Funding models: Drawing the 'payline'

Research project grants from NIH are the core funding mechanism for extramural biomedical research in the U.S. The majority of these grants are devoted to investigator-initiated applications; however, since 1997 between 9-18% of grants have been funded in response to requests for applications (RFAs) issued by specific institutes.

Investigator-initiated applications are examined by the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), a center separate from individual institutes that directs peer review of applications. Solicited grants and research contracts are usually examined by peer-review panels convened by individual NIH institutes.

CSR assigns grant applications to study sections, which are panels of 12-24 peer reviewers with expertise on specific scientific topics, such as cellular and molecular immunology. For applications requiring specialized expertise not present in the study section, such as a proposal that makes heavy use of a particularly advanced microscopy technique, CSR may add temporary reviewers who may not have general expertise in the section's scientific field.

Each grant is assigned at least three main reviewers within the study section, who provide detailed critiques and score applications on a nine-point system in five areas - experimental approach, scientific environment, investigators, innovation and significance. Each reviewer's overall impact score takes into consideration, but is not an average of, the scores for each criterion.

The reviewers present their scores and discuss the applications with the rest of the study section. The three main reviewers then may revise their scores, and the rest of the study section confidentially records an overall impact score.

After the meeting these scores are averaged and multiplied by ten to determine a final impact score.

Within each study section, grants are assigned a percentile rank based on how they score relative to other applications reviewed by the study section at its last three meetings.

CSR refers these scored grant applications to individual NIH institutes, which largely fund grants according to their percentile rank.

A fixed percentile is established as a "payline" for each institute depending on the number of grants submitted and the amount of funding available; all grants with a percentile rank above the payline are guaranteed funding, while grants below the payline may be funded case by case at the discretion of the institute.

Grants are generally awarded for 3-5 years, after which an investigator may submit a renewal application, which undergoes same peer review process.

- Chris Cain