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FAQ for Potentially Transformative Research

1. What is transformative research?

2. How do you know if a research proposal will lead to transformative research?

3. How does NSF identify potentially transformative research proposals?

4. Do the reviewer ratings inform the program directors about the potentially transformative nature of a given proposal?

5. Is potentially transformative research always interdisciplinary?

6. Is a potentially transformative research proposal always a high-risk proposal?

7. Will a potentially transformative research proposal always challenge “conventional wisdom?”

8. Can the development of an instrument or other ‘tool’ be considered to be potentially transformative research?

9. Since potentially transformative research is now specifically mentioned in the NSF Intellectual Merit Review criterion, will potentially transformative research be evaluated for all proposals?

10. Does a proposal that does not mention its potential for transformative research have a chance of being funded?

11. What percentage of NSF’s budget will be used to fund potentially transformative research?

12. Has NSF set aside funds for potentially transformative research proposals?

13. I discussed my ideas for an EAGER proposal with a program director, but I was discouraged to submit. What are my options?

14. What should I do if I have a potentially transformative research project that does not seem to ‘fit’ in any NSF program?

15. In making a funding decision, how much weight is given as to whether a proposal has the potential for transformative research?

16. Is the merit review process too conservative to lead to the funding of potentially transformative research proposals?

17. Was my proposal declined simply because it was too risky?

18. If I receive an award for a potentially transformative research project that has a high degree of risk, and the project is not successful, will this jeopardize future funding possibilities?

1. What is transformative research?

This is NSF’s working definition of transformative research…

Transformative research involves ideas, discoveries, or tools that radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or educational practice or leads to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science, engineering, or education. Such research challenges current understanding or provides pathways to new frontiers.

Transformative research results often do not fit within established models or theories and may initially be unexpected or difficult to interpret; their transformative nature and utility might not be recognized until years later.

Characteristics of transformative research are that it:

    • challenges conventional wisdom,
    • leads to unexpected insights that enable new techniques or methodologies, and/or
    • redefines the boundaries of science, engineering, or education.

2. How do you know if a research proposal will lead to transformative research?

It is not always obvious that a proposal will lead to transformative research. The NSF intellectual merit review criterion therefore refers to potentially transformative research. High risk/high reward is sometimes also used in this context as the work may be less likely to lead to the proposed result.

3. How does NSF identify potentially transformative research proposals?

It is a difficult challenge to identify potentially transformative research. Some questions reviewers and NSF staff might consider in making this determination could include:

  • Does the proposed research challenge conventional wisdom or direction of a field?
  • Does proposed research bring new perspectives to an area?
  • Is the research at the interface of disciplines or does it involve promising new interdisciplinary methods?

4. Do the reviewer ratings inform the program directors about the potentially transformative nature of a given proposal?

While the Foundation asks reviewers and panelists to provide a summary rating or score for each review, it is the narrative comments that provide the most information about the relative merits of a proposal.

5. Is potentially transformative research always interdisciplinary?

No. A proposal within a single field of science, engineering and/or education can lead to transformative results.

6. Is a potentially transformative research proposal always a high-risk proposal?

No. A proposal could demonstrate that the results are readily attainable and yet will have a transformative impact.

7. Will a potentially transformative research proposal always challenge “conventional wisdom?”

No. For example, conventional projects have led to unexpected and transformative results.

8. Can the development of an instrument or other ‘tool’ be considered to be potentially transformative research?

Absolutely. The proposal should state how and why the proposed “tool” can enable transformative research.

9. Since potentially transformative research is now specifically mentioned in the NSF Intellectual Merit Review criterion, will potentially transformative research be evaluated for all proposals?

No. The potentially transformative nature of a proposal is one of several characteristics considered in the development of a comprehensive evaluation. Other proposal review criteria may be found in the NSF Grant Proposal Guide and may also be stated in the specific program announcement or solicitation. The evaluation of a proposal recognizes that any given proposal will have particular strengths and perhaps weaknesses when considering the entire suite of review criteria.

10. Does a proposal that does not mention its potential for transformative research have a chance of being funded?

Yes. The potentially transformative nature of a proposal is only one of several characteristics considered in the development of a comprehensive evaluation.

11. What percentage of NSF’s budget will be used to fund potentially transformative research?

NSF does not have a specific budget target for transformative research funding. However, NSF strives to promote and fund potentially transformative research throughout all of its programs and funding mechanisms. For example, new activities are designed to ask and answer questions that could lead to transformative work. Collaborations of interdisciplinary teams, or perhaps teams involving industrial partners, are encouraged throughout many NSF solicitations in hopes of developing new, and potentially transformative, perspectives. Facilities and centers are supported to provide the instruments and infrastructure scientists and engineers need for potentially transformative work, as well as support for the development of smaller scale tools. Transformative research is also funded through disciplinary “core” programs. The new EAGER mechanism has been developed to support researchers at very exploratory stages of their work.

12. Has NSF set aside funds for potentially transformative research proposals?

No. However, a division, office, or directorate may elect to designate funds to help support projects that have particularly noteworthy characteristics, including potential for transformative research.

13. I discussed my ideas for an EAGER proposal with a Program Director, but I was discouraged to submit. What are my options?

Program officers play a critical role in providing guidance to the community on the various funding opportunities at the Foundation. If the program officer advises against an EAGER submission, there may be other funding opportunities available. If the project involves multiple disciplines, the Principal Investigator (PI) may find it useful to discuss the proposed work with another program officer. The PI, retains the option to submit the proposal as an EAGER, which would then receive a review of the proposal from the program officer. If the proposal is not funded, the PI will receive a written review from the program director.

14. What should I do if I have a potentially transformative research project that does not seem to ‘fit’ in any NSF program?

Contact any program officer who may have expertise in or near the area of the proposed research. If the first contact is not the most appropriate, he/she should be able to direct you to the appropriate person. The program officer may also decide to discuss the proposed research with other program officers.

15. In making a funding decision, how much weight is given to whether a proposal has the potential for transformative research?

This is a difficult question to answer without placing it in context. Promoting and funding potentially transformative research is a high priority for NSF, so the potential for transformative research would be considered very positively in making a funding decision.

16. Is the merit review process too conservative to lead to the funding of potentially transformative research proposals?

Although this is a recurring perception, it does not appear consistent with the experience at NSF. NSF program officers are informed that promoting and funding potentially transformative research is a high priority for the Foundation, and in turn program officers are expected to so inform panels and ad hoc reviewers. It should also be remembered that NSF program officers have the responsibility and authority to recommend awards for proposals that were not among the most highly ranked by the review panels as part of their charge to develop and maintain a balanced portfolio of investments.

17. Was my proposal declined simply because it was too risky?

Risk is only one aspect of proposal review; there can be multiple reasons for declines. PIs are encouraged to discuss the specific reasons for a decline with their program officer. Unfortunately, NSF declines a high percentage of meritorious proposals because of budget limitations.

18. If I receive an award for a potentially transformative research project that has a high degree of risk, and the project is not successful, will this jeopardize future funding possibilities?

No. Reviewers will be asked to comment on the quality of prior work. However, due to the possibly risky nature of potentially transformative research, it is to be expected that even high quality research may not initially succeed. Please note that the proposal may contain up to five pages to describe the results of prior NSF funding.