As many of you may know, the NIH has five main review criteria: Significance, Innovation, Approach, Investigator and Environment. But what does that mean when entering the proposal development mindset?

There are several things one should consider when looking at the review criteria, and this blog post could potentially go on forever, but for now, let’s focus on two questions:

(1) Is there any difference in the relative weight of these criteria vis-à-vis the final outcome?

(2) From where in the grant do reviewers get information to give these scores?

The answer to the first question is “Yes.”

The CSR was also interested in this question, and checked this empirically for R01s. What they found was that by far an application’s Approach score, and to a lesser extent, the Significance score, were the most important predictors of overall impact score and of whether any given application is funded.

criterion score

FreeMind was interested in extending this empirical examination to other types of grants, and especially SBIR/STTRs. What we have found was that the Approach was the leading predictor for SBIR/STTRs as well.

Our take-home message from this is that the main driver of the proposal should be the Approach. Hence, when sitting down to plan a grant it’s important to know that the description of the experimental approach is the most important predictor of funding, followed by the significance of the study. As an applicant, familiarizing yourself with the peer reviewer guidance and questions they are asked about approach and significance may be helpful as you put together your application.

HOWEVER, we’ve never seen an application awarded that got a score of 9 (poor score) in Investigators, Environment or Innovation. These things are intertwined in many cases, and an awarded grant is an application that comes in strong on ALL criteria.

The second question is trivial in some cases, but it’s good to keep an eye out for this to make sure that the application presents a well-rounded message in terms of the review criteria.

Approach: The obvious place for this is, of course, the Approach section of the Research Strategy. That said, the less obvious places include the other sections of the Research Strategy (Significance and Innovation). Also, the vertebrate animals and human subjects sections both feed into the approach.  Scientific rigor now also plays an important factor, but that will be discussed in a separate post.

Significance: Again, the best place to make your case for significance is the Significance section of the Research Strategy, but this too appears in different sections. The commercialization plan, if relevant for your specific grant mechanism, is an excellent place to highlight the significance; with 12 pages allowed here, it enables you to repeat and expand some messages that may have been condensed in the Research Strategy. You could present here the market gaps, limitations of competitors, functional advantages of your product and more. All feeding into why your project has significance.

Innovation: The Innovation section of the Research Strategy is once again the first place for this, however, it is good to repeat the message about innovation also in the Approach section and commercialization section.

Investigator: This is a tricky one. Although one might claim that the biosketches section is the only place for this, you would be shortchanging yourself. We’ve seen good applications mention “the PI has…” or “data generated from our group show…” and similar in the Research Strategy, adding to the overall message that this team is the one to be doing this project.

Environment: Similar to above, while the Resources section is the obvious place, by showing what you’ve done and can do in the Research Strategy, you are also providing reference to the fact that you have the environment to get the work done. This can also be highlighted in the commercialization section when discussing your company.

In short, it’s important to present a full message that provides the reviewers with reasons to give you fantastic scores on all review criteria. That being said, the most important factor is, and always will be, the science and the quality of the proposed research.

Joel Knopf
Manager of Consulting Services