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National Science Foundation


The National Science Foundation (NSF), created in 1950, is the premier Federal agency supporting basic research at the frontiers of discovery across all fields, and science and engineering education at all levels. This is in contrast to other Federal agencies that support research focused on specific missions, such as health or defense.

While NSF's vision of the future and the mechanisms it uses to carry out its charges have evolved significantly over the last six decades, its ultimate mission remains the same (Public Law 81-507):

To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense....

The National Science Board's 2020 Vision for NSF is that the Foundation will:

According to the 2011–2016 Strategic Plan, this vision will be realized through the implementation of following strategic goals:

Transform the Frontiers

Emphasizes the seamless integration of research and education as well as the close coupling of research infrastructure and discovery.

Innovate for Society

Points to the tight linkage between NSF programs and societal needs, and it highlights the role that new knowledge and creativity play in economic prosperity and society’s general welfare.

Perform as a Model Organization

Emphasizes the importance to NSF of attaining excellence and inclusion in all operational aspects.


NSF leadership has two major components:

  1. NSF Director (Dr. Subra Suresh), who oversees NSF staff and management responsible for program creation and administration, merit review, planning, budget and day-to-day operations;
  2. National Science Board (NSB) that meets six times a year to establish the overall policies of the foundation, within the framework of applicable national policies set forth by the President and the Congress. The Board is composed of 24 members, representing a cross section of American leadership in science and engineering research and education, selected solely on the basis of established records of distinguished service. The NSF Director is a member ex officio of the Board. In addition to establishing the policies of the Foundation, the Board along with the Director, recommends and encourages the pursuit of national policies for the promotion of research and education in science and engineering.

NSF is divided into the following seven directorates that support science and engineering research and education:

  1. Biological Sciences,
  2. Computer and Information Science and Engineering,
  3. Engineering,
  4. Geosciences,
  5. Mathematics and Physical Sciences,
  6. Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences,
  7. Education and Human Resources.

In addition, the Office of Polar Programs, the Office of International Science and Engineering, and the Office of Cyberinfrastructure also support research and have funding authority.

NSF Org Chart

Directorates are headed by an assistant director and each one is organized in divisions, some of which are further split into research programs or categories (see NSF Organization List).

A Division Director's responsibilities include:

Divisions are responsible for the scientific, technical and programmatic review and evaluation of proposals and for recommending that proposals be declined or awarded.

Program Officers conduct merit review of proposals and recommend which projects should be supported by the Foundation. They are considered subject matter experts and they often provide technical and programmatic advice.

Research Funding

NSF is the only federal agency whose mission includes support for all fields of fundamental science and engineering, except for medical sciences (see 2006-2011 NSF Strategic Plan). In particular, NSF is tasked with keeping the United States at the leading edge of discovery, so in addition to funding research in the traditional academic areas, the agency also supports "high risk, high pay off" ideas, novel collaborations and numerous projects that may seem like science fiction today, but which the public will take for granted tomorrow. And in every case, one of NSF's goals is to ensure that research is fully integrated with education so that today's revolutionary work will also be training tomorrow's top scientists and engineers.

NSF Program Officers are encouraged to recommend for funding proposals that have high potential or payoff, even though they may be considered as being "risky" by external reviewers.

In fact, NSF has several mechanisms in place to promote the funding of 'risky science'. For example, the Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism is used for proposals having a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events (see GPG, Chapter II.D.1). In addition, the EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) funding mechanism may be used to support exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches (see GPG, Chapter II.D.2). NSF has also implemented a new emphasis on transformative research, which includes a modification to the intellectual merit review criteria and the development of a new funding mechanism for "early-concept" research projects (See Important Notice No. 130: Transformative Research).

NSF does not normally support technical assistance, pilot plant efforts, research requiring security classification, the development of products for commercial marketing, or market research for a particular project or invention. Research with disease-related goals, including work on the etiology, diagnosis or treatment of physical or mental disease, abnormality, or malfunction in human beings or animals, is normally not supported. Animal models of such conditions or the development or testing of drugs or other procedures for their treatment also are not eligible for support. However, research in bioengineering, with diagnosis- or treatment-related goals, that applies engineering principles to problems in biology and medicine while advancing engineering knowledge is eligible for support. Bioengineering research to aid persons with disabilities also is eligible.

Applying for NSF Funding

NSF accepts both solicited and unsolicited proposals. Solicited proposals respond to one of the following formal funding opportunities:

1. Dear Colleague Letter

Dear Colleague letters are intended to provide general information to the community, clarify or amend an existing policy or document, or inform the NSF proposer community about upcoming opportunities or special competitions for supplements to existing awards. In addition, they are often used to draw attention to an impending change in NSF policies or programs.

2. Program Announcement

The term "program announcement" refers to formal NSF publications that announce NSF programs. Program announcements and program descriptions (see below) are the primary mechanisms used by NSF to communicate opportunities for research and education support, as well as to generate proposals. Program announcements utilize the generic eligibility and proposal preparation guidelines specified in the GPG and incorporate the NSB approved merit review criteria.

