Merit Review Facts

This section contains some important to know facts about the merit review process.

1. FACT: All proposals submitted to NSF are reviewed according to the two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.

DISCUSSION: All proposals submitted to NSF are reviewed utilizing the two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Proposals may not be accepted or may be returned without review if the Project Summary does not clearly address in separate statements 1) the intellectual merit and 2) the broader impacts of the proposed activity. In addition to these two merit review criteria, programs may employ additional review criteria, which would be stated in the program solicitation.

2. FACT: NSF implemented revised merit review criteria in January 2013.

DISCUSSION: In Spring 2010, the National Science Board's (NSB) the Merit Review Task Force began examining the two merit review criteria and their effectiveness. The Task Force’s work resulted in the publication of National Science Foundation’s Merit Review Criteria: Review and Revisions in January 2012. In the report, the NSB articulated Merit Review Principles upon which the Merit Review Criteria are based. While the two merit review criteria remain unchanged (Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts), guidance has been provided to clarify and improve the function of the criteria. Revisions based on the NSB report have been incorporated into the Foundation’s policies and procedures manuals, websites, and systems. Organizations should familiarize themselves with the Merit Review Principles and Criteria described in PAPPG Chapter III.A.

3. FACT: NSF Program Officers make recommendations to fund or decline a proposal.

DISCUSSION: Reviewers do not make funding decisions. The analysis and evaluation of proposals by external reviewers provide information to NSF Program Officers in making their recommendations to award or decline a proposal. See Phase II: Proposal Review and Processing.

4. FACT: Most proposals that are awarded do not receive all "Excellents."

DISCUSSION: It is not true that a proposal must receive all "Excellents" to be funded; in fact, most proposals that are awarded do not receive all "Excellents." Furthermore, even if you get all "Excellents," you may not be funded. See the annual reports to the National Science Board on the National Science Foundation's Merit Review Process for data about proposals and success rates, as well as further information and data concerning the merit review process.

5. FACT: NSF Program Officers are encouraged to recommend high risk science and engineering projects for funding.

DISCUSSION: NSF Program Officers are encouraged to recommend for funding proposals that have high potential or payoff within the context of the programs they manage, even though they may be considered as being scientifically "risky" by external reviewers. In fact, in the enhanced merit review criteria, reviewers are specifically asked to consider the extent to which the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts.

NSF also has several mechanisms in place to promote the funding of high risk science. For example, the Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism is used for proposals having a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events (see PAPPG Chapter II.E.1). In addition, the EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) funding mechanism may be used to support exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches (see PAPPG Chapter II.E.2). Further information on these types of mechanisms may be found on the NSF website at

6. FACT: Principal Investigators submit on average about 2.3 proposals for every award they receive.

DISCUSSION: A common misconception is that once declined, you will always be declined. However, NSF statistics show that on average, Principal Investigators submit about 2.3 proposals for every award they receive. That is, many Principal Investigators who receive awards also have been declined. See Resubmission process. Another common misconception is that one cannot get funded on a first submission.  However, NSF statistics show that, in 2011, 31% of new PIs received their first award on their first attempt.

7. FACT: NSF promotes broadening participation in science and engineering.

DISCUSSION: NSF promotes broadening participation in science and engineering fields. This includes increasing the participation of underrepresented minorities and women, and persons with disabilities. This also includes increasing diversity in the NSF portfolio with respect to types of institutions supported and the geographic regions represented. Broadening participation activities can be developed to address the NSF Broader Impact Merit Review Criterion; however, it is important to note that other activities are also appropriate to address the Broader Impact criterion.

8. NSF annually has active awards at over 2,000 awardee organizations.

DISCUSSION: NSF funds a large number of investigators at over 2,000 awardee organizations. If you are interested in which investigators and institutions receive awards in your area of expertise, you can easily check using the NSF award database. Use key words to conduct a search of funded projects, or you can search by NSF program. Then check the investigators and institutions named on the award abstract. You can also search the award database by investigator or institution name.