News Release

NSF's Merit Review Report is now available

FY 2016 Merit Review Report

FY 2016 Merit Review Report (Credit and Larger Version)

August 30, 2017

Every year, nearly 50,000 research proposals are submitted to the only federal agency in the United States that funds discovery research in all fields of science and engineering: the National Science Foundation (NSF). The agency uses merit review to pick proposals that show the greatest potential to fulfill NSF’s mission to promote the progress of science and serve the national interest.

NSF’s National Science Board (NSB, Board) sets the agency’s merit review criteria and ensures that practices are transparent and align with NSF objectives.

Today, the Board published the FY 2016 report on NSF’s Merit Review Process.

“NSF’s merit review report provides a wealth of quantified information that informs the Board in its oversight of the agency. It is also a resource for Congress, the science and engineering communities, and others interested in the National Science Foundation,” said John Anderson, Chair of NSB’s Committee on Oversight.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Of the 49,000 competitively reviewed proposals acted on by NSF in fiscal year 2016, 41,000 were research proposals.  NSF made nearly 8,800 research awards in fiscal year 2016, mostly to academic institutions. This corresponds to a 21 percent success rate for research proposals.
  • Competition is fierce; NSF received approximately 49,000 competitive proposals, requesting $29 billion.  While NSF was able to fund just over $6 billion in new projects, almost $4 billion of fundable proposals that reviewers rated Very Good or higher (4/5 on a 5-point scale), had to be declined for lack of resources.
  • Though still low, the proportion of research awards going to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities increased from 2.4 percent in FY 2010 to 7.3 percent in FY 2016.
  • The proportion of female principal investigators submitting proposals remains relatively low; approximately 1 in 4 proposals come from women.  This is roughly similar to estimates of the representation of women in STEM faculty in research-intensive universities by the Association of American Universities.  The rates at which proposals from men and women are selected for funding are comparable.
  • Half of new research projects have a single principal investigator and half are collaborations among multiple investigators.
  • Last year over 34,000 scientists, engineers, and educators reviewed grant proposals for NSF.

NSF’s merit review report to the Board is available here.  

In evaluating proposals, NSF uses two merit review criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. In 2007, the Board modified the criteria to promote potentially transformative research and its 2011 report, Merit Review Criteria: Review and Revisions, affirmed and more clearly defined these criteria. NSF’s merit review system is frequently referred to as the gold standard for vetting research proposals and serves as a model approach, both nationally and internationally.

A short video about NSF’s merit review process is available here.

For more information, please contact Nadine Lymn, NSB Communications Director,, (703) 292-2490.


About NSB

Jointly the NSB and the Director pursue the goals and function of the NSF. The Director is the ex-officio 25th member of the NSB. The NSB establishes NSF policies within the framework of applicable national policies set forth by the President and Congress. NSB identifies issues critical to NSF's future, approves the agency's strategic budget direction and the annual budget submission to the Office of Management and Budget, and consults on new major programs and awards. The NSB also provides the President and Congress with a biennial report on U.S. progress in science and technology, Science and Engineering Indicators, providing comparisons to other nations in the areas of research and development, STEM education, and workforce training.

The President appoints Board members for six-year terms and may reappoint members for a second term. Members are drawn primarily from universities and industry and selected for their eminence in research, education, and records of distinguished service. Collectively, the Board represents a variety of science and engineering disciplines and regions across the United States. 

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.

Useful NSB Web Sites:

Home Page:
Media Contact:
Twitter: Twitter:

To view PDF documents, please download Adobe Acrobat Reader.