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 Pioneer Award is administered by the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR), which puts together a Special Emphasis Panel to review all Pioneer 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 Pioneer 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 Pioneer 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 mail reviewers in Phase I and by a broad thinking editorial panel in Phase II.
Pioneer Award applications are meant to support individual scientists of exceptional creativity who propose pioneering -- and possibly transformative -- research that, if successful, will have a major impact on a broad area of relevance to the NIH. Pioneer Award applications do not require preliminary data, specific aims, or a detailed research plan. Accordingly, reviewers will emphasize the following:
- The significance and innovation of the proposed project.
- The investigator's evidence for past innovation and the ability to commit effort that is sufficient for the proposed project.
- A change in research direction that is not a logical extension or scale-up of ongoing efforts. The change should be motivated by a fundamental new insight that prompts a new line of research or a substantial departure from an existing line of research.
All standard NIH review criteria are used to evaluate applications (some are listed below), but emphases will be on the significance of the problem, qualities of the investigator, and suitability of the proposal for the Pioneer Award.
- 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 "mail" reviewers, who submit their assessments electronically and do not discuss the applications with other reviewers. Two of the "mail" reviewers are assigned based on the broad science areas chosen for the application by the applicant (and designated in the "Agency Routing Identifier"). The third "mail" reviewer has expertise outside the area. Each "mail" reviewer 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.
The editorial panel uses the comments and scores from the "mail" reviewers to help identify a subset of ~25 of the most "pioneering" applicants for an in-person or virtual interview with the editorial panel.
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 "mail" reviewers.
Before the interview, the assigned reviewers for each application provide a preliminary overall impact score and brief description of the application. The investigator is then invited to give a brief presentation followed by Q&A from panel members. The interview focuses on the qualifications and track record of the investigator, the broad impact potential of the proposed project, and the suitability of the proposal for the Pioneer Award.
Following the interview, the panel discusses the application and provides final scores. 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 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 qualifications of the investigator, the importance of the scientific problem, 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 reviewers 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 Pioneer 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 may be used to address issues and concerns brought up by reviewers and reinforce the strengths of the application. 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 Pioneer 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 and is not asked to provide recommendations on which particular applications should be funded. 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 PioneerAwards@mail.nih.gov.
This page last reviewed on July 16, 2020