Merit Review System

Action: Notice (Published in the Federal Register)

Background Summary: The Office of Science (SC) (Formerly Office of Energy Research) published this revision to its Merit Review System in the Federal Register which reflects some desired policy and procedural changes. Changes from the previous version, which was published May 9, 1990, include: (1) clarifying the number of qualified reviewers required for merit review; (2) deleting the requirement for a waiver to accept a competitive application or proposal with fewer than three qualified reviewers in favor of an explanation of the circumstances; and, (3) specifying that the merit review of on-going programs may consist either of a review of the renewal application/proposal or an on-site or off-site review of the technical or scientific progress. The Office of Science Merit Review System, in its entirety, is as follows:

Effective Date: March 11, 1991
Revised August 4, 1999 to reflect name change from Office of Energy Research to Office of Science.

For Further Information Contact: Director, Office of Grants & Contracts Support
(SC-43), Office of Science, U. S. Department of Energy, 19901 Germantown Road, Germantown, MD 20874-1290, Phone (301)903-5212.

Supplementary Information: An amendment to the DOE Financial Assistance Rules (54 FR 41943, October 13, 1989) requires program offices to establish and publish an objective merit review system for research and to ensure its satisfactory functioning.

DOE Office of Science Merit Review System

A. Consistent with 10 CFR 600.13(2) [formerly 10 CFR 600.16(a)(1)], the Office of Science (SC) is publishing its Merit Review System (MRS) for research grant applications received pursuant to 10 CFR Part 605, which was published in the Federal Register on March 19, 1990, (55 FR 10035) and which may be supplemented from time to time by notice of grant availability. In addition, this SC MRS also is used for acquisition research proposals submitted pursuant to the SC Research Opportunity Announcement (ROA) which was published in the Federal Register on November 8, 1988, (53 FR 45234) and which may be amended or superseded from time to time. The solicitation documents discussed above may include information on how SC expects to review and select meritorious research applications and proposals. Reviews related to specific solicitations, Source Evaluation Boards and unsolicited applications/proposals will be conducted in accordance with DOE assistance or acquisition regulations as the case may be.

B. Basic Review Standards

  1. New applications/proposals will be received by the Grants and Contracts Division and assigned to an SC project manager (officer) who will initially screen the document(s) to assure that they meet the following standards before they are subjected to detailed evaluation utilizing merit review.

    1. Sufficient technical/scientific content and merit. Those applications/proposals judged to be so inadequate that detailed evaluation is not warranted will be returned to the sender.

    2. Completeness. Those applications/proposals not meeting the requirements of the Office of Science Financial Program Rule (10 CFR Part 605) or an SC Research Opportunity Announcement may be returned to the sender to be corrected or modified/supplemented by the sender. Until the application/proposal meets the above requirements, it generally will not be given detailed evaluation.

    3. Program Policy and Priorities. Applications/proposals must be relevant to SC's missions and be of sufficient interest to warrant funding. In addition, sufficient funds must be available.

    4. No Unnecessary Duplication or Overlap. Applications/proposals offering to perform research already being supported by DOE or other Federal agencies generally will not be subjected to formal merit review unless there is a cogent programmatic reason to do so.

  2. Determination to Return Application/Proposal. The determination to return an application/proposal will be prepared by the SC project manager and will be approved at least one level higher than that of the project manager.

  3. Evaluation Criteria. Applications/proposals meeting the standards in B.1 above, will be subjected to formal merit review and will be evaluated against the evaluation criteria set forth in 10 CFR Part 605.10.

  4. Additional Reviewers.

    1. The SC project manager will review applications/proposals for technical/scientific merit and program policy factors. In addition, he or she will submit applications/proposals to, generally, at least three qualified reviewers for evaluation in addition to anyone having direct line authority over the project manager, including the selection official, for formal merit review. Instructions to reviewers will include a reasonable length of time for responding to SC's request for a merit review. In those instances where three or more reviews are not obtained, the project manager must provide a written explanation of the situation. This explanation shall be included in a selection statement if the application/proposal is being selected for funding. If the application/proposal is being declined, this explanation shall be placed in the declined file. In the event that the project manager is a reviewer and is also the selection official, the decision shall be approved by the Director, Office of Science or a designee. If no reviews are provided to SC by the selected qualified reviewers, any award must be justified on a non-competitive basis.

