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NSF amends proposal merit-review criteria

The National Science Foundation has approved new merit review criteria for reviewers to evaluate grant proposals, reducing the number of criteria that reviewers must consider from four to two. The changes, which will go into effect on October 1, are the first that the agency has made since 1981.

The NSF and its independent oversight panel, the National Science Board, formed a Merit Review Task Force to suggest criteria changes last year. The task force unveiled its recommended changes four months ago for comment by the scientific and engineering communities (MIT Tech Talk, Dec. 11, 1996).

Based on the 325 responses received over a two-month period, the task force revised its draft criteria and presented them to the NSB in March. The NSB approved the new criteria and authorized NSF Director Neal Lane to "proceed expeditiously with all steps necessary" to implement them for all proposals reviewed beginning October 1.


Each of the two new criteria has a set of related questions to help reviewers evaluate proposals. The instructions make clear that the two criteria "need not be weighted equally." Reviewers are asked to provide separate comments for each criterion, a single composite rating of the proposal, and a summary recommendation that addresses both criteria.

Based on the public comments, the task force altered the associated questions to place more emphasis on researcher competence, and to clarify wording on issues of diversity, creativity, benefits to society and management of the research plan. Some questions were rephrased to encourage reviewers to provide explanations rather than yes/no answers.

"Adoption of the new criteria will facilitate, clarify and simplify the proposal evaluation process," according to the task force. The revised criteria with associated questions, as approved by the NSB, are:

1. What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?

How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field and across different fields? How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, please comment on the quality of prior work.) To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative and original concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources?

2. What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, geography, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

(This piece is adapted from an article in the April 8 Bulletin of Science Policy News published by the American Institute of Physics).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 1997.

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