By Stephanie Cologna, PhD
The NICHD Division of Extramural Research and the Office of Education partnered in mid-September to hold a Mock Study Section and Grant Review panel for fellows. This outstanding activity provided insight into grant review, from submission to decision, and outlined which people to contact during the process.
The submission and review process
Prior to proposal submission, you are encouraged to speak with Program Officers to discuss your scientific interests and proposed research. A Program Officer is an extramural official who advises grant applicants, and at the initial stages of writing the proposal, they offer guidance on selecting a given institute or group of reviewers, called a study section. It is important that your grant proposal “fits” with the institute’s mission. They can also answer specific questions related to the program announcement for a particular grant. You can find a Program Officer by consulting with your colleagues, navigating each institute’s webpage, or by looking under the contact information for a specific Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA).
Grants are submitted through grants.gov. As a fellow at the NIH, you should work with the NICHD Office of Education for proposal submission. As you transition into new positions, your new academic institution will have an office to assist you.
Once submitted, the Scientific Review Officer (SRO) should be your next contact person. The SRO is responsible for the initial peer review of your submission. This person organizes the study section, carries out study section review meetings, and prepares summary statements. The study section can be made up of 20 to 40 established scientists who review the submitted grant proposals. Not all members participate in every study section meeting. Typically a mix of standing members and ad hoc members are involved.
The SRO is responsible for assigning three primary reviewers to each grant submission. Based upon their initial review, a preliminary score is collected, and depending on this score the grant may or may not be discussed during the actual study section review. If discussed, the primary reviewers will give a brief summary and point out details of the application. The chair will open up discussion for all panel members. Then a final summary by the chair will be provided and each member of the committee can submit a final score, which will be used to calculate the final impact score. The impact scores and summary statements, which were written initially by the primary reviewers, will be provided for the applicant’s review.
After scores are released, contacting your Program Officer will allow you to decide how to move forward. Note: All formal communications about your grant application at NIH are done through the eRA Commons system, which allows processing from the submission to the closeout of an award.
The mock study section
Following a brief introduction to the submission and review process, we witnessed a mock study section. During the mock review, we covered several different granting mechanisms, including R03, R01, and K99 grants. In each case, there were typically only one or two people out of the entire panel, which totals about ten people, who were experts in the specific field in which the proposal covered. This is an important point given that all members of the panel score your application. Therefore, you want the three primary reviewers to be excited about your grant as they debrief it to the entire panel.
Other “hints” gleaned from the mock review are:
- Include a cover letter with your submission. The letter can state your institute requests, study section preference, and the title of the proposal or a brief statement about your application.
- Familiarize yourself with the different funding mechanisms available through the NIH. The requirements of a small pilot grant such as the R03 are very different from the expectations of an R01 submission.
- Consider your review audience. Reviewers are typically faculty who are extremely busy. Therefore, it is important that your entire application is reader-friendly. Be sure that your figures are labeled correctly, not too small, and always on the page with the related text. Reviewers appreciate you leaving white space between paragraphs, and using the recommended margins. Also, references should always be complete and accurate—they do get checked.
If you are considering an academic path, this workshop is a great introduction to the grant submission and review process. For fellows who are considering submitting a K99 application, this activity is highly recommended. Remember that submitting a grant is a time-consuming process. Start early and make sure you talk to the appropriate Program Officer to start off on the right foot!
A special thank you to Program Officers Drs. Susan Taymans and Stuart Moss and Scientific Review Officer Dr. David Weinberg from the NICHD Extramural Program, who led this event, and to our mock study section reviewers: Drs. Jurrien Dean (NIDDK), Janice Evans (Johns Hopkins), James Segars (NICHD) Thomas Miller (NICHD), Kevin Francis (NICHD), and Erin Wolff (NICHD).
For additional reading, please refer to the following sources:
- Zatz M. (2011). A view from the NIH bridge: perspectives of a program officer. Mol. Biol. Cell, 22(15): 2661-2663. [PDF]
- Bonetta L. (2009). How to Be a Member of an R01 NIH Study Section. Addendum to Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, second edition. Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund. [PDF]