Rather than “enhancing” peer review like big brother NIH, the NSF has been working to clarify the principles and criteria by which the intellectual merit and (especially) broader impacts of proposed research are assessed. The problem is mainly with the broader impacts, which seem to keep growing broader and broader.
As currently laid out in the Grant Proposal Guide, reviewers are asked to consider:
What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, the reviewer will comment on the quality of prior work.) To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources?
What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
Merit Review Principles and Criteria
The identification and description of the merit review criteria are firmly grounded in the following principles:
1. All NSF projects should be of the highest intellectual merit with the potential to advance the frontiers of knowledge.
2. Collectively, NSF projects should help to advance a broad set of important national goals, including:
◦ Increased economic competitiveness of the United States.
◦ Development of a globally competitive STEM workforce.
◦ Increased participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in STEM.
◦ Increased partnerships between academia and industry.
◦ Improved pre-K–12 STEM education and teacher development.
◦ Improved undergraduate STEM education.
◦ Increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology.
◦ Increased national security.
◦ Enhanced infrastructure for research and education, including facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships.
3. Broader impacts may be achieved through the research itself, through activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by the project but ancillary to the research. All are valuable approaches for advancing important national goals.
4. Ongoing application of these criteria should be subject to appropriate assessment developed using reasonable metrics over a period of time.
Intellectual merit of the proposed activity
The goal of this review criterion is to assess the degree to which the proposed activities will advance the frontiers of knowledge. Elements to consider in the review are:
1. What role does the proposed activity play in advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
2. To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
3. How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?
4. How well qualified is the individual or team to conduct the proposed research?
5. Is there sufficient access to resources?
Broader impacts of the proposed activity
The purpose of this review criterion is to ensure the consideration of how the proposed project advances a national goal(s). Elements to consider in the review are:
1. Which national goal (or goals) is (or are) addressed in this proposal? Has the PI presented a compelling description of how the project or the PI will advance that goal(s)?
2. Is there a well-reasoned plan for the proposed activities, including, if appropriate, department-level or institutional engagement?
3. Is the rationale for choosing the approach well-justified? Have any innovations been incorporated?
4. How well qualified is the individual, team, or institution to carry out the proposed broader impacts activities?
5. Are there adequate resources available to the PI or institution to carry out the proposed activities?