To identify which projects to support, the NSF relies on a merit review process that considers both the technical components of a proposed project and its potential to contribute more broadly to advancing the NSF’s mission” “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes.”
The merit review process centers on two (2) criteria established by the National Science Board, the policy-making body of the NSF:
- Intellectual Merit: What is the potential for the proposed activity to advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
- Broader Impacts: What is the potential for the proposed activity to benefit society or to advance desired societal outcomes?
Some NSF funding announcements will include additional criteria as required to highlight the specific objectives of certain programs and activities.
Proposal and Award Process
The timeline for proposal review can take upwards of 6 months from the time a proposal is received at the NSF. The entire process timeline is illustrated below:
Role of Program Directors
NSF program directors (also referred to as program officers) play a key role in the merit review process. These individuals oversee the merit review process and recommend proposals for funding based on proposal rankings from the review process, consideration of budgetary restrictions, and research funded in previous cycles. Program directors make an “award” or “decline” recommendation to division directors, who generally have final programmatic approval for funding proposals.
Program directors are generally appointed for 2-year terms and have a history of research within the given program area. Approximately one-third of NSF program directors are not federal employees, but “rotators” on loan from their home institution. The NSF credits these rotational programs, which employ scientists, engineers, and educators on rotational assignment from academia, industry, or other eligible organizations, as critical to furthering the agency’s mission of supporting the entire spectrum of science and engineering research and education.
Role of Reviewers & Review Panel
Nearly every proposal is evaluated by a minimum of three independent reviewers who prepare written reviews and assign preliminary ratings to proposals – a primary reviewer, secondary reviewer, and ad hoc reviewer. If reviewers will serve on a panel, each reviewer may have 10-20 proposals to review. Primary, secondary, and ad hoc reviewers rank each proposal (Excellent, Very good, Good, Fair, and Poor) ahead of the panel meeting. At panel, the primary reviewer serves as lead, summarizing the proposal, discussing its merits, and initiating discussion with the entire panel. After the primary viewer presents the proposal, other reviewers provide their perspective. Discussion is then open to the entire panel, which may consist of 15-20 individuals.
During panel discussion, assigned reviewers may change their review. At the end of the process, proposals are ranked and the panel makes its recommendation to the Program Director.
The NSF keeps panel membership confidential and holds panelists to strict Conflict of Interest (COI) policies.
The Panel Summary is the written record of the panel’s discussion of a proposal. It is written by the scribe – a role assigned to one of the three independent reviewers – and addresses proposal strengths and weaknesses. All proposals that are reviewed get a Panel Summary, which is provided to the PI.