    2. Such additional reviewers may be Federal employees, including those from SC that are neither the selecting official nor those in a direct line of supervision above the project manager, or non-Federal employees. Additional reviewers will not include former employees of the project manager's immediate office, or anyone having line authority over that immediate office, within the past one year.

    3. All reviewers serve as advisors to the selecting official and their recommendations are not binding. All significant adverse recommendations will be addressed in writing by the project manager to the selecting official and retained in the official file.

    4. In selecting additional reviewers in accordance with this section B.4, such additional reviewers shall not include anyone who, on behalf of the Federal Government preformed or is likely to perform any of the following duties for any of the applications/proposals:

      1. Providing substantial technical assistance to the applicant/proposer;
      2. Approving/disapproving or having any decision making role regarding the application/proposal;
      3. Serving as the project manager or otherwise monitoring or evaluating the recipient's programmatic performance;
      4. Serving as the Contracting Officer or performing business management functions for the project; or
      5. Auditing the recipient of the project.
    5. Anyone in SC who has line authority over a person who is ineligible to serve as an additional reviewer because of the above limitations also is ineligible to serve as an additional reviewer.

    6. It occasionally may be necessary, after the fact, to change project manager designation, thereby resulting in an individual who participated as an additional reviewer in the evaluation of an application/proposal being appointed as the project manager. This is not a violation of the policy of objective merit review, provided the assignment was not expected when the review was conducted.

C. Comparative Review. In order to enhance the validity of the evaluation, applications/proposals may be evaluated in comparison to each other.

D. Methods of Reviewing On-going Programs. Generally, SC will conduct a merit review before every renewal unless, based upon a review by program staff and one of the criteria listed below, a written determination is made that a project need not be reviewed at each renewal. The project manager shall prepare the determination prior to the date a renewal would become effective and the determination will be subject to the concurrence of the SC Grants and Contracts Division and the approval of the Selecting Offical. In no situation will a grant or contract be renewed for more than six (6) years without a merit review. The criteria to be used as a basis for such a determination are as follows:

  1. Instances involving annual award;
  2. The nature of the project requires additional time for performance; or
  3. Instances where a final period of support is being authorized to provide reasonable time and funds sufficient to bring the project to an orderly close.

Merit reviews of ongoing programs include:

  1. A review of the renewal proposal generally by at least three qualified reviewers who meet the requirements of I.B.4., above and who document their findings and provide them to the SC program official; or
  2. An on-site or off-site review of the scientific or technical program attended generally by at least three qualified reviewers who meet the requirements of I.B.4., above, and who evaluate the program and provide their documented findings to the SC program official.

In those instances where a merit review is not conducted prior to a renewal award, the renewal award is considered to be noncompetitive and must meet the requirements of 10 CFR 600.6(c)(1) [formerly 10 CFR 600.7(b)(2)].

E. Types of Review Groups. SC utilizes various types of review mechanisms to accomplish a merit review; however, within each mechanism the reviewer is selected based upon his/her expertise and professional qualifications as they relate to the field(s) of research contained in the application/proposal. Each reviewer chosen to participate will be provided with a copy of the application/proposal, the SC evaluation criteria from 10 CFR Part 605.10, and other programmatic information needed to conduct the review. Based upon his/her review of these documents, the reviewer is expected to provide the SC project manager with a written analysis based on the pertinent evaluation criteria and other program information for each application/proposal. The types of review mechanisms used by SC and the situations they are used in are as follows:

  1. Field Readers.

    1. Merit review of applications/proposals may be obtained by using field readers to whom applications/proposals are sent for review and comment. Field readers also may be used as an adjunct to review committees when, for example, the type of expertise needed or the volume of applications/proposals to be reviewed requires such auxiliary capacity.

    2. Appropriate action should be taken by SC project managers to ensure that field readers clearly understand the process, their role, and the criteria upon which the applications/proposals are to be evaluated.

