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NSF invests in reviewer development to advance innovation

Game Changer Academies

Game Changer Academies for Advancing Research Innovation enhances panelist skills and awareness.

October 6, 2021

The U.S. National Science Foundation’s merit review process helps the agency identify high-quality proposals that merit NSF funding. This winter, the NSF Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI) is expanding a pilot that trains experts who participate in NSF merit review through review panels.

The program, called the Game Changer Academies for Advancing Research Innovation, aims to improve group dynamics during panel discussions, increase awareness of bias and identity, and enhance understanding of high-risk, high-reward ideas. Once trained, “Panel Fellows” will bring enhanced skills and awareness when they participate in panel discussions during NSF merit review.

“The Game Changer Academies are part of our effort to make sure that CMMI supports the nation’s economic prosperity and safety and taps into the diversity of engineering and science researchers we have across the country,” said CMMI Division Director Rob Stone.

Researchers from academia, industry, and national laboratories at all career stages can apply to join the 2022 cohort; applications are due by October 15, 2021. The Game Changer Academies trained 150 researchers in the 2021 cohort and expects to train 200 more in the 2022 cohort.

Merit review 
Each year, NSF receives thousands of proposals for funding research and education. To ensure that proposals are evaluated in a fair, competitive, transparent and in-depth manner, NSF uses a rigorous system of merit review.

Nearly every proposal is evaluated by a minimum of three independent reviewers consisting of scientists, engineers and educators who do not work at NSF or for the institution that employs the proposing researchers. NSF selects the reviewers from among the national pool of experts in each field and their evaluations are confidential. Reviewers come together in a panel and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of proposals.

“The Game Changer Academies do not provide training in how to be a panel reviewer; NSF and our program directors do a great job of explaining that role already,” said Stone. “Game Changer Academies training addresses how to improve and elevate the panel review discussion so that we are focused on finding those diamonds in the rough that are the high-risk, high-reward research we should fund.”

Game changers 
The Game Changer Academies grew out of a 2019 NSF-funded pilot project aimed at increasing reviewer risk tolerance. This pilot identified five key levers associated with the success of panel discussions:

  • Defining high-risk, high-reward ideas
  • Promoting effective group dynamics
  • Mediating cognitive bias
  • Navigating social identity
  • Engaging difficult conversations and conflict

As the need for innovative and collaborative science grows, reviewers need more tools to enable broad thinking, and to identify potentially transformative ideas. In response to this need, CMMI launched the Game Changer Academies for Advancing Research Innovation in 2021.

At the core of the CMMI Game Changer Academies (CGCA) program is the awareness that, without deliberate attention grant review, discussions can sometimes fail to engage the full perspective and experience of panelists. CGCA develops the capacity of panel discussions to benefit from high quality interaction across differences in perspective, identity, experience and expertise.

“Better discussions contribute to better decisions. In order to respond with the speed and efficiency needed in today’s world, we need processes that function at their best. In CGCA, we’re looking at the process of group deliberation,” says Diana Kardia, lead CGCA presenter and designer.

Kelly Mack, CGCA co-presenter and designer, adds, “We are persuaded that if we improve how we hold the space for productive discussions, then our panels will be more able to significantly advance our disciplines.”

The Game Changer Academies program uses a flipped classroom methodology aimed at harnessing the capacity of scholars to apply theory and research to practice. After reviewing material associated with that month’s topic on an asynchronous content site, Panel Fellows meet with a trained discussion leader in a small group format to discuss that topic and its relevance to panel discussions. Main sessions then pull the full cohort together to provide further elaboration and application through case studies, simulations, and other pedagogical tools.

The 2022 CMMI Game Changer Academies program will launch on December 10, 2021. Discussion sections and Main Sessions will then meet monthly, January through May 2022.

To learn more about CGCA, visit


Media Contacts 
Media Affairs, NSF, (703) 292-7090,

NSF Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI):  
CMMI Game Changer Academies program:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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