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National Science Foundation
Grant Proposal Guide
Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Proposal Preparation Instructions
III. NSF Proposal Processing and Review
IV. Withdrawals, Returns and Declinations
V. The Award and Continued Support
VI. Grant Administration Highlights
Appendix A
Appendix B
Appendix C
Appendix D
Appendix E
Appendix F
PDF Version

NSF 04-23 September 2004
Chapter I - Introduction


The Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) provides guidance for the preparation and submission of proposals to NSF. Contact with NSF program personnel prior to proposal preparation is encouraged. Some NSF programs have program solicitations that modify the general provisions of this Guide, and, in such cases, the guidelines provided in the solicitation must be followed. (See Section C.4 below for further information on NSF program solicitations.) The Foundation considers proposals submitted by organizations on behalf of individuals or groups for support in most fields of research. Interdisciplinary proposals also are eligible for consideration.

NSF does not normally support technical assistance, pilot plant efforts, research requiring security classification, the development of products for commercial marketing, or market research for a particular project or invention. Research with disease-related goals, including work on the etiology, diagnosis or treatment of physical or mental disease, abnormality, or malfunction in human beings or animals, is normally not supported. Animal models of such conditions or the development or testing of drugs or other procedures for their treatment also are not eligible for support. However, research in bioengineering, with diagnosis- or treatment-related goals, that applies engineering principles to problems in biology and medicine while advancing engineering knowledge is eligible for support. Bioengineering research to aid persons with disabilities also is eligible.

Research proposals to the Biological Sciences Directorate (not proposals for conferences or workshops) cannot be duplicates of proposals to any other Federal agency for simultaneous consideration. The only exceptions to this rule are: (1) when the proposers and program officers at relevant Federal agencies have previously agreed to joint review and possible joint funding of the proposal; or (2) proposals for PIs who are beginning investigators (individuals who have not been a principal investigator (PI)1 or co-principal investigator (co-PI) on a Federally funded award with the exception of doctoral dissertation, postdoctoral fellowship or research planning grants). For proposers who qualify under this latter exception, the box for "Beginning Investigator" must be checked on the proposal Cover Sheet.


The NSF Website provides the most comprehensive source of information on NSF Directorates (including contact information), programs and funding opportunities. Use of this Website by potential proposers is strongly encouraged. In addition, the NSF Custom News Service is an information-delivery system designed to keep potential proposers and other interested parties apprised of new NSF funding opportunities and publications, important changes in proposal and award policies and procedures, and upcoming NSF Regional Grants Conferences. Subscribers are informed through e-mail or the user's Web browser each time new publications are issued that match their identified interests. The Custom News Service also is available on NSF's Website at http://www.nsf.gov/home/cns/.

Grants.gov provides an additional electronic capability to search for Federal government-wide grant opportunities. NSF funding opportunities may be accessed via this new mechanism. Further information on Grants.gov may be obtained at http://www.grants.gov.


NSF utilizes a variety of mechanisms to generate proposals. A brief description of each category of funding opportunity follows:

1. Dear Colleague Letter

Dear Colleague letters are intended to provide general information to the community, clarify or amend an existing policy or document, or inform the NSF proposer community about upcoming opportunities or special competitions for supplements to existing awards. In addition, they are often used to draw attention to an impending change in NSF policies or programs.

2. Program Description

The term "program description" includes broad, general descriptions of programs and activities in NSF Directorates and Divisions, such as those included in NSF's Guide to Programs. Program descriptions are often posted on Directorate/Division websites to encourage the submission of proposals in specific program areas of interest to NSF.

Program descriptions, like program announcements, utilize the generic eligibility and proposal preparation instructions specified in the Grant Proposal Guide, as well as the National Science Board (NSB) approved merit review criteria. These funding opportunities do not require specific cost sharing beyond the required statutory (1%) amount, or specify additional award conditions or reporting requirements. (Additional information on NSF cost sharing requirements can be found in GPG Chapter II, Section C.2.g.xii and in the Grant Policy Manual Section 330.) Proposals submitted in response to program descriptions are considered "unsolicited."

