PhD who joined the NSF in 1990 as a Program Director in the CISE Office of Cross Disciplinary Activities (CDA), which is now the Office of International and Integrative Activities (IIA). Prior to joining the NSF, she was a faculty member at Boston University where she founded and chaired the Department of Computer Science.
This article was written by Sara Rockwell, PhD, when she was Associate Dean for Scientific Affairs at Yale University School of Medicine. A Penn State alumna, Dr. Rockwell was honored by the University in March 2011 with the Distinguished Alumni Award – the highest honor bestowed by Penn State upon an outstanding alumna or alumnus. Her research focuses on laboratory studies aimed at understanding the biology of solid tumors and improving the treatment of cancer. The results of her research have been published in over 200 scientific publications and have been presented in over 250 papers at national and international scientific meetings. She has served as an advisor in various capacities for the NIH, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration, the Department of Energy, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the State of Connecticut, as well as for several universities and charitable organizations.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) comprises seven directorates, each of which covers a specific area of science. Each NSF directorate is composed of divisions, which are further subdivided into programs overseen by program directors.
Program directors oversee the merit review process and recommend proposals for funding based on proposal rankings from panel review, consideration of budgetary restrictions, and research funded in previous cycles.
Program directors are generally appointed for two-year terms and are typically university professors with a track record of NSF funding and a history of research within the given program area.
Visit the NSF website to learn more about the agency’s organizational structure and merit review process.
Types of Funding Opportunities
NSF utilizes a variety of mechanisms to generate proposals. The majority of proposals are investigator-initiated (unsolicited). It is wise to contact appropriate program directors to discuss a proposed research topic to determine the most appropriate mechanisms. Some programs may require a preliminary proposal before a complete proposal can be submitted. The NSF recognized four categories of funding opportunities:
- Program Descriptions: These broad, general descriptions of programs was typically the home for investigator-initiated (unsolicited) proposals.
- Program Announcements: Similar to Program Descriptions.
- Program Solicitations: Solicitations encourage submission of proposals in specific program areas of interest to the NSF. Solicitations are more focused and generally active for a limited time period.
- Dear Colleague Letters: Dear Colleague Letters clarify or amend NSF policy, inform the community of upcoming opportunities, special competitions, or supplements to existing awards.
- Confessions of an NSF Program Director
- Special Report: Can NSF Put the Right Spin on Rotators? (October 2013, Science)
Started in 1996, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is the NSF’s most prestigious award to recognize junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar. The CAREER Program is an NSF-wide program, which means all directorates participate at some level. More than 200 programs across the Directorates review CAREER proposals. Review and Funding methods vary according to Directorate and Division practices.
Who Does it Support?
The CAREER Award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. NSF encourages submission of CAREER proposals from junior faculty members at all CAREER-eligible organizations and especially encourages women, members of underrepresented minority groups, and persons with disabilities to apply.
What Does it Support?
As a career development award, all CAREER proposals must have an integrated research and education plan at their core. Proposed education activities may be in a broad range of areas and may be directed to any level: K-12 students, undergraduates, graduate students, and/or the general public, but should be related to the proposed research. A CAREER proposal must indicate the goals and objectives of the proposed education activities, how it will be integrated with the research component, and the criteria for assessing how these goals will be met. Principal investigators are strongly encouraged to describe how the impact of the educational activities will be assessed or evaluated.
What is the size of a typical CAREER Award?
In most directorates, the minimum CAREER award, including indirect costs, will total $400,000 for the five-year duration.
What Are the Basic Eligibility Requirements?
- By the Directorate’s deadline for application submission, the PI must hold a PhD in an area of science supported by NSF.
- By the Directorate’s deadline for application submission, the PI must be untenured.
- To remain eligible to receive a CAREER award, the PI must remain untenured until Oct. 1 following the submission deadline.
- To remain eligible to receive a CAREER award, the PI must have received no previous CAREER awards.
Who has received CAREER awards in my area of science?
NSF makes the abstracts of all funded proposals available on its website. To search for active and/or expired awards, conduct an advanced search and enter 1045 into the Reference Code field.
- NSF’s CAREER Program Website
- CAREER Program contacts at the NSF
- Latest CAREER Program Solicitation – NSF 17-537 (released by the NSF Jan. 24, 2017)
- Frequently Asked Questions – NSF 17-050
- Webcast archives from the Fall 2016 NSF Grants Conference
To identify which projects to support, the NSF relies on a merit review process that considers both the technical components of a proposed project and its potential to contribute more broadly to advancing the NSF’s mission “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.”
