NIH Basics: The Study Section

A comment from drieken on a previous post asks:
Can anyone provide some context (eg, what's a study section that's not in the library?) for us not-yet-researchers?
This was echoed by a recent comment over at Evil Monkey's pad.

is there an online resource that explains the entire grant review process (NIH, NSF, whatever)?

There was also an email I received some time ago asking for an overview of the NIH system (sorry for the delay on that!).
Let's start with the NIH study section and how you should go about educating yourself with the information that you need to guide your own grant writing.


The study section is the panel of scientists who review a group of similarly-themed grant applications for the NIH. This is the initial (and some might say most important) level of review of the merit of a proposal. A typical study section might be 20-30 scientists who meet in person, traditionally in Washington DC or Bethesda (but now elsewhere), for 2-3 days to discuss applications. There are variants, however, including larger panels, longer meetings and even very small focused panels of ~3-8 reviewers who only discuss applications by conference call.
The Center for Scientific Review of the NIH administers the workings of the majority of panels. A list is here: http://www.csr.nih.gov/Roster_proto/sectionI.asp. This is the place to start your research into how your grant applications are likely to be reviewed and therefore how you should write them!
If you click on a specific study section you will first find a description of the areas of focus for that panel. Click on the "roster" link and you will find additional links to the appointed member rosters as well as the rosters for three of the most-recent meetings.
[Of course this is not news to my Readers. You already have been thinking about the typical study sections to which you might submit, familiarizing yourself with the types of reviewers that are on those panels, etc. Right? If not, you have homework. Yes, even you graduate students! ]
The appointed members are scientists who have accepted an invitation to serve on each meeting of the panel for a four year period. It is permissible to skip one of the meetings here and there but generally these individuals are committing to reviewing grants three times a year for four years. Intervals of service overlap such that there are always individuals rotating off after the June/July meetings and other individuals rotating into service during the October/November meetings. These individuals form the core of the study section culture and have the greatest overall impact on review behavior. It would be a very good idea for you to know what these people work on, where their scientific interests lie, etc. If you are new to the field (or even just don't know these scientists and their work) perhaps it would also be a very good idea to make sure they are on your schmooze list at scientific meetings. What could it possibly hurt that they can connect a face (and your witty convivial personality) with your name on the application? And what the heck? You might even ask them to have a coffee to discuss the nitty gritty of grant review since you are "a young scientist anticipating submitting grants to that study section and wish to educate myself on grant review which is a giant and frightening mystery". Trust me, people will eat that up and regale you with all kinds of interesting stuff.
The dated panels include the appointed members who were actually reviewing grants that round as well as an additional number of ad hoc reviewers generally indicated with an asterix. (The relevant dated roster, btw, is appended to the summary statement you receive for your grant application.) The ad hoc reviewers serve to enhance the breadth of the panel based upon the grants that have been assigned for that particular round (one of the key SRO jobs is to round up the ad hoc reviewers). These individuals may receive a relatively full load of applications or only contribute a single review (generally by phone in that case). They may be new to grant reviewing (this is one way the SRO can check out someone for potential appointment to the panel at a later time), be a frequent ad hoc reviewer (for this or a diversity of panels) or be a person who used to be appointed on the panel in the past. Obviously the individuals in question will not give you the most specific information because s/he may never review again for that panel. Keep in mind, however, that you can start to suss out a certain type of reviewer that is likely to be selected by the SRO. Similarly, the ad hoc reviewers frequently do come back and frequently make the rounds of a small group of study sections. A small group of study sections with similar interests to which you might conceivably be assigned for various of your applications. Remember, you are in this for the long haul so think beyond a single study section.
Beyond this, the study section is entirely simple.
1) Your grant gets assigned to 3 reviewers who receive your grant about 6 weeks prior to the study section meeting.
2) They carefully and thoughtfully read each proposal, assigning both a narrative critique and a preliminary score to each application. Eventual scores range from 100 (excellent) to 500 (not so). Reviewers use single unit with one decimal point scores- 1.2, 2.4, etc which will eventually translate into the familiar 120, 240 scores.
3) Preliminary scores and critiques are submitted one week prior to the meeting in the electronic reviewer system which is hosted at eRA Commons. All the reviewers assigned to a given grant can then review the critiques and scores and decide to modify their positioning on an application if so persuaded.
4) A triage line is drawn. Currently about 60% of applications are not scheduled for discussion at the meeting and will (generally) not receive a score. The remaining 40% will be further discussed.
5) Grants are discussed with each reviewer presenting his or her review. There can then be a bit of discussion between the reviewers to argue out differences of opinion. The other members of the panel frequently chime in as well.
6) The three reviewers then issue their "post-discussion" scores which, hopefully, describe a range with even better agreement than the initial scores.
7) The entire panel votes within the range of post-discussion scores.
Simple, eh?
HAH! This is where things get interesting and we'll have to discuss the devilish details in subsequent posts.

18 responses so far

  • PhysioProf says:

    They carefully and thoughtfully read each proposal[.]

    HAHAHAHAHAH!!!

  • ---"study sections to which you might submit, familiarizing yourself with the types of reviewers that are on those panels"---
    Some of us learned this the hard way.