3. Program Announcement

The term "program announcement" refers to formal NSF publications that announce NSF programs. Program announcements and program descriptions (see C.2. above) are the primary mechanisms used by NSF to communicate opportunities for research and education support, as well as to generate proposals. Program announcements utilize the generic eligibility and proposal preparation guidelines specified in the GPG and incorporate the National Science Board (NSB) approved merit review criteria. These funding opportunities do not require specific cost sharing beyond the required statutory (1%) amount, or specify additional award conditions or reporting requirements. (Additional information on NSF cost sharing requirements can be found in GPG Chapter II, Section C.2.g.xii and in the Grant Policy Manual Section 330.) Proposals submitted in response to program announcements also are considered "unsolicited."

4. Program Solicitation

The term "program solicitation" refers to formal NSF publications that encourage the submission of proposals in specific program areas of interest to NSF. They generally are more focused than program announcements, and normally apply for a limited period of time. Competition among proposals is more precisely defined than with program announcements. Program solicitations are issued when the funding opportunity has one or more of the following features:

  • Provides supplemental proposal preparation guidance or deviates from the guidelines established in the Grant Proposal Guide;

  • Contains additional specially crafted review criteria relevant to the program;

  • Contains specific proposal deadline dates for the submission of full proposals;

  • Requires submission of a letter of intent or preliminary proposal; Deviates from (or restricts) the standard categories of proposers specified in Section E. below;

  • Deviates from (or restricts) the standard categories of proposers specified in Section E. below;

  • Limits the number of proposals that may be submitted by any organization and/or researcher/educator; 2

  • Specifies additional award conditions or reporting requirements;

  • Anticipates use of a cooperative agreement;

  • Includes specific cost sharing requirements; or

  • Permits inclusion of the payment of fees to awardees, when appropriate.

When a program solicitation is used, the proposals received compete directly with each other. Proposals submitted in response to program solicitations are considered "solicited." This means that the resulting awards are not subject to the statutory cost sharing requirement. Cost sharing is not required unless explicitly included in the solicitation.


1. Letter of Intent

Some NSF program solicitations require or request submission of a Letter of Intent in advance of submission of a full proposal. The predominant reason for its use is to help NSF program staff to gauge the size and range of the competition, enabling earlier selection and better management of reviewers and panelists. In addition, the information contained in a Letter of Intent is used to help avoid potential conflicts of interest in the review process.

A Letter of Intent normally contains the PI's and co-PI's names, a proposed title, a list of possible participating organizations (if applicable), and a synopsis that describes the work in sufficient detail to permit an appropriate selection of reviewers. A Letter of Intent is not externally evaluated or used to decide on funding. The requirement to submit a Letter of Intent will be identified in the program solicitation, and such letters are submitted electronically via the NSF FastLane System. 3

2. Preliminary Proposal

Some NSF program solicitations require or request submission of a preliminary proposal in advance of submission of a full proposal. The two predominant reasons for requiring submission of a preliminary proposal are to:

  • reduce the proposers' unnecessary effort in proposal preparation when the chance of success is very small. This is particularly true of exploratory initiatives where the community senses that a major new direction is being identified, or competitions that will result in a small number of actual awards; and

  • increase the overall quality of the full submission.

The NSF program solicitation will specify content and submission requirements when preliminary proposals are to be utilized. Preliminary proposals are prepared by the PI using the Proposal Preparation Module in FastLane. On the Cover Sheet, the PI clicks on the "preliminary proposal" check box. The PI completes only the sections appropriate to the preliminary proposal. The PI then forwards the proposal to his/her Sponsored Projects Office, which then submits the preliminary proposal to NSF.

One of the following two types of decisions may be received from NSF upon submission of a preliminary proposal. The program solicitation will specify the type of decision to be rendered for a particular program.

a. Invite/Not Invite

This type of mechanism is used when the NSF decision made on the preliminary proposal is final, affecting the PI's eligibility to submit a full proposal. Only submitters of favorably reviewed preliminary proposals are invited and eligible to submit full proposals. Invite/Not Invite decisions are generally used where large, complex, or limited-award competitions are contemplated, such as those used for "centers." The PI and the organization's Sponsored Projects Office will be electronically notified of NSF's decision to either invite submission of a full proposal or decline NSF support.

b. Encourage/Discourage

This type of mechanism is used when the NSF decision made on the preliminary proposal is advisory only. This means that submitters of both favorably and unfavorably reviewed preliminary proposals are eligible to submit full proposals. Encourage/Discourage decisions are typically used when the preliminary proposal is very short, focused on the activity to be proposed, and where use of the preliminary proposal is intended to improve the overall quality of the full proposal. The PI and the organization's Sponsored Projects Office will be notified of NSF's decision to either encourage or discourage submission of a full proposal.

