Merit Review

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:

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 (click to download pdf/docx/ppt file) (37KB)

Phase I

  • Proposal Preparation and Submission
  • 90 Days

1 - Opportunity Announced

All funding opportunities are announced on the NSF website and

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.

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

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.

Phase II

  • Proposal Review and Processing
  • 6 Months

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.

Phase III

  • Award Processing
  • 30 Days

Phase I: Proposal Preparation and Submission

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:


  1. NSF announces funding opportunity
  2. Organization prepares/submits proposal
  3. NSF receives proposal

View the Merit Review Process Illustration

Phase II: Proposal Review and Processing

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:


  1. Cognizant program officer receives proposal and selects peer reviewers
  2. Peer reviewers review proposal
  3. Program officer analyzes input and makes recommendation to Division Director
  4. Division Director review of recommendation

View the Merit Review Process Illustration

Phase III: Award Processing

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.


  1. Grants and Agreements Officer conducts business review
  2. Grants and Agreements Officer notifies organization of award decision

View the Merit Review Process Illustration

Non-Award Decisions and Transactions

This section covers topics regarding non-award decisions and other transactions:

Merit Review Facts

This section identifies important facts about the NSF merit review process.

  1. All proposals submitted to NSF are reviewed according to the two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts
  2. NSF implemented revised merit review criteria in January 2013
  3. NSF Program Officers make recommendations to fund or decline a proposal
  4. Most proposals that are awarded do not receive all "Excellents"
  5. NSF Program Officers are encouraged to recommend high risk science and engineering projects for funding
  6. Principal Investigators submit on average about 2.3 proposals for every award they receive
  7. NSF promotes broadening participation in science and engineering
  8. NSF annually has active awards at over 2,000 awardee organizations

Why You Should Volunteer to Serve As An NSF Reviewer

This section provides information on why you should volunteer to serve as an NSF Reviewer.


These resources provide additional and detailed information on funding, proposal preparation, and award management policies and procedures:


If you have additional questions regarding the NSF Merit Review Process or proposal submission and preparation, please contact us: