FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Recent NSF Activity on Merit Review

Aline D. McNaull
Number 91 - June 26, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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National Science Foundation Convenes Merit Review Summit:

On May 14 and 15, 2012, the primary science-funding agencies from nearly 50 countries gathered at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, VA to form a Global Research Council to develop best practices for collaboration and to compose a common set of merit-review principles.  The agencies ended their meeting having agreed on six principles “which assert the essential value of expert assessment, transparency, impartiality, appropriateness, confidentiality and integrity and ethics.”  These principles “are critical to putting the global research enterprise on a shared foundation that will not only enhance the quality of science but also bolster public trust in that science.”

John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Subra Suresh, Director of the National Science Foundation, noted in the May 14 Office of Science and Technology Policy blog post, that “international collaboration poses unique challenges.  Among the most important is the uneven commitment among nations to the highest standards of ‘merit review’ – the gold-standard practice by which research proposals are judged by researchers’ peers to determine in a fair and evidence-based manner whether those proposals are worthy.  Without merit review, science funding is ever at risk of falling prey to social biases or political agendas.  Experts simply can’t be beat when it comes to assessing the likelihood that a proposed experiment will deliver the intellectual and material goods it promises.” 

While merit review is not a uniquely American practice, it is one that the NSF strictly adheres to.  Holdren and Suresh responded as to why Americans should care if other nations commit to the principles of merit review: 

“For one, US researchers competing for global funds risk losing their fair share if other governments do not ensure merit-based review of US proposals.  For another, US collaborators are put at risk if their partners are not committed to ethical standards and scientific integrity.  And US economic interests can be seriously harmed by colleagues or competitors who do not respect confidentiality and intellectual property.”

The Global Summit on Merit Review produced principles for scientific merit review, which can be read here

The next Global Research Council merit review summit will be hosted by Brazil and Germany in 2013. 

NSF releases its Report to the National Science Board on NSF’s Merit Review Process

The annual NSF report to the National Science Board includes information on the merit review criteria, a description of the merit review process, transformative research, methods for external review, impacts of budget constraints, and reviewer proposal ratings.  Also in this report is information and data on proposals and awards. 

Highlighted in the report are the 51,562 proposals received by NSF in FY 2011.  “This is a decrease of about 7% from the number of proposals received in FY 2010, but an increase of over 61% from the number of proposals received in FY 2001.  The Foundation made 11,192 awards in 2011, resulting in a 22% funding rate…. The Foundation exceeded its ‘time to decision’ goal of informing at least 70% of Principal Investigators (PIs) of funding decisions within six months of receipt of their proposals.”

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics