Washington Update

National Science Board Approves New Merit Review Commission

By: Naomi Charalambakis
Thursday, March 9, 2023
During its February meeting, the National Science Board (NSB) unanimously approved a new commission to evaluate the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) merit review process. As the advisory body that defines the policies and procedures for NSF, NSB members emphasized this will be the first comprehensive assessment of the merit review criteria in 12 years.

NSF’s merit review process ensures that funding proposals are reviewed in a competitive and equitable manner. The criteria used to assess proposals have been modified over the last several decades, with the last major change occurring in 1996 when NSF recommended simplifying criteria to two categories: intellectual merit and broader impacts. While these review criteria have been the standard for over 25 years, NSB members noted their concerns with its discrepancies, including recent reports of racial disparities. Funding inequality was most recently demonstrated last July when a comprehensive analysis found that funding success rates for white scientists exceeded the NSF average while Black and Asian researchers consistently performed worse.

As part of the agency’s overarching efforts to broaden participation in STEM and create a level playing field for all, the new commission is charged with the following: 

“Assess the efficacy of the current Merit Review policy and associated criteria and processes at supporting NSF’s mission to create new knowledge, fully empower diverse talent to participate in STEM, and benefit society by translating knowledge into solutions.”

To achieve this goal, the commission plans to adopt a four-pronged approach:
  • Conduct research and consult stakeholders to assess the way the current criteria are implemented, interpreted, and utilized by proposers, reviewers, and NSF program staff.
  • Analyze the information collected to identify issues and opportunities.
  • Resolve identified issues and draft recommendations.
  • Product and publish a commission report disclosing the process, strategies, finding, and recommendations for the NSF Merit Review process going forward.
The commission plans to present their policy recommendations and full report by May 2024. More information about NSF’s merit review criteria can be found in Chapter III of the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide