To provide for the fair and equitable selection of the most meritorious research and education projects for support, the National Science Foundation has established criteria for their review and evaluation. These criteria are meant to be applied to all proposals in a balanced and judicious manner, according to the objectives and content of each proposal. Four criteria for the selection of projects by the National Science Foundation are listed below, together with the elements that constitute each criterion.
  1. Competent performance of the research--This criterion relates to the capability of the investigator(s), the technical soundness of the proposed approach, and the adequacy of the institutional resources available.
  2. Intrinsic merit of the research--This criterion is used to assess the likelihood that the research will lead to new discoveries or fundamental advances within its field of science or engineering or have substantial impact on progress in that field or in other scientific and engineering fields.
  3. Utility or relevance of the research--This criterion is used to assess the likelihood that the research can contribute to the achievement of a goal that is extrinsic or in addition to that of the research field itself and thereby serve as the basis for new or improved technology or assist in the solution of societal problems.
  4. Effect of the research on the infrastructure of science and engineering--This criterion relates to the potential of the proposed research to contribute to better understanding or improvement of the quality, distribution, or effectiveness of the Nation's scientific and engineering research, education, and workforce base.
Criteria (1), (2), and (3) constitute an integral set that is applied in a balanced way to all proposals according to the objectives and content of each proposal. Criterion (1), competent performance, is essential to the evaluation of the quality of every proposal. The relative weight given criteria (2) and (3) depends on the nature of the proposed research. Criterion (2), intrinsic merit, is emphasized in evaluating basic research proposals, while Criterion (3), utility or relevance, is stressed in evaluating applied research proposals. Criterion (3) also relates to major goal-oriented activities that the Foundation carries out, such as those directed at improving the knowledge base underlying science and technology policy, furthering international cooperation in science and engineering, and addressing areas of national need.

Criterion (4), effect on the infrastructure of science and engineering, permits the evaluation of proposals in terms of their potential for improving the scientific and engineering enterprise and its educational activities in ways other than those encompassed by the first three criteria. Included under this criterion are questions relating to scientific and engineering personnel, including participation of women and minorities; the distribution of resources with respect to institutions and geographical area; stimulation of quality activities in important but underdeveloped fields; and the use of interdisciplinary approaches to research in appropriate areas.

Any specific criteria that apply to individual programs, while falling within general criteria presented in this section, are contained in relevant program announcements or solicitations.