Peer Review Panels and the Federal Grant Application Evaluations Process

When preparing your federal grant application, you would do well to put yourself – and your team – in the shoes of the people who will be evaluating it. In this post, we will look specifically at grant opportunities that are evaluated (at least in part) with the aid of a peer review panel (Note: Not all are evaluated in this way).

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What Is a Peer Review?

A peer review panel is a group of subject matter experts, often from outside of the federal government, who evaluate grant applications using a set of criteria. Such panels provide their evaluations to the federal grant-making agency staff. Peer reviews occur during the pre-award phase of the grants lifecycle.

How Do I Know If There Will Be a Peer Review Panel?

In short, you will know if the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) says so. Grant-making agencies are required by OMB guidance to explain how an award will be evaluated. You can find this explanation in the FOA, though it is not always easy to locate.

Let’s look at an example: an Idea Development Award for fighting kidney cancer to be awarded by the Department of Defense (Dept. of the Army). To find out if this grant will use a peer review panel to evaluate applications, go to the opportunity page on Grants.gov and click on the Related Documents tab. Then download the Program Announcement file.

Page 29 of the Program Announcement file reads (in part):

“All applications are evaluated by scientists, clinicians, and consumers in a two-tier review process. The first tier is peer review of applications against established criteria for determining technical merit. Each application is evaluated for its own merit, independent of other applications. The second tier is a programmatic review that makes recommendations for funding to the Commanding General… based on technical merit, the relevance to the mission of the DHP and KCRP, the specific intent of the award mechanism, and to other specified evaluation criteria in the Program Announcement. Programmatic review is a comparison-based process in which applications with scientific and technical merit compete in a common pool.”

In this case, applications will first be reviewed by a peer review panel before being sent through a programmatic review “…in which applications with scientific and technical merit compete in a common pool.”

Note: Federal agency websites may also speak to the evaluation process of a specific grant program (here are two examples from the DOJ and NEH), but you should always treat the official FOA as your primary source for evaluation information.

How Will the Panel Evaluate My Application?

This information will also be explained in the FOA.

For the opportunity discussed above, the Program Announcement file devotes nearly five pages to explaining the following evaluation criteria: research strategy and feasibility, innovation, impact, personnel – as well as the unscored criteria of environment, budget, and application presentation.

In explaining the programmatic review criteria, the document cites “ratings and evaluations of the peer reviewers” and relevance to the program’s mission.

Here are a few tips to help you further analyze and prepare for the grant-making agency’s evaluation process:

(1) Read the entire FOA and all of its accompanying documents multiple times.

On subsequent readings, look for clues within the FOA indicating which application elements are most important. Then, devote your time to them accordingly.

For example, parts of this Department of Labor synopsis might guide applicants to hammer home the fact that they are proposing a “new apprenticeship model” or a program that will reach “a new population”.

Such an assumption would be reasonable after reading the following language from the published synopsis (we have italicized certain keywords for emphasis): “The overarching goals of this grant program are threefold: (1) to accelerate the expansion of apprenticeships to new industry sectors reliant on H-1B visas, (2) to promote the large-scale expansion of apprenticeships across the nation, and (3) to increase apprenticeship opportunities for all Americans. Grant funds will be awarded to institutions of higher education in partnership with national industry associations, which together seek to develop, implement, and take to a national scale a new apprenticeship model; or expand an existing apprenticeship program to a new industry sector or occupation or a new population, on a national scale.”

(2) Make sure you speak the language of the peer reviewers in the narrative and explanatory sections of your application.

For example, reviewers from academia will be fluent in a different sort of terminology than reviewers who have mostly worked as practitioners in a non-academic setting.

(3) While you focus on the macro elements of your application, don’t neglect the micro elements.

If your submission has lots of typos and obvious errors, you risk losing the confidence of the panel before they even get into the meat of your proposal. After all, you don’t want your application to be known among reviewers as “the one with all of the typos.”

Do you have something to add to this post? Share your comments below. Also, click here to check out previous installments of the Grant Writing Basics blog series.

Are looking for more information about FOAs? Read the What Is a Funding Opportunity Announcement? and Demystifying Funding Opportunity Announcements on Grants.gov—Grant Writing Basics blog posts.

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