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Selection Process and Review

NIH uses a rigorous dual peer review system to ensure only the most meritorious scientific proposals are funded. Please find more information below about these two levels of review, as well as the five major review criteria and the additional review criteria.

First Level of Review

When a small business applies for an AREA/R15 award, their application is sent to NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR). Here, a referral officer will assign the application to a study section and to the appropriate Institute or Center (IC).

In the study section, the application is assigned to a Scientific Review Officer (SRO), who will recruit the appropriate reviewers to establish the peer review committee.

Before the peer review meeting, the application will be given a preliminary overall impact score (1 – 9), with 1 being the best and 9 being the worst. These preliminary scores are used to determine which applications will be discussed in full at the meeting.

During the peer review meeting, applications that are discussed will be assigned a final impact score , which is based on scientific merit and does NOT determine if the application will be funded.

After the meeting the SRO writes a summary statement and releases the summary and peer review critiques to the applicant and IC.

Second Level of Review

The Advisory Council/Board of the potential awarding Institute or Center (IC) performs the second level of review and gives advice to the IC staff and IC director. Advisory Councils/Boards are composed of scientists from the extramural research community and public representatives. Members are chosen by the respective IC and are approved by the Department of Health and Human Services. Applications submitted will compete for available funds with all other recommended AREA/R15 applications. The following will be considered in making funding decisions:

  • Scientific and technical merit of the proposed project as determined by scientific peer review.
  • Availability of funds.
  • Relevance of the proposed project to program priorities.

The IC director makes the final funding decisions based on staff and Advisory Council/Board advice. The IC Program Officer (PO) will interact with the applicant after peer review. If their application is not funded, they can discuss how the application can be improved if it is resubmitted.

Review Criteria and the Overall Impact Score

During peer review, applications that are discussed will receive an overall impact score, which reflects the reviewers’ assessment of the likelihood for the project to make an important scientific contribution to the research field(s) involved, to provide research opportunities to students, and to strengthen the research environment of the institution, in consideration of the following review criteria and additional review criteria (as applicable for the project proposed).

Scored Review Criteria

Reviewers will consider each of the five review criteria below in the determination of scientific and technical merit, and give a separate score for each. An application does not need to be strong in all categories to be judged likely to have major scientific impact. For example, a project that by its nature is not innovative may be essential to advance a field.


Does the project address an important problem or a barrier to progress in the field? Is there a strong scientific premise for the project? If the aims of the project are achieved, how will scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice be improved? How will successful completion of the aims change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field? If funded, will the AREA award have a substantial effect on the school/academic component in terms of strengthening the research environment and exposing students to research?


Are the PD/PIs, collaborators, and other researchers well suited to the project? If Early Stage Investigators or New Investigators, do they have appropriate experience and training? If established, have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments that have advanced their field(s)? If the project is collaborative or multi-PD/PI, do the investigators have complementary and integrated expertise; are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project? Do the PD(s)/PI(s) have suitable experience in supervising students in research?


Does the application challenge and seek to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms by utilizing novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions? Are the concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions novel to one field of research or novel in a broad sense? Is a refinement, improvement, or new application of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions proposed?


Are the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses well-reasoned and appropriate to accomplish the specific aims of the project? Are potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success presented? If the project is in the early stages of development, will the strategy establish feasibility and will particularly risky aspects be managed? Have the investigators presented adequate plans to address relevant biological variables, such as sex, for studies in vertebrate animals or human subjects? Does the application provide sufficient evidence that the project can stimulate the interests of students so that they consider a career in the biomedical or behavioral sciences?

If the project involves clinical research, are the plans for (1) Protections for Human Subjects, and (2) inclusion of minorities and members of both sexes/genders, as well as the inclusion of children, justified in terms of the scientific goals and research strategy proposed?


Are the institutional support, equipment and other physical resources available to the investigators adequate for the project proposed? Does the application demonstrate the likely availability of well-qualified students to participate in the research project? Does the application provide sufficient evidence that students have in the past or are likely to pursue careers in the biomedical or behavioral sciences?

Additional Review Criteria

As applicable for the project proposed, reviewers will consider the following additional items in the determination of scientific and technical merit, but will not give separate scores for these items.

Protections for Human Subjects

For research that involves human subjects but does not involve one of the six categories of research that are exempt under 45 CFR Part 46, the committee will evaluate the justification for involvement of human subjects and the proposed protections from research risk relating to their participation according to the following five review criteria: 1) risk to subjects, 2) adequacy of protection against risks, 3) potential benefits to the subjects and others, 4) importance of the knowledge to be gained, and 5) data and safety monitoring for clinical trials.

For research that involves human subjects and meets the criteria for one or more of the six categories of research that are exempt under 45 CFR Part 46, the committee will evaluate: 1) the justification for the exemption, 2) human subjects involvement and characteristics, and 3) sources of materials. For additional information on review of the Human Subjects section, please refer to the Guidelines for the Review of Human Subjects.

Inclusion of Women, Minorities, and Children. When the proposed project involves clinical research, the committee will evaluate the proposed plans for the inclusion (or exclusion) of individuals on the basis of sex/gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as the inclusion (or exclusion) of children to determine if it is justified in terms of the scientific goals and research strategy proposed. For additional information on review of the Inclusion section, please refer to the Guidelines for the Review of Inclusion in Clinical Research.

Vertebrate Animals

The committee will evaluate the involvement of live vertebrate animals as part of the scientific assessment according to the following criteria: (1) description of procedures involving animals including species, strains, ages, sex and total number to be used; (2) justifications for the use of animals versus alternative models and for the appropriateness of the species proposed; (3) interventions to minimize discomfort, distress, pain and injury; and (4) justification for the euthanasia method if not consistent with the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals. For additional information, see (PDF - 88 KB)


Reviewers will assess whether materials or procedures proposed are potentially hazardous to research personnel and/or the environment, and if needed, determine whether adequate protection is proposed.

Resubmission Applications

For Resubmissions, the committee will evaluate the application as now presented, taking into consideration the responses to comments from the previous scientific review group and changes made to the project.

Renewal Applications

For Renewals, the committee will consider the progress made in the last funding period.

Revision Applications

For Revisions, the committee will consider the appropriateness of the proposed expansion of the scope of the project. If the Revision application relates to a specific line of investigation presented in the original application that was not recommended for approval by the committee, then the committee will consider whether the responses to comments from the previous scientific review group are adequate and whether substantial changes are clearly evident.

Additional Review Considerations

As applicable for the project proposed, reviewers will address each of the following items, but will not give scores for these items and should not consider them in providing an overall impact/priority score.

Select Agents Research

Reviewers will assess the information provided in this section of the application, including 1) the Select Agent(s) to be used in the proposed research, 2) the registration status of all entities where Select Agent(s) will be used, 3) the procedures that will be used to monitor possession use and transfer of Select Agent(s), and 4) plans for appropriate biosafety, biocontainment, and security of the Select Agent(s).

Resource Sharing Plans

Reviewers will comment on whether the following Resource Sharing Plans, or the rationale for not sharing the following types of resources, are reasonable: 1) Data Sharing Plan; 2) Sharing Model Organisms; and 3) Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS).

Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources

Reviewers will comment on the brief plans proposed for identifying and ensuring the validity of those resources.

Budget and Period of Support

Reviewers will consider whether the budget and the requested period of support are fully justified and reasonable in relation to the proposed research.

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