3. Full Proposal

The full proposal should present the (1) objectives and scientific, engineering, or educational significance of the proposed work; (2) suitability of the methods to be employed; (3) qualifications of the investigator and the grantee organization; (4) effect of the activity on the infrastructure of science, engineering and education; and (5) amount of funding required. It should present the merits of the proposed project clearly and should be prepared with the care and thoroughness of a paper submitted for publication. The requisite proposal preparation instructions are contained in GPG Chapter II. Sufficient information should be provided to enable reviewers to evaluate the proposal in accordance with the two merit review criteria established by the National Science Board. (See GPG Chapter III for additional information on NSF processing and review of proposals.)

NSF expects strict adherence to the rules of proper scholarship and attribution. The responsibility for proper attribution and citation rests with authors of a proposal; all parts of the proposal should be prepared with equal care for this concern. Authors other than the PI (or any co-PI) should be named and acknowledged. Serious failure to adhere to such standards can result in findings of research misconduct. NSF policies and rules on research misconduct are discussed in Grant Policy Manual (GPM) Section 930 as well as in 45 CFR Part 689.

The Metric Conversion Act of 1975, as amended, and Executive Order 12770 of 1991 encourage Federal agencies to use the Metric System (SI) in procurement, grants and other business-related activities. Proposers are encouraged to use the Metric System of weights and measures in proposals submitted to the Foundation. Grantees also are encouraged to use metric units in reports, publications and correspondence relating to proposals and awards.


Patentable ideas, trade secrets, privileged or confidential commercial or financial information, disclosure of which may harm the proposer, should be included in proposals only when such information is necessary to convey an understanding of the proposed project. Such information must be clearly marked in the proposal and be appropriately labeled with a legend such as,

"The following is (proprietary or confidential) information that (name of proposing organization) requests not be released to persons outside the Government, except for purposes of review and evaluation."

Such information also may be included as a separate statement. If this method is used, the statement must be submitted electronically as a single-copy document in the Proposal Preparation Module in the FastLane system. (See also Chapter II, Section C.1 for further information regarding submission of single-copy documents.) 4

The box for "Proprietary or Privileged Information" must be checked on the proposal Cover Sheet when the proposal contains such information. While NSF will make every effort to prevent unauthorized access to such material, the Foundation is not responsible or in any way liable for the release of such material. (See also Chapter VI, Section K, "Release of Grantee Proposal Information.")


Scientists, engineers and educators usually initiate proposals that are officially submitted by their employing organization. Before formal submission, the proposal may be discussed with appropriate NSF program staff. Graduate students are not encouraged to submit research proposals, but should arrange to serve as research assistants to faculty members. Some NSF divisions accept proposals for Doctoral Dissertation Research Grants when submitted by a faculty member on behalf of the graduate student. The Foundation also provides support specifically for women and minority scientists and engineers, scientists and engineers with disabilities, and faculty at predominantly undergraduate academic institutions.


Except where a program solicitation establishes more restrictive eligibility criteria, individuals and organizations in the following categories may submit proposals:

  1. Universities and colleges - US universities and two- and four-year colleges (including community colleges) acting on behalf of their faculty members. Such organizations also are referred to as academic institutions.

  2. Non-profit, non-academic organizations - Independent museums, observatories, research laboratories, professional societies and similar organizations in the US that are directly associated with educational or research activities.

  3. For-profit organizations - US commercial organizations, especially small businesses with strong capabilities in scientific or engineering research or education. An unsolicited proposal from a commercial organization may be funded when the project is of special concern from a national point of view, special resources are available for the work, or the proposed project is especially meritorious. NSF is interested in supporting projects that couple industrial research resources and perspectives with those of universities; therefore, it especially welcomes proposals for cooperative projects involving both universities and the private commercial sector.

