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National Science Foundation
Merit Review
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Merit Review Home
Phase I: Proposal Preparation and Submission
Phase II: Proposal Review and Processing
Phase III: Award Processing
Non-Award Decisions and Transactions
Merit Review Facts
Why You Should Volunteer to Serve as an NSF Reviewer
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Phase II: Proposal Review and Processing

Cognizant Program Officer Receives Proposal and Selects Peer Reviewers

step 4Upon receipt of a proposal, Program Officers conduct a preliminary review to ensure completeness and conformance with NSF requirements, which are outlined in GPG Chapter II.A. Conformance with Instructions for Proposal Preparation and in GPG Chapter II.B. Format of the Proposal. Adherence to these requirements is strictly enforced (unless the proposal has an approved deviation). If the proposal does not adhere to the instructions in the GPG (or the program solicitation, if applicable), NSF may return the proposal without review. See GPG Chapter IV.B. Proposal Not Accepted or Returned without Review for a complete list of reasons for which a proposal may not be accepted or may be returned without review .

If the proposal is complete and conforms to NSF requirements, NSF Program Officers identify at least three external reviewers to review the proposal. The review may be conducted by ad hoc reviewers, a panel of experts, or a combination of both. For some programs, site visits are also conducted. Some categories of proposals may not be externally reviewed. For example, proposals submitted to Rapid Response Research Grants (RAPID) and EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) are internally reviewed only. For some other categories of proposals (for example, proposals for international travel), NSF staff have the option of conducting internal review only. In addition, Program Officers are also responsible for identifying potentially disqualifying  conflicts of interest among reviewers.  (See GPG Chapter II, Exhibit II-2.)

GPG Chapter III.B. Selection of Reviewers provides the NSF guidelines for reviewer selection. These guidelines are designed to ensure that the reviewers selected are experts in their field and will provide program officers with the proper information needed to make a recommendation in accordance with the National Science Board approved merit review criteria for projects.

View the Merit Review Process Illustration

Peer Reviewers Review Proposal

step 5External reviewers' analyses and evaluation of the proposal provide information to the NSF Program Officer in making a recommendation regarding the proposal. Reviewers evaluate all NSF proposals through the use of two National Science Board approved merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts, which are based upon Merit Review Principles. Reviewers are asked to consider five elements in the review for both criteria. For more information on merit review principles and criteria, see GPG Chapter III.A.

In some instances, however, NSF will employ additional review criteria as required to highlight the specific objectives of certain programs and activities. These additional review criteria are outlined in the applicable program solicitation.

View the Merit Review Process Illustration

Program Officer Analyzes Input and Makes Recommendation to Division Director

step 6The NSF Program Officer reviews the proposal and analyzes the input received from the external reviewers.  In addition to the external reviews, Program Officers consider several factors in developing a portfolio of funded projects. For example, these factors might include different approaches to significant research and education questions; potential (with perhaps high risk) for transformational advances in a field; capacity building in a new and promising research area; or achievement of special program objectives.  In addition, decisions on a given proposal are made considering both other current proposals and previously funded projects. After scientific, technical and programmatic review and consideration of appropriate factors, the Program Officer makes an award/decline recommendation to the Division Director.

For complete information on the Program Officer analysis and review of a proposal, see GPG Chapter III. NSF Proposal Processing and Review.

View the Merit Review Process Illustration

Division Director Review of Recommendation

step 7Final programmatic approval for a proposal is generally completed at the Division level. If the Program Officer makes an award recommendation and the Division Director concurs, the recommendation is submitted to the Division of Grants and Agreements for award processing. See GPG Chapter III. NSF Proposal Processing and Review. The proposal enters the Award Processing phase.

When a decision has been made (whether an award or a declination), the following information is released electronically to the Principal Investigator (PI) through FastLane:

  • description of the context in which the proposal was reviewed;
  • copies of all reviews used in the decision (with any reviewer-identifying information redacted);
  • copy of panel summary, if the proposal was reviewed by a panel at any point in the process;
  • site-visit reports, if applicable.

In addition, if not otherwise provided in the panel summary, the PI is provided an explanation (written or telephoned) of the basis for the declination. A PI also may request and obtain any other releasable material in NSF's file on his/her proposal. Everything in the file, except information that identifies either reviewers or other pending or declined proposals, is usually releasable to the PI.

View the Merit Review Process Illustration

 

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