Selection Process and Review Criteria
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 SBIR or STTR award, their application is sent to NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR). Here, a referral officer will assign the application to a small business 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. For Phase II SBIR/STTR applications, a technology’s commercialization potential is also evaluated during the review process.
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 SBIR or STTR 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 exert a sustained, powerful influence on the research field(s) involved, in consideration of the following five scored review criteria, and additional review criteria (as applicable for the project proposed).
Scored Review Criteria
Reviewers will consider each of the review criteria below in the determination of scientific 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 critical 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? Does the proposed project have commercial potential to lead to a marketable product, process or service? (In the case of Phase II, Fast-Track, and Phase II Competing Renewals, does the Commercialization Plan demonstrate a high probability of commercialization?)
Are the PD(s)/PI(s), collaborators, and other researchers well suited to the project? If Early Stage Investigators or New Investigators, or in the early stages of independent careers, 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?
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? Have the investigators presented strategies to ensure a robust and unbiased approach, as appropriate for the work proposed? 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? Does the Phase I application specify clear, appropriate, measurable goals (milestones) that should be achieved prior to initiating Phase II? Have the investigators presented adequate plans to address relevant biological variables, such as sex, for studies in vertebrate animals or human subjects?
If the project involves human subjects and/or NIH-defined clinical research, are the plans to address 1) the protection of human subjects from research risks, and 2) inclusion (or exclusion) of individuals on the basis of sex/gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as the inclusion or exclusion of children, justified in terms of the scientific goals and research strategy proposed
Will the scientific environment in which the work will be done contribute to the probability of success? Are the institutional support, equipment and other physical resources available to the investigators adequate for the project proposed? Will the project benefit from unique features of the scientific environment, subject populations, or collaborative arrangement?
Additional Review Criteria
As applicable for the project proposed, reviewers will evaluate the following additional items while determining scientific and technical merit, and in providing an overall impact score, but will not give separate scores for these items.
Phase II Applications
For Phase II Applications, how well did the applicant demonstrate progress toward meeting the Phase I objectives, demonstrating feasibility, and providing a solid foundation for the proposed Phase II activity?
Phase I/Phase II Fast-Track Applications
For Phase I/Phase II Fast-Track Applications, reviewers will consider the following:
- Does the Phase I application specify clear, appropriate, measurable goals (milestones) that should be achieved prior to initiating Phase II?
- To what extent was the applicant able to obtain letters of interest, additional funding commitments, and/or resources from the private sector or non-SBIR/STTR funding sources that would enhance the likelihood for commercialization?
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 human subjects and/or NIH-defined 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.
The committee will evaluate the involvement of live vertebrate animals as part of the scientific assessment according to the following criteria: (1) description of proposed 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 euthanasia method if NOT consistent with the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals. Reviewers will assess the use of chimpanzees as they would any other application proposing the use of vertebrate animals. For additional information on review of the Vertebrate Animals section, please refer to the Worksheet for Review of the Vertebrate Animal Section.
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.
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.
Phase IIB Competing Renewals
For Phase IIB Applications, the committee will consider the progress made in the last funding period.
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 consider each of the following items, but will not give scores for these items, and should not consider them in providing an overall impact score.
Select Agent 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; (3) Genomic Data Sharing Plan.
Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources
For projects involving 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.