  4. State and Local Governments - State educational offices or organizations and local school districts may submit proposals intended to broaden the impact, accelerate the pace, and increase the effectiveness of improvements in science, mathematics and engineering education in both K-12 and post-secondary levels.

  5. Unaffiliated Individuals - Scientists, engineers or educators in the US and US citizens may be eligible for support, provided that the individual is not employed by, or affiliated with, an organization, and:

    • the proposed project is sufficiently meritorious and otherwise complies with the conditions of any applicable proposal-generating document;

    • the proposer has demonstrated the capability and has access to any necessary facilities to carry out the project; and

    • the proposer agrees to fiscal arrangements that, in the opinion of the NSF Division of Grants & Agreements, ensure responsible management of Federal funds.

    Unaffiliated individuals should contact the appropriate program before preparing a proposal for submission.

  6. Foreign organizations - NSF rarely provides support to foreign organizations. NSF will consider proposals for cooperative projects involving US and foreign organizations, provided support is requested only for the US portion of the collaborative effort.

  7. NSF does not normally support research or education activities by scientists, engineers or educators employed by Federal agencies or Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). A scientist, engineer or educator, however, who has a joint appointment with a university and a Federal agency (such as a Veterans Administration Hospital, or with a university and a FFRDC) may submit proposals through the university and may receive support if he/she is a bona fide faculty member of the university, although part of his/her salary may be provided by the Federal agency. Under unusual circumstances, other Federal agencies and FFRDCs may submit proposals directly to NSF. Preliminary inquiry should be made to the appropriate program before preparing a proposal for submission.


Proposers should allow adequate time for NSF review and processing of proposals (see Section H below). Many NSF programs accept proposals at any time. Other programs, however, establish due dates for submission of proposals. The following types of due dates are utilized by NSF:

  • Target dates: dates after which proposals will still be accepted, although they may miss a particular panel or committee meeting.

  • Deadline dates: dates after which proposals will not be accepted for review by NSF. The deadline date will be waived only in extenuating circumstances. Such a deviation only may be authorized in accordance with GPG, Chapter II. Section A.

  • Submission windows: designated periods of time during which proposals will be accepted for review by NSF. For purposes of NSF, the end date of a submission window converts to, and follows the same policies as, a deadline date.

These target dates, deadlines, and submission windows are published in specific program descriptions, program announcements and solicitations that can be obtained from the NSF Clearinghouse at publications@nsf.gov or electronically through the NSF Website.5 Unless otherwise stated in a program announcement or solicitation, proposals must be received by the specified date. If the deadline date falls on a weekend, it will be extended to the following Monday; if the date falls on a holiday, it will be extended to the following business day. Unless otherwise specified in a program solicitation that has an identified deadline date, proposals must be received by 5 p.m. submitter's local time on the established deadline date.6


1. Electronic Requirements

Proposals to NSF must be submitted electronically via the FastLane system. For proposers who cannot submit electronically, a deviation must be approved in advance of submission of the paper proposal in accordance with GPG Chapter II, Section A, Conformance with Instructions for Proposal Preparation.

Special instructions for proposals that contain high-resolution graphics or other graphics where exact color representations are required for proper interpretation by the reviewer

For cost and technical reasons, the Foundation cannot, at this time, reproduce proposals containing color. PIs, therefore, generally should not rely on colorized objects to make their arguments. PIs who must include in their project descriptions high-resolution graphics, or other graphics where exact color representations are required for proper interpretation by the reviewer, must submit the required number of copies of the entire paper proposal, including the proposal Cover Sheet, for use in the review process. This submission is in addition to, not in lieu of, the electronic submission of the proposal via FastLane. Given that many NSF programs have converted to use of a primarily electronic review process, PIs are strongly encouraged to contact the cognizant Program Officer prior to submission of the paper copies of a proposal. The cognizant NSF Program Officer is ultimately responsible for reviewing the color materials submitted and making a determination of whether or not to send the paper copies out for merit review.

Upon submission of the proposal, the proposing organization will be notified of the required number of paper copies of the proposal that must be submitted to NSF. The exact number of copies required will appear in an electronic message at the time of FastLane submission and will depend on the NSF Division selected. 7 Such proposals must be postmarked (or provide a legible proof of mailing date assigned by the carrier) within five working days following the electronic submission of the proposal.

