How We Make Funding Decisions

How we approach funding

NSF strives to invest in a robust and diverse portfolio of projects that enables breakthroughs across all areas of science and engineering. The foundation uses the following three principles in determining which proposals to fund as a part of its portfolio:


All NSF projects should be of the highest quality and have the potential to advance, if not transform, the frontiers of knowledge.


NSF projects, in the aggregate, should contribute more broadly to achieving societal goals.


Meaningful assessment and evaluation of NSF funded projects should be based on appropriate metrics.

NSF's proposal review process

A brief outline of NSF's proposal review process is provided below. See Chapter III of PAPPG and the NSF Merit Review site for more details. 

  1. Once NSF receives a proposal, its program officers conduct a preliminary review to ensure it is complete and conforms to NSF's proposal requirements. If the proposal doesn't meet these requirements, it may be returned without review.
  2. Typically, NSF program officers identify at least three external reviewers, who are experts in the fields represented by the proposal, to review the proposal. The review may be conducted by ad hoc reviewers, a panel of experts, or a combination of both. 
  3. Reviewers evaluate the proposal using the two National Science Board-approved merit review criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. These criteria cover both the quality of the research and the project's potential impact on society. Program solicitations may also contain additional review criteria.
  4. Input received from reviewers is used by NSF, along with other factors, to make a funding decision. When NSF is developing a portfolio of funded projects, it may consider additional factors such as different approaches to significant research and education questions; potential (with perhaps high risk) for transformational advances in a field; capacity building in a new and promising research area; or achievement of special program objectives.

NSF strives to be able to tell applicants whether their proposals have been declined or recommended for funding within six months.

Watch a six-minute overview of NSF's merit review process. 

Our merit review criteria

The two National Science Board-approved merit review criteria are briefly outlined below, and covered in greater detail in PAPPG III.A.

The potential for the proposed project to advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields.



Pre-award reviews

If NSF is considering awarding you a grant or cooperative agreement, it may undertake one or more of the following reviews to assess your organization's ability to administer an NSF award:

Proposal budget review

NSF will assess your proposed budget to ensure the costs are reasonable, allowable and allocable.

Financial capability review

NSF will assess whether your organization has adequate financial resources or the ability to obtain resources necessary to administer the proposed project.

Accounting system review

NSF will verify your accounting system's ability to manage federal funds, in accordance with applicable regulations and award terms and conditions.