NSF Merit Review Report

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has released the NSF FY21 Merit Review Digest, identifying funding portfolios according to two review criteria – Intellectual Merit (IM) and Broader Impacts (BI). In fiscal year 2021, NSF invested more than $8.5 billion to support U.S. basic scientific research and related programs. This reflects 11,344 new, competitive awards, with an overall funding rate of 26 percent.

FABBS members compete for funding across numerous NSF Directorates with a particular interest in the Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate. SBE success rates peaked at 25 percent in 2020, yet over time has seen a slight decline in overall proposals and awards since 2012.

By gender
  • Female-identifying principal investigators (PIs): 3,679 received awards out of 11,868, with a 31 percent funding rate.
  • Male-identifying PIs: 7,080 received awards out of 26,290 proposals, with a 27 percent funding rate.
  • Female PIs had a higher or equal funding rate compared to their male PIs across the board. For SBE, this was a 28 percent to 25 percent comparison, and 430 to 423 awards allocated respectively.
By ethnicity
  • Hispanic or Latino PIs: 30 percent funding rate.
  • Not Hispanic or Latino: 28 percent funding rate.
  • SBE saw a similar trend with funding rates at 24 percent and 27 percent respectively, but a large difference in proposals at 221 versus 2,848, and 887 unknown/not wishing to provide ethnicity.
  • SBE funding rates by racial demographics: 29 percent for American Indian/Alaskan Native/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander/Other PIs, 21 percent for Asian PIs, 29 percent for Black or African-American PIs, 27 percent for White PIs, 43 percent for Multiracial PIs, and 11 percent for PIs who wished to not provide their race.
By disability
  • PIs with a disability: 25 percent funding rate
  • PIs without a disability: 28 percent funding rate
  • SBE funding rates closely mirrored the overall data: at 25 percent for PIs with a disability and 26 percent for those without a disability.
By geography
  • The U.S. jurisdiction with the lowest funding rate for FY 2021 was the Virgin Islands, while the state with the highest was Alaska.
  • Annualized award amounts per research project (in thousands) came in at a median of $135 for SBE and a mean of $174, placing them roughly in the middle of the range from OISE’s $100 median and ENG’s $141 mean to OIA’s $721 median and its $616 mean. Since 2019 when OIA totaled a median of $948 and mean of $817, their award amounts greatly deviate on the high end from their peer offices and directorates.

NSF made several recent changes to their merit review process with the intention to reduce the burden on proposal submitters. These changes include standardization of disclosure requirements, greater harmonization with the NIH in required disclosures, and standardizing biographical and pending support formats in proposals.

The newly formed joint NSB-NSF Commission on Merit Review is in the process of soliciting feedback from the science and engineering community and reviewing the efficacy of the current Merit Review policy and associated criteria, to inform a May 2024 final report. The NSF-NSB committee held a panel on August 14 entitled Federal Agency Perspectives on Grant Review Processes.

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FABBS is always interested in hearing about the experiences of individuals competing for NSF funding. Contact us here.