NSF Streamlines Grant Review

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The National Science Foundation (NSF) is betting that less is more when it comes to judging which proposals from scientists it should fund. That's the logic behind proposed changes that would cut in half, from four to two, the number of criteria that peer reviewers are expected to apply when rating the 30,000 grant proposals NSF receives each year. NSF hopes to adopt final guidelines next spring.

"The current criteria were not always well understood," says Shirley Malcom, a member of the National Science Board's task force that drafted the new guidelines and presented them today at a press briefing. "As a result, a large segment wasn't providing adequate feedback. The [new] elements are the same, but we hope they are a lot clearer."

NSF now asks scientists to rate proposals on the basis of the competence of the scientific team, the merit of the proposed research, the value and relevance of the work, and its effect on the research infrastructure, from mentoring minority students to developing new curricula. Under the new plan, reviewers would judge only the quality of the work and its potential impact. But they would be urged to give much more explicit answers to such questions as the extent to which the proposal plows new scientific ground and how well it integrates research and teaching. At the same time, NSF director Neal Lane said program officers will retain their "flexibility" to decide how much weight to give each review, adding that there are no plans to adopt a scoring system such as the one used by the National Institutes of Health.

A 1995 survey of NSF program officers found that nearly half felt that reviewers were failing to address the issue of infrastructure, and nearly a third were ignoring questions about relevance. And Lane himself confessed that, in his previous life as a university professor, he would routinely avoid such questions, instead giving his general reaction to the proposal.