  • Steve says:

    Ignorance is bliss. I shouldn't have asked...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Ignorance is bliss. I shouldn't have asked...
    oh, we are just getting started, my friend. bwaaaahhhhhaaaaaahaaaahaaa! Welcome to the terror dome...

  • Becca says:

    O Wise and Wonderous DrugMonkey... thank you for another extremely useful post. Like always, that just means I have more questions 🙂
    How can you tell from a study section what type of application (funding mechanisms) they review? Obviously most are R01s, but some are fellowship specific, do fellowships end up in general ones if there isn't a targeted fellowship study section on a particular topic (or is there no point in writing a fellowship application if there is no study section that would apply)? Do they do all the kangaroo grants in batches, or do they get funded with the R01s?
    How does someone end up as an appointed member (as PP might say- who do you direct your reach arounds to?)?
    Where does it tell me what Institute each study section corresponds to? Does it matter?
    Is there any way to find out what the history of scores and funding cutoffs look like for a particular study section?
    Oh! and while I'm thinking of it... On CRISP, I can look up an investigators R01 and it will tell me what Institutes/offices they are funded through... one of my favorite researchers is actually funded through the "office of the directorate" how does that work?
    Is it any easier/harder to write for an "office" (like ODR- http://ods.od.nih.gov/) that doesn't have it's own funds than for an "institute" that does?
    Am I thinking about all this way too much for a graduate student?

  • neurograd says:

    Don't forget to talk to your Program Officer at whatever institute your grant is going to. They can often tell you what kinds of grants are going to get funded and what aren't as well as pay-lines and all other sorts of things. It is good to get to know them!

  • Steve says:

    I completely forgot about the Program Officer. I remember my last PI working himself up for days just so he could call the Program Officer to talk to him/her (he was a new hire looking for that first grant) while my previous PI told him to grow some balls and just do it (god I miss her...).

  • anony says:

    Is it permissible to approach program officers via email? Or do they avoid written communication for fear of legal concerns?

  • PhysioProf says:

    Is it permissible to approach program officers via email?

    Of course! I exchange e-mails with my various program officers on an ongoing basis.

    Or do they avoid written communication for fear of legal concerns?

    Of course not. The only thing they avoid is making promises of funding until awards are actually issued.

  • Hi - Saw this on Nature News and thought of this post, so came back to share: http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080728/full/news.2008.988.html. It examines the "fairness" of the NIH grant review process.

  • VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks for this! I just wish the CIHR (Canadian equivalent) would do the same - they only announce panel members after the fact, and there's faster reviewer turnover, so you can never be sure. Another issue is that, with a smaller pool of reviewers, you're much less likely to get reviewers who specialise in your field.
    One question I have is about submitting applications to specific RFAs, like this one. (As a foreign institute, we're much more likely to be successful in these competitions than in the standard R01 process). Is a specific study section convened for these grants, which do not always follow the standard R01 deadlines and review dates, or are they sent to the closest existing panel? I have not been able to extract this information from any of the RFA announcements I've seen.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    RFA apps are reviewed in specially convened sections called Special Emphasis Panels. I am not familiar with any RFAs sending to established panels but it wouldn't shock me if some did.

  • VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks, good to know. I'll do some more digging and see if I can pull any names out of the website.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    If you go to here
    http://www.csr.nih.gov/Roster_proto/allother_sep.asp
    you will see the list of SEPs that are "recurring". Now, my memory suggests that this page used to have a bigger range including non-recurring SEPs. Can't figure out where those have gone but I'll look around a bit.
    The trouble is that those will give you very little information about your upcoming roster for a new SEP, I assume unless it is a recurring SEP. These latter are more helpful but I think are more in the way of becoming regular sections or something like that. Probably not relevant to RFAs but I don't know for sure.

  • PhysioProf says:

    The vast majority of RFAs are reviewed by internal Institute Special Emphasis Panels. Rosters of these panels can be obtained via this page:
    http://era.nih.gov/roster/index.cfm

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Bear in mind, though, that a panel for any given RFA is generally not formed until after the submission deadline, so there is no way to really know who will be on there. RFAs are often narrowly focused to a specific sub-subfield, so the SRO will have limited degrees of freedom after seeing who submitted applications -- often half the sub-subfield applies, so the other half reviews.

  • BioinformaticsGuy says:

    "They carefully and thoughtfully read each proposal"
    I think you've been misinformed. After receiving several NIH summary statements for unfunded grants, I am trying to figure out what kind of tricks/strategies I can use to ensure the reviewers actually *DO* read my grant.
    It's clear from their statements about what they *think* I'm proposing that they did not read it carefully. In fact, sometimes they miss entire sections dedicated to addressing some concern that they bring up and I honestly don't know how to tell them politely in the revision that, contrary to their statement, an entire half-page was dedicated to it with all the main points in bold so that (presumably) nobody would miss them.

  • You simply have no choice but to take responsibility for their failure to understand what you were trying to tell them, and take measures to ensure that they do. I suggest that you have your grant read by other people in your field--but not your subfield--to see how it reads. If it is not being correctly understood, then, by definition, you are not writing it correctly for your audience.

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