The peer review committee meets to review my grant application in 22 days.
I had the opportunity to take part in a mock review through my Cyber Mentors
program. It was a harrowing yet fantastic experience. I am assured that the process was very much like a real grant review - certainly, the people conducting it regularly serve on peer review committees for NIMH - except that my mentor and I got to listen in by conference call.
So I have a much better idea of what is happening to my grant right now than I did the last time through.
Peer review happens like this: Your grant is assigned to a "study section," a group of scientists drafted by NIH to review applications of a certain broad type, topic, or speciality. I am lucky in this regard, because NIMH has a speciality subsection for grants of my exact
type (R34s proposing AIDS-related interventions), which means that my grant is not going up against projects with bigger scopes and/or more completed preliminary work. Within the study section, two or three people are assigned to review your grant.
The primary reviewers decide whether your grant falls within the upper half of applications. If it doesn't, that's the end of the road. They write up some comments for you and your grant is "unscored" - it never makes it to a full study section meeting.
If the primary reviewers agree that your grant is in the top half of the pile, it gets presented at the study section meeting. All the peer reviewers meet at NIMH, and the primary reviewers take turns presenting the grants they've read. There is some general discussion and a time for questions, and then everyone assigns your grant a score. The primary reviewers write up comments, plus the NIH staff member assigned to the study section summarizes the group discussion.
This is the part I didn't really grasp before I participated in the mock review. It is absolutely harrowing
to listen to someone with only a vague understanding of your grant application pitch it to a group and answer questions about it, potentially mangling it in a way you have no control over. The other study section members have the opportunity
to read all the grants, but realistically speaking they are only likely to read the abstract and perhaps the Specific Aims section, which outlines the purpose and goals of the study. So what the review committee thinks of your grant is pretty much entirely dependent on what is conveyed by the primary reviewer.
Many of the grantsmanship strategies I learned from my mentor during this process had to do with spelling things out for the reviewers, making it easy for them to fill out their review forms, and making sure they don't miss any of the important stuff. At first I kind of rolled my eyes about some of her suggestions, but after the mock review it became clear why
she wanted me to do things like briefly recap the entire grant application in the Aims section, use bolded topic sentences in the Background & Significance section so that someone who is quickly scanning will get the gist of my argument, and include homework-helper sections like the paragraph that begins "This proposal is innovative because..."
I "know," in the professional way that you know people in your field, two of the thirteen people assigned to the study section. They're both very good. I don't know anything about the other eleven. I will never know who the primary reviewers of my grant are.
Sometime after March 23rd, I'll log on to the NIH eRA Commons and click on my grant application, and there will be a score and a percentile. A few days after that, there will also be a written review available.
 They've changed the scoring system since the last time I had a grant reviewed. Now grants are ranked on a scale from 1-9 (1=exceptional, 9=poor), and the mean score is multiplied by 10 to produce an "impact score" from 10-90. You can see the criteria I'll be reviewed on here