3. Program Solicitation

The term "program solicitation" refers to formal NSF publications that encourage the submission of proposals in specific program areas of interest to NSF. They generally are more focused than program announcements, and normally apply for a limited period of time. Competition among proposals is more precisely defined than with program announcements, and proposals received compete directly with each other for NSF funding. Program solicitations are issued when the funding opportunity has one or more of the following features:

Unsolicited proposals can also be submitted for research and education projects, in any existing or emerging field, as long as they fit under the broad program description of activities or areas of interest in NSF Directorates/Offices and Divisions. Program descriptions are posted on Directorate/Division websites and are much broader than what found in solicitations (see program synopsis within each division webpage). Unsolicited proposals utilize the generic eligibility and proposal preparation instructions specified in the Grant Proposal Guide (GPG), as well as the National Science Board (NSB) approved merit review criteria. See GPG Chapter III for additional information. Most core programs have due dates, target dates, or proposal windows that come around once or twice each year (although some core programs accept proposals at any time).

Note: Both the Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) and Application Guide provide guidance for the preparation and submission of proposals to NSF. Some NSF programs have program solicitations that modify the general provisions of these Guides, and, in such cases, the guidelines provided in the solicitation must be followed. It is important that proposers use the appropriate guidelines when preparing proposals for submission to NSF. As such, when submitting proposals:

Review Process

NSF proposals are evaluated using a rigorous system of merit review. The steps and timeline going from proposal preparation to award processing are schematized below (see also NSF Merit Review). We describe here only the steps involved in PHASE II, based on the information provided on the website mentioned above.

NSF Review Process

PHASE II (typical duration: 6 months): Proposals received by NSF are assigned to the appropriate NSF program. NSF Program Officers identify experts in their particular fields to review the proposal. Activities in this phase include:

  1. Cognizant program officer receives proposal and selects peer reviewers:

    Upon receipt of a proposal, Program Officers conduct a preliminary review to ensure completeness and conformance with NSF requirements (Chapter II.A and II.B of GPG). If the proposal is complete and conforms to NSF requirements, NSF Program Officers identify at least three external reviewers to review the proposal. The review may be conducted by ad hoc reviewers, a panel of experts, or a combination of both. Reviewers are selected based on their specific and/or broad knowledge of the science and engineering fields; their broad knowledge of the infrastructure of the science and engineering enterprise, and its educational activities; and to the extent possible, diverse representation within the review group. Sources of reviewers can come from the PO's knowledge of the research area; references listed in proposals; recent professional society programs; computer searches of S&E journal articles related to the proposal; reviewer recommendations included in proposal or sent by email. Proposers are invited to suggest persons they believe are especially well qualified to review the proposal, as well as identify persons they would prefer not review the proposal.

  2. Peer reviewers review proposal:

    External reviewers' analyses and evaluation of the proposal provide information to the NSF Program Officer in making a recommendation regarding the proposal. Reviewers evaluate all NSF proposals through the use of two National Science Board approved merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Based on 2007-NSF Notice No.130, the intellectual merit criterion has been modified to emphasize "To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?." In some instances, however, NSF will employ additional review criteria as required to highlight the specific objectives of certain programs and activities. These additional review criteria are outlined in the applicable program solicitation. See also Merit Review Facts webpage.

  3. Program officer analyzes input and makes recommendation to Division Director:

    The NSF Program Officer reviews the proposal and analyzes the input received from the external reviewers.  In addition to the external reviews, Program Officers consider several factors, including 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.  In addition, decisions on a given proposal are made considering both other current proposals and previously funded projects. Based on these considerations, the Program Officer makes an award/decline recommendation to the Division Director.

  4. Division Director review of recommendation:

    If the Program Officer makes an award recommendation and the Division Director concurs, the recommendation is submitted to the Division of Grants and Agreements for award processing. When a decision has been made (whether an award or a declination), the following information is released electronically to the Principal Investigator (PI) through FastLane:

    • description of the context in which the proposal was reviewed;
    • copies of all reviews used in the decision (with any reviewer-identifying information redacted);
    • copy of panel summary, if the proposal was reviewed by a panel at any point in the process;
    • site-visit reports, if applicable.

    In addition, if not otherwise provided in the panel summary, the PI is provided an explanation (written or telephoned) of the basis for the declination.

PHASE III (typical duration: 30 days): If the Program Officer recommends funding of the proposal, and final division or other programmatic approval is obtained, then the recommendation goes to a Grants and Agreements Officer in the Division of Grants and Agreements. The Grants and Agreements Officer reviews the proposal for business, financial and policy implications, as well as the processing and issuance of a grant or cooperative agreement. Activities in this phase are:

  1. Grants and Agreements Officer conducts business review:

    A DGA officer reviews the recommendation from the program division/office for business, financial and policy implications, and the processing and issuance of a grant or cooperative agreement. DGA generally makes awards to academic institutions within 30 days after the program division/office makes its recommendation.

  2. Grants and Agreements Officer notifies organization of award decision:

    NSF awards are electronically signed by a Grants & Agreements Officer, and transmitted to the organization via e-mail. In addition to the e-mail notification, grantees may access their NSF awards via FastLane. Sponsored projects offices are able to view, print, and/or download NSF awards for their organizations.

The merit review process is described in detail in Part I of the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPP) and on the Merit Review website.

Recent Awards Data

Summary Proposal and Award Information (Funding Rate) by State and Organization:
Provides information on the number of proposals and awards, Funding Rates, Average Decision Time, Mean Award Duration and Median Award Size.  Average Decision Time measures the time from when NSF receives a proposal to when a final decision is made.  Information is presented by NSF organization.  To see the information by State, go to the "Data by" dropdown, select State and then press, "View Report". Ten years of data is available.

In addition, a very useful resource is the link, found at the bottom of Directorate/Division webpages to the list of awards that have recently been made through that specific program.

NSF Useful Links

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