2. Submission Instructions

The same work cannot be funded twice, so a proposal should be submitted only once to NSF. If the proposer envisions review by multiple programs, more than one program may be designated on the proposal Cover Sheet. The submission of duplicate or substantially similar proposals concurrently for review by more than one program without prior NSF approval may result in the return of the redundant proposals. (See Chapter IV, Section B, Return Without Review, for further information.)

In submission of a proposal for funding, the Authorized Organizational Representative (AOR) 8 is required to provide certain proposal certifications. (See Chapter II, Section C.1.e for listing.) This process can occur concurrently with submission of the proposal for those organizations where the individual authorized to submit a proposal to NSF also is a designated AOR, or as a separate function for those organizations that choose to keep the certification process separate from the submission function. For those organizations that designate separate authorities in FastLane for these functions, the AOR must provide the required certifications within 5 working days following the electronic submission of the proposal. 9

A proposal may not be processed until NSF has received the complete proposal (including the electronic certifications from the AOR.)

3. Proposal Receipt

Once the proposal is submitted, PIs can access the number assigned to the proposal via the "Submitted Proposals" list in the FastLane Proposal Preparation module. If a proposal number is not reflected in the FastLane System, contact the FastLane Help Desk at (800) 673-6188, or (703) 292-8142 or by e-mail to fastlane@nsf.gov.

When the proposal is assigned to an NSF program, the cognizant program information is available through the FastLane "Proposal Status Inquiry" function for PIs and through the "Recent Proposals" report for sponsored projects offices. Communications about the proposal should be addressed to the cognizant Program Officer with reference to the proposal number. Proposers are strongly encouraged to use FastLane to verify the status of their submission to NSF.


Proposers should allow up to six months for programmatic review and processing (see Chapter III for additional information on the NSF merit review process). In addition, proposers should be aware that the NSF Division of Grants and Agreements generally makes awards to academic institutions within 30 days after the program division makes its recommendation. Grants being made to organizations that have not received an NSF award within the preceding two years, or involving special situations (such as coordination with another Federal agency or a private funding source), cooperative agreements, and other unusual arrangements may require additional review and processing time. Proposals that are time-sensitive (e.g., conference, group travel, and research involving ephemeral phenomena) will be accepted for review only if, in the opinion of the cognizant Program Officer, they are received in sufficient time to permit appropriate NSF review and processing to support an award in advance of the activity to be supported. Every effort is made to reach a decision and inform the proposer promptly. Until an award is made, NSF is not responsible for any costs incurred by the proposing organization.

1 As used in this Guide, the term "Principal Investigator" also includes the term "Project Director." Back to Text
2 Unless otherwise specified, the term "organization" refers to all categories of proposers. Back to Text
3 The NSF FastLane system uses Internet/Web technology to facilitate the way NSF does business with the research, education, and related communities. The NSF FastLane system should be used for proposal preparation, update, submission and status checking, project reporting, and post-award administrative activities. All FastLane functions are accessed by using a Web browser on the Internet. Detailed information about the FastLane system is available from the FastLane Website at https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/fastlane.jsp.Back to Text
4 Detailed instructions for submission of proprietary or privileged information is available on the FastLane Website at https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/a1/newstan.jsp#proprietary. Back to Text
5 A listing of upcoming target dates and deadlines, sorted by date and by program area is available electronically on the NSF Website at https://www.nsf.gov/home/deadline/deadline.jsp. Back to Text
6 Program solicitations that require letters of intent or preliminary proposals, unless otherwise specified, also follow the 5 p.m. submitter's local time standard. Back to Text
7 Detailed instructions for submission of proposals that include high-resolution graphics or exact color representations that are required for proper interpretation by reviewers are available on the FastLane Website at https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/a1/newstan.jsp#color. Back to Text
8 As defined in the NSF Grant Policy Manual, Chapter II, Section 210a. the Authorized Organizational Representative is the administrative official who, on behalf of the proposing organization, is empowered to make certifications and assurances and can commit the organization to the conduct of a project that NSF is being asked to support as well as adhere to various NSF policies and grant requirements.Back to Text
9 Further instructions for this process are available on the FastLane Website.Back to Text


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