NSF’s merit review process determines which research has the greatest potential

NSF’s merit review process determines which research has the greatest potential


NARRATOR: Fifty thousand. That’s about the number of research proposals the National Science Foundation receives every year. NSF’s mission is to promote the progress of science. But it’s able to support only a fraction of the proposed research with its limited resources. So how does NSF determine which research has the greatest potential – which would be the most fruitful investment of taxpayer dollars? Enter NSF’s Merit Review Process – considered the gold standard the world over for evaluating proposals in a competitive environment. A rigorous process long recognized as providing a powerful return on investment for the American public. Most often here’s how it generally works. NSF invites proposals across its broad range of programs in science and engineering, and STEM education. Proposers craft and electronically submit their proposals. All good ideas welcome! NSF finds a home in the appropriate program for each properly-prepared proposal …and the review process for all proposals received by the applicable deadline begins. Every NSF program director is an expert with a broad understanding of their entire discipline, and will ultimately decide which proposals to recommend for funding. But first, they’ll identify and assemble a body of experts – some of the finest minds in the appropriate fields – to review each proposal: a diverse mix of university faculty and others whose perspectives will help the program director assess the significance and quality of the proposed research. The review criteria are National Science Board approved: Intellectual merit – the potential to advance knowledge. And “broader impacts” – the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, societal outcomes. Because not all programs and grants are alike, the review process may take one of several forms: individual, panel, or a combination of both. Typically, at least three reviewers review each proposal. Individual reviewers usually have specific expertise, and evaluate and rate proposals, and send the program director detailed comments. Panel members evaluate, rate and comment on their assigned proposals, then usually leave home and travel to NSF, where they meet with the program director for one or more days. To reduce costs, a growing number of panels meet virtually. Either way, the panel discusses every proposal one by one, engaging in rich debate. In the end, their written panel summary, and individual reviews, provide the program director an invaluable, independent assessment of which proposals are good. Better. Best. The best and brightest ideas, according to the best and brightest experts. No free passes. No good ole boy network. The NSF merit review process is confidential between reviewers and NSF. Now it’s decision time, and the program director carefully considers the reviewers’ input, along with available budget and a range of other factors: Such as which projects will fit together synergistically to help answer big questions and move the field forward? Which will help build capacity in a promising area? Provide geographic and demographic diversity? Complement other recently funded projects? Strike the right balance of projects — some with success fairly certain…others with a fair amount of risk, but with potential for advances that are truly transformational. With their own recommendations now formulated, program directors share their plan with their division director – making the case for why each proposal is – or is not – worthy of support and taxpayer dollars. And how each takes an important step in advancing the scientific frontier. When the division director concurs with a recommendation, it’s forwarded to NSF’s Division of Grants and Agreements, which reviews the proposal’s business and financial aspects…and an award is made to the appropriate organization. Everyone who submits a proposal – whether recommended for funding or not – receives extensive feedback: the individual reviews (though not the reviewers’ identities), and, for proposals discussed by a panel, the panel summary. Proposers are also welcome to contact their program director for additional feedback, and revise and resubmit their proposals in a future competition. Information on every award is easily accessible to any member of the general public via the NSF website. NSF’s merit review process is replete with checks and balances: Multiple reviews. Panels. Division director reviews. Strict conflict of interest rules – that assure personal interests don’t impact reviews. Committees of visitors – experts who review NSF’s program portfolios and assess the quality and integrity of the decision-making process. Advisory committees. And more. It’s a model built on the willingness of people to serve – nearly 40,000 reviewers a year – committed to their science and giving back to the nation. A model that lets good ideas bubble up from anywhere — with about one in four awards going to first-time awardees each year. And one that identifies the best ideas, to keep America at the cutting edge. And it’s a model that helps NSF keep its overhead low enough that 94 percent of the Foundation’s budget goes back out to support over 300,000 researchers, teachers, post-doctoral fellows, trainees, and students every year. The NSF merit review process. The best ideas…for the best science…for the best returns for our nation. ♫MUSIC♫

4 thoughts on “NSF’s merit review process determines which research has the greatest potential”

  1. Need a thousand hundred dollar bills for a continuing grant on the flow and exchange of currency in the United States of America.

  2. Excellent video, thanks for creating this. Of course the focus is and should be on the USA, but even for non-US people in science this video helps to understand how proposals could generally be reviewed. This is indeed the Gold Standard.   I'm somewhat surprised how few times this video is Viewed here on Youtube, but that may be still the quiet period around the 4th July.  Keep up the good work!

  3. Damn you people, you totally over-played your abilities and turned this into a PR propaganda piece. Making it sound like you are cat's meow, when you've bureaucractized research to the point of absurdity. Just look at how thick the "Proposal and Awards Procedures Guide" by the NSF is, outrageous, how many wasted cognitive hours are spent in this process – hours that could be spent innovating, inventing, and unlocking the future unknown potential in all areas of the human endeavor. Get your act together NSF you need to simplify the process. Why not read how IBM and others did in the 80s? Stupid Humans.

  4. thank you. this video actually helped me to understand merit in proposals. I appreciate these, they are a true supplement to online learning!

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