This report assesses and makes recommendations to strengthen the merit review system used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to make major awards to support important research facilities, centers, and other large-scale research-related activities. The purpose of the recommendations is to ensure that the most meritorious projects are chosen for support, that the selection process is fair in practice and perception, and that the results in each case are clearly and publicly explained. In this way, the effectiveness and accountability of the major award process will be increased, and the confidence of the research community, Congress, and the public in the system will be enhanced.
The United States has built the most successful research system in the world. The use of peer review to identify the best ideas for support has been a major ingredient in this success. Peer review-based procedures such as those in use at NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and other federal research agencies remain the best procedures known for ensuring the technical excellence of research projects that receive public support. Today, the nation is facing serious international economic competition, which extends to scientific and engineering research. To maintain our world class research enterprise, we will have to be more careful than ever to choose wisely the projects that receive support. The difference between an excellent proposal and one that is merely above average is critical in this effort. The merit review system must be maintained and strengthened to perform the function of choosing the best research for public support.
During the past decade, NSF has established Engineering Research Centers, Supercomputer Centers, Science and Technology Centers, and other large research centers and facilities. A few awards were controversial, and called into question NSF policies and procedures for making large award decisions. Some of those involving the location of one-of-a-kind national facilities have generated the sharpest questions about selection procedures. Decisions by the National Science Board (NSB) and the NSF to devote substantial resources to some new center programs and very expensive facilities have also raised questions about the adequacy of their planning procedures. The congressional conference report on FY 1991 appropriations for NSF requested a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study of the criteria weighed in making major awards and an assessment of the roles of outside experts and agency staff in the merit review decisionmaking process at NSF. The NAS agreed to undertake the project because of the importance of merit review for making major research awards. The study was assigned to the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), which is chartered by the NAS, the