How Application Assignments Are Made

The Division of Receipt and Referral (DRR) in the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) assigns each application to a review group with the expertise to evaluate the scientific and technical merit of the application and to one or more institutes/centers for funding consideration.

While many NIH policies give authority to the DRR to determine assignments, staff of the DRR consult with institutes, scientific review officers (SROs) and their supervisors, and with applicants to reach the most appropriate assignment. How much of the application is read in making an assignment? The honest answer is as much of the application as is needed to make the determination. Referral staff have access to the entire application. In many cases, they concentrate on the Abstract and Specific Aims in making an assignment, with attention also paid to the Research Strategy. Requests made by investigators and the assignment of previous applications are also considered. Referral staff regularly discuss the assignment of applications and how to handle unusual situations.

The assignment of a grant application involves a series of decisions:

  • An institute or center is identified for primary assignment for funding consideration. This determination is based on the focus and mission of each of the institutes and centers of NIH. Due to the increasingly multidisciplinary nature of scientific inquiry, the complex biological problems being addressed, and the use of many common research methodologies the institutes/centers share many common interests. Their interests are described on the main NIH Web site. Assignments are limited to the institutes/centers that participate in the specific FOA used for application submission.
  • Applications may also receive dual assignments. Dual assignments acknowledge shared interests in a topic and make all appropriate institutes/centers aware of the application. The primary assignment is reflected in the assignment number (CA for the National Cancer Institute, AG for the National Institute on Aging, etc.). When multiple dual assignments are made, a rank order (secondary, tertiary, etc.) is not established. Both the primary and dual institute/center have access to the application and summary statement and advisory councils of both consider it. However, a dual assignment does not necessarily increase the chance of an award. The frequency of a dual assignment leading to a change to primary and award is less than 2%.
  • Finally, the grant application is assigned for review to CSR or to one of the study sections (scientific review groups) at an institute/center. CSR reviews most R01s, fellowships, and small business applications. Institute review groups handle applications that have institute-specific features such as program projects, training grants, career development awards, and many responses to Requests for Applications.

For applications assigned to an institute review branch for peer review, a general assignment is made to that institute; the staff in the review unit subsequently decides whether the application is to be reviewed by a standing committee or by a special emphasis panel.

For applications to be reviewed within CSR, a two-stage process is employed with initial assignment to the Integrated Review Group (IRG; a cluster of scientifically related study sections) level and subsequent assignment to a specific study section. By assigning all applications to the IRG rather than directly to an individual study section, the Chief and the SROs have the opportunity to gain a broad perspective of the areas of science covered by the IRG and to appreciate changes in emphasis and the emergence of new areas. A number of methods are used to determine assignments to study section, though all involve discussions among the scientific review officers and the Chief. Finally, the IRGs also have the option of suggesting that the application is more appropriate for a different IRG; they may discuss this with other SROs or IRG Chiefs or return the application to the DRR for reassignment.

Note: The terms study section and scientific review group (SRG) are normally used for continuing review groups in CSR and the institutes/centers, respectively. These are groups with members who have been appointed for multi-year terms of service; at any given meeting there are also usually temporary members present to provide any additional expertise needed. Special emphasis panels (SEPs) are review groups formed on an ad hoc basis to review applications requiring special expertise or when a conflict of interest situation occurs.

Information about the assignment (review and institute/center) is accessed through the eRA Commons:

  • The assignment number, which is in the format 1 R01 CA987654-01, provides the following information:
    • The type

      Type 1 = new application

      Type 2 = renewal application

      Type 3 = revision application
    • The activity code (R01, F32, etc.)
    • The IC with primary assignment (in this example CA stands for the National Cancer Institute)
    • A unique identifier - "987654"
    • The year and any suffix (01 is year 1, A1 indicates the first resubmission, S is used for revision)
  • Any dual assignments are indicated by the additional two-letter code.
  • The review assignment, including the name of the study section/special emphasis panel and the name, address, and telephone number of the scientific review officer (SRO). The SRO is now the primary point of contact for the investigator throughout the peer review process.

If the above information is not available in eRA Commons within two weeks of submission, you should promptly contact the Division of Receipt and Referral (301-435-0715; csrdrr@mail.nih.gov).

If there are questions about the appropriateness of the assignment, the investigator should contact the SRO for review assignment questions or the DRR for institute/center assignment questions. If a change in institute assignment is requested, it is most efficient to e-mail the request to csrdrr@mail.nih.gov. The DRR will notify the investigator if the change is not possible. When the review location, primary institute, or timetable for consideration (council round) is changed for an application, the information will be updated in eRA Commons.