Washington, D.C. –Today the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing to examine the Merit Review Process of the National Science Foundation (NSF), in an effort to better understand the strengths and potential weaknesses of the process for awarding federal grants. 

Nearly all NSF grant proposals are evaluated and rated by a group of outside subject matter experts who consider two criteria:  intellectual merit and broader impacts.  Final funding decisions rest with the Foundation.  In Fiscal Year 2010 (FY10), NSF received 55,542 proposals and awarded 12,996 grants, a 23 percent funding rate.

Research and Science Education Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) emphasized that the goal of the hearing was to “highlight the benefits of the [merit review] process, while acknowledging that no process involving human decision-making is flawless.” In response to the low number of proposals that were awarded in FY10, Brooks discussed the funding rate difficulties and the importance of the hearing, “Many of the proposals received were not worthy of federal funding, but it is also true that many were not funded because federal funds are limited. So, given that those limited dollars should go to the very best scientific research, NSF must maintain a robust and transparent merit review process.”

Dr. Cora Marrett, Deputy Director, National Science Foundation stressed, “The NSF merit review process lies at the heart of the agency’s strategy for accomplishing its overall mission.  As such, NSF is continuously striving to maintain and improve the quality and transparency of the process.” She continued, “The high quality of NSF’s merit review process is recognized globally, as evidenced by the fact that it has been used as a model by countries around the world that are newly establishing their own funding agencies.”

“Peer-driven merit review has been spectacularly successful at identifying and prioritizing the most interesting, innovative and significant scientific research projects,” acknowledged Dr. Keith R. Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California, San Francisco. He further noted that “the merit review process enhances profoundly the strength of the research funded by the federal government.  In contrast, the merit review process is not intended to influence the breadth or type of research that is funded.”

While the NSF merit review process is widely considered the most effective of its type for the awarding of federal funding, there are existing challenges to be considered in an effort to strengthen the process. Questions remain about the way in which scientific priorities are established and whether the process is truly supporting innovative and potentially transformative research and researchers. The National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation, reconstituted a Task Force on Merit Review in February of this year to examine the two Merit Review Criteria and their effectiveness in achieving the goals for NSF support for science and engineering research and education.  A report is expected later this year.


The following witnesses testified before the Subcommittee:

Dr. Cora Marrett, Deputy Director, National Science Foundation

Dr. Keith R. Yamamoto, Vice Chancellor for Research, University of California San Francisco

Dr. Nancy B. Jackson,President, American Chemical Society

Dr. Jorge José, Vice President for Research, Indiana University