Through its merit review process, the National Science Foundation (NSF) ensures that proposals submitted are reviewed in a fair, competitive, transparent, and in-depth manner. The merit review process is described in detail in Part I of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) which provides guidance for the preparation and submission of proposals to NSF.
The goal of this Merit Review website is to help you better understand the NSF merit review process as well as identify resources for additional information (including applicable chapters in the PAPPG). Sections of this website include:
- 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
- Additional Resources
- Contact Us
An overview of the NSF Proposal and Award Process is presented in the diagram below. The text in the following sections correspond to the different areas on the diagram.
Download a printable version of the Merit Review Process Illustration. PDF (37KB)
- Proposal Preparation and Submission
- 90 Days
1 - Opportunity Announced
All funding opportunities are announced on the NSF website and Grants.gov.
Program Descriptions, Program Announcements and Program Solicitations are mechanisms used by NSF to generate proposals. Unsolicited proposals to specific NSF programs may be submitted at any time.
1 Opportunity Announced
2 - Proposal Submitted
The Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) is the source for guidance on preparing and submitting a proposal to NSF. The PAPPG details formatting and submission requirements.
The proposing organization submits the proposal to NSF via the NSF FastLane System, or Grants.gov.
2 Proposal Submitted
3 - Proposal Received
Proposals are received by the NSF Proposal Processing Unit and are assigned to the appropriate program for acknowledgement and, if they meet NSF requirements, for review.
A proposal may be returned without review if it does not meet NSF proposal preparation requirements, such as page limitations, formatting instructions, and electronic submission, as specified in the PAPPG or program solicitation. The PAPPG identifies all of the reasons for which a proposal may be returned without review.
3 Proposal Received
- Proposal Review and Processing
- 6 Months
4 - Reviewers Selected
Reviewers are selected based on their specific and/or broad knowledge of the science and engineering fields; their broad knowledge of the infrastructure of the science and engineering enterprise, and its educational activities; and to the extent possible, diverse representation within the review group.
Sources of reviewers can come from the program officer's knowledge of the research area; references listed in the proposal; recent professional society programs; computer searches of S&E journal articles related to the proposal; reviewer recommendations included in proposal or sent by email. Proposers are invited to suggest persons they believe are especially well qualified to review the proposal, as well as identify persons they would prefer not review the proposal.
4 Reviewers Selected
5 - Peer Review
All NSF proposals are reviewed through use of the two NSB-approved merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Some solicitations may have additional review criteria.
External reviewers' analyses and evaluation of the proposal provide information to the NSF Program Officer in making a recommendation regarding the proposal.
6 - Program Officer Recommendation
After scientific, technical and programmatic review, the NSF Program Officer recommends to the cognizant Division Director whether the proposal should be recommended for an award or declined for funding.
Due to the large number of proposals received, the review and consideration process can take up to six months. Large or particularly complex proposals may require additional review and processing time.
6 Program Officer Recommendation
7 - Division Director Review
If the decision is made to decline the award, the organization is notified and review information is available in the FastLane System.
If the decision is to award, the recommendation is submitted to a Grants & Agreements Officer in the Division of Grants and Agreements(DGA).
7 Division Director
- Award Processing
- 30 Days
8 - Business Review
The Grants and Agreements Officer in the Division of Grants and Agreements (DGA) conducts a review of business, financial, and policy implications. Generally, DGA makes awards within 30 days after the program office makes its recommendation.
Additional processing time may be required if: the organization has not received prior funding; the award is a cooperative agreement; or it involves special situations (such as coordination with another Federal agency or a private funding source).
9 - Award Finalized
The award itself is comprised of an award notice, budget, proposal, applicable NSF conditions and any other documents or requirements incorporated by reference into the agreement.
Each NSF award notice specifically identifies certain conditions that are applicable to, and become part of, that award.
PAPPG Chapter I. Pre-Submission Information and PAPPG Chapter II, Proposal Preparation Instructions provide detailed information on preparation and submission of proposals to the NSF. The NSF website provides a comprehensive source of information on NSF Directorates (including contact information), programs and funding opportunities. The topics below provide additional information on the activities in this phase of the merit review process:
Proposals received by NSF are assigned to the appropriate NSF program. NSF Program Officers identify experts in their particular fields to review the proposal. Usually, a proposal is reviewed by at least three external reviewers. Activities in this phase include:
If the Program Officer recommends funding of the proposal, and final division or other programmatic approval is obtained, then the recommendation goes to a Grants and Agreements Officer in the Division of Grants and Agreements. The Grants and Agreements Officer reviews the proposal for business, financial and policy implications, as well as the processing and issuance of a grant or cooperative agreement.
This section covers topics regarding non-award decisions and other transactions:
- Proposal Withdrawal
- Proposal Not Accepted or Returned Without Review
This section identifies important facts about the NSF merit review process.
- All proposals submitted to NSF are reviewed according to the two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts
- NSF Program Officers make recommendations to fund or decline a proposal
- Most proposals that are awarded do not receive all "Excellents"
- NSF Program Officers are encouraged to recommend high risk science and engineering projects for funding
- Principal Investigators submit on average about 2.3 proposals for every award they receive
- NSF promotes broadening participation in science and engineering
- NSF annually has active awards at over 3,000 awardee organizations
This section provides information on why you should volunteer to serve as an NSF Reviewer.
- Reviewers are Essential - NSF needs YOU
- Benefits to you as a reviewer
- How to become a reviewer
- Contact NSF Now
These resources provide additional and detailed information on funding, proposal preparation, and award management policies and procedures:
- Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG)
- Find Funding on NSF's website
- Listing of Acronyms is found in the PAPPG Introduction, Section C.
- Definitions and NSF-Grantee Relationships are found in the PAPPG Introduction, Section D.
- Potentially Disqualifying Conflicts of Interest
- The Budget Internet Information System (BIIS) is an information resource for award summaries and NSF funding history.
- The NSF Proposal and Award Process and Timeline (PDF) is a flowchart that was used as the basis for the Merit Review website and the Merit Review Process illustration in the website. The flowchart presents an alternative view of the Merit Review Process.
If you have additional questions regarding the NSF Merit Review Process or proposal submission and preparation, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.