Public Release: 

NSF To Adopt New Merit Review Criteria

National Science Foundation

The National Science Board (NSB) has approved new criteria for evaluating funding proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Board, which is the governing body of NSF, took the action at its March 28 meeting.

The approval culminates several months of discussion with the research and education community and analysis by a special task force, chaired by NSB member Warren Washington of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The Board action clears the way for the first change in NSF's merit review criteria since 1981. NSF expects to implement the new criteria beginning October 1, 1997.

"Clearly the review process is critical to our effort to foster the highest standards of excellence and accountability in the use of limited funds," said NSF Director Neal Lane. "Our current system has a track record of success; but now we have an improved system to ensure that success continues and that excellence remains our first priority."

NSF receives nearly 30,000 new proposals for funding per year, and funds about one-third of them. Funding decisions are made largely through the process of merit review, including expert evaluation by selected peers. NSF receives more than 170,000 such reviews each year to help evaluate funding proposals.

"We know from surveys of our reviewers and staff that the current criteria are not always well understood or uniformly applied," said NSF Acting Deputy Director Joe Bordogna. "The new criteria are clearer and easier to apply."

The need to reexamine the current criteria was prompted by an evolution in NSF programs since 1981 to include a stronger focus on broad educational initiatives, the integration of research and education, and partnered research activities. It was also prompted by the adoption in 1994 of a new NSF strategic plan.

"The new criteria can be applied more flexibly to this broad range of activities; and they better reflect the philosophy and spirit of our strategic plan," said Bordogna.

They also reflect the concerns of the science and engineering community, solicited during an eight-week comment period during which draft criteria were published and their merits debated. Hundreds of scientists, engineers and educators offered both support and critique, as well as specific suggestions. Many of those suggestions are incorporated into the guidance that will accompany the new criteria.

Currently the agency asks reviewers to comment on four aspects of a proposal:

  1. researcher performance competence,
  2. intrinsic merit of the research,
  3. utility or relevance of the research, and
  4. effect on the infrastructure of science and engineering.

Under the new criteria, reviewers are asked to answer two questions regarding proposals for funding: (1) What is the intellectual merit and quality of the proposed activity? and (2) What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

"Most importantly, they continue to make 'excellence' the hallmark of our merit review process," Bordogna emphasized.

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