Merit Review Criteria

All GRFP applications are evaluated using NSF’s two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. In order to present a competitive application, you must address both merit review criteria thoroughly. The Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement and the Graduate Research Statement should both reflect these criteria.  Remember to ask your reference writers to discuss how you fulfill the merit review criteria as well.

The following information is  from the 2020 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Solicitation, Section VI:

Applications are reviewed by disciplinary and interdisciplinary scientists and engineers and other professional graduate education experts. Reviewers are selected by Program Officers charged with oversight of the review process. Care is taken to ensure that reviewers have no conflicts of interest with the applicants. Applications are reviewed in broad areas of related disciplines based on the selection of a Field of Study (see Fields of Study in Appendix). Selection of a Field of Study determines the application deadline, the broad disciplinary expertise of the reviewers, and the discipline of the graduate degree program if awarded a Fellowship. Applicants are advised to select the Field of Study in the GRFP Application Module (see Fields of Study in Appendix) that is most closely aligned with the proposed graduate program of study and research plan. Applicants who select “Other” must provide additional information describing their studies.

Each application will be reviewed independently in accordance with the NSF Merit Review Criteria using all available information in the completed application. In considering applications, reviewers are instructed to address the two Merit Review Criteria as approved by the National Science Board - Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts (NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide). Applicants must include separate statements on Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in their written statements in order to provide reviewers with the information necessary to evaluate the application with respect to both Criteria as detailed below. Applicants should include headings for Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in their statements.

The following description of the Merit Review Criteria is provided in Chapter III of the NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG):

All NSF proposals are evaluated through use of the two National Science Board approved merit review criteria. In some instances, however, NSF will employ additional criteria as required to highlight the specific objectives of certain programs and activities.

The two merit review criteria are listed below. Both criteria are to be given full consideration during the review and decision-making processes; each criterion is necessary but neither, by itself, is sufficient. Therefore, proposers must fully address both criteria. (PAPPG Chapter II.C.2.d.i. contains additional information for use by proposers in development of the Project Description section of the proposal.) Reviewers are strongly encouraged to review the criteria, including PAPPG Chapter II.C.2.d.i., prior to the review of a proposal.

When evaluating NSF proposals, reviewers will be asked to consider what the proposers want to do, why they want to do it, how they plan to do it, how they will know if they succeed, and what benefits could accrue if the project is successful. These issues apply both to the technical aspects of the proposal and the way in which the project may make broader contributions. To that end, reviewers will be asked to evaluate all proposals against two criteria:

  • Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge; and
  • Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

The following elements should be considered in the review for both criteria:

  1. What is the potential for the proposed activity to:
    1. Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (Intellectual Merit); and
    2. Benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (Broader Impacts)?
  2. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  3. Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?
  4. How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
  5. Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?

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