    3. For those situations in which a standing committee is determined to be the appropriate review mechanism, but a group of field readers must be used instead, it should function as nearly like a committee as possible. For example, if all members of the standing committee were to evaluate all of the applications/proposals under review, then all field readers must receive all of the applications/proposals to be reviewed even though they are in geographically separate locations and all field readers should be instructed to follow the procedures established for evaluating the applications/proposals.

  2. Standing Committees.

    1. The determination whether it is appropriate to establish and use a standing committee(s) shall be made only by SC. Standing committees are normally appropriate when required by legislation or when the following conditions prevail:

      1. A number of applications/proposals on specific topics sufficient to justify the use of a standing committee(s) is received by the program on a regular basis in accordance with a predetermined review schedule;
      2. There is a sufficient number of persons with the required expertise who are willing and able to (a) accept appointments, (b) serve over reasonably protracted periods of time, and (c) convene at regularly scheduled intervals or at the call of the chairperson; and
      3. The legislative authority for particular program(s) involved extends for more than one year.
    2. Persons outside the cognizant program office shall constitute at least half the reviewers on such committees unless a deviation from this requirement has been approved under 10 CFR 600.4 [formerly 10 CFR 600.16(g)].

  3. Ad Hoc Committees.

    1. Ad hoc review committees may not exceed one year in duration and are appropriately used when use of a standing committee is not feasible or when one of the following conditions prevail:

      1. An on-site or off-site review of the scientific or technical program is being conducted.
      2. A small number of applications/proposals is received on an intermittent basis, or applications/proposals are received throughout an open solicitation period, generally for a period up to about one year.
      3. The program is one of limited duration, usually less than one year;
      4. The applications/proposals to be reviewed have been solicited to meet a specific program objective and cannot appropriately be reviewed by a standing committee because of subject matter, time constraints, or other limitations;
      5. The volume of applications/proposals received necessitates convening an additional committee(s) of available reviewers; or
      6. It is determined that the applications/proposals submitted have special review requirements e.g., construction of a facility, the complexity of subject matter cuts across the areas of expertise of two or more standing committees, or the subject matter is of a special, nonrecurring nature.
    2. Ad hoc committees may not be used for reviewing applications/proposals for any program for which a standing committee has been established (except for paragraph E.3.a.(4), of this section) unless a deviation is approved under 10 CFR 600.4 [formerly 10 CFR 600.16(g)].

F. Review Summary. Upon request, applicants/proposers will be provided with a written summary of the evaluation of their application/proposal.

G. Reviewers With Interests in Application/Proposal Being Reviewed. Reviewers must comply with the requirements of 10 CFR 1010.101(a) and 1010.302(a)(1) concerning conflict of interest. A committee or group of field readers which includes as reviewers any individuals who cannot meet these requirements or the program's review procedures, with regard to a particular application/proposal being reviewed, e.g., officials mentioned in paragraphs B.2 and 4,. Shall operate as follows:

  1. These individuals or officials may not review, discuss, and /or make a recommendation on an applications(s)/proposal(s) in which they have a conflict of interest.

  2. In the case of a review committee, the committee member must absent himself or herself from the committee meeting during the review and discussion of the application(s)/proposal(s) in which he/she has a conflict of interest.

H. Deviations.

  1. In any instance in which SC's Merit Review System is not to be used to review an application/proposal, group of applications/proposals, or class of applications/proposals, written prior approval for utilization of a different procedure, which itself must, to the extent possible, conform to the provisions of this section pertaining to merit review, must be obtained from the SC Director of the Grants and Contracts Division.

  2. If the deviation sought applies to a class of applications/proposals and constitutes a deviation from the requirements of 10 CFR 600.13 [formerly 10 CFR 600.16], approval for deviation must be obtained in accordance with 10 CFR 600.4. If such request for deviation is approved, all details of the review procedure utilized and the proceedings and determination must be fully documented.

SC Selection Process

Selection of applications/proposals for award will be based upon the findings of the technical evaluations, the importance and relevance of the proposed research to SC's mission, and funding availability. Cost reasonableness and realism also will be considered to the extent appropriate. Adverse recommendations also will be considered and all the above will be addressed and documented in a written selection statement for the selection official.

Issued in Washington, DC on February 22, 1991.

James F. Decker
Acting Director, Office of Science
(FR doc. 91-5680 Filed 3-8-91;8:45am)