The merit review process centers on two criteria established by the National Science Board, the policy-making body of the NSF:
- Intellectual Merit: What is the potential for the proposed activity to advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
- Broader Impacts: What is the potential for the proposed activity to benefit society or to advance desired societal outcomes?
Some NSF funding announcements will include additional criteria as required to highlight the specific objectives of certain programs and activities.
Proposal and Award Process
The timeline for proposal review can take upwards of six months from the time a proposal is received at the NSF. Learn more about the processing and review timeline here.
Role of Program Directors
NSF program directors (also referred to as program officers) play a key role in the merit review process. These individuals oversee the merit review process and recommend proposals for funding based on proposal rankings from the review process, consideration of budgetary restrictions, and research funded in previous cycles.
Program directors make an “award” or “decline” recommendation to division directors, who generally have final programmatic approval for funding proposals.
Program directors are generally appointed for two-year terms and have a history of research within the given program area. Approximately one-third of NSF program directors are not federal employees, but “rotators” on loan from their home institution. The NSF credits these rotational programs, which employ scientists, engineers, and educators on rotational assignment from academia, industry, or other eligible organizations, as critical to furthering the agency’s mission of supporting the entire spectrum of science and engineering research and education.
Role of Reviewers and Review Panel
Nearly every proposal is evaluated by a minimum of three independent reviewers who prepare written reviews and assign preliminary ratings to proposals – a primary reviewer, secondary reviewer, and ad hoc reviewer. If reviewers will serve on a panel, each reviewer may have 10 to 20 proposals to review.
Primary, secondary, and ad hoc reviewers rank each proposal (as Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, or Poor) ahead of the panel meeting. At panel, the primary reviewer serves as lead, summarizing the proposal, discussing its merits, and initiating discussion with the entire panel. After the primary viewer presents the proposal, other reviewers provide their perspective. Discussion is then open to the entire panel, which may consist of 15 to 20 individuals.
During panel discussion, assigned reviewers may change their review. At the end of the process, proposals are ranked and the panel makes its recommendation to the Program Director.
The NSF keeps panel membership confidential and holds panelists to strict Conflict of Interest (COI) policies.
The Panel Summary is the written record of the panel’s discussion of a proposal. It is written by the scribe – a role assigned to one of the three independent reviewers – and addresses proposal strengths and weaknesses. All proposals that are reviewed get a Panel Summary, which is provided to the PI.
How an NSF Panel Functions (Report to the National Science Board, FY 2014)
This annual report to the National Science Board (NSB) includes data and other information about the NSF’s merit review process for fiscal year (FY) 2014. In FY 2014, NSF acted on 48,051 competitively reviewed full proposals and made 10,958 awards, which corresponds to a 23% success rate for competitively reviewed proposals.
The NSF’s merit review criteria cover both the quality of research (intellectual and technical merit), as well as its potential impact on society (broader impact). On this section of its website, the NSF separates fact from fiction.
Prepared by the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (December 2015).
Potential panelists or reviewers should contact a Program Director in their particular subfield, by e-mail or telephone, to let them know of their interest in serving as either an ad hoc mail reviewer or panelist to evaluate proposals submitted to the program.
NSF offers a chance for scientists, engineers and educators to join them as temporary program directors – called rotators. You can become a rotator either as a Visiting Scientist, Engineer, and Educator (VSEE) or as an Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) assignee. While rotators can come on temporary assignment under the IPA program for up to four years, most rotating assignments last one to two years. The NSF is particularly interested in attracting women and underrepresented minority candidates to these positions.
This is the official guide for submitting proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF) – effective January 2016. NSF Notice 16-1 provides a summary of significant changes and clarifications from the previous version of the Grant Proposal Guide.
Most proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) are peer-reviewed in panels consisting of colleagues in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines or related fields, and the success in obtaining funding depends in great measure on reviewers’ judgments and their written reviews. The staff of the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) at the National Science Foundation (NSF) compiled this online guide to help potential awardees. The suggestions for improving proposals were collected from a variety of sources, including NSF Program Directors, panel reviewers, and successful grantees. The guide also provides general guidance to potential NSF applicants on everything from how to read an NSF solicitation to an overview of the peer review process.
This article is written by Susan Finger, MD, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. For several years, Dr. Finger served as a program officer with the NSF, which gave her unique insights into the funding environment at the NSF. This article is a helpful resource for those new to NSF funding seeking some general advice on proposal preparation and the peer review process.
This article includes information from George Hazelrigg, PhD, Program Director at the NSF, who has been involved in the review of thousands of NSF applications during his tenure with the agency, as well as other funding experts.