What do NSF ratings mean?

e.vgWhen you finally get the reviews of your NSF proposal, they will have ratings, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor. Some may give you between two, like E/VG, or G/F as if there was some sort of illusory precision to these categories. Some might decline to rate, wanting their comments to stand on their own.

The point of the ratings is to give others an indication of how serious you think the problems with the proposal are. Yes, nearly all proposals have problems, in the eyes of some or all. I know that even with our best proposals, there are things I wish were better.

They also give an indication of the strengths of the proposal. If you give a proposal an excellent rating it is important to specify why you think it is so great, to counteract others that might quibble.

Because everyone knows how tight funding is, reviewers tend to give very few Excellents. In panel it was common for people to announce that they only gave 2 excellent votes out of their 15, and this was one of them. It was an argument with some weight.

DSC02020I tend to generally stick with the top three categories, understanding that a Good in this climate means the proposal will not be funded. I would give lower if the proposal was very lacking, not fulfilling the basics of the process. But I don’t want to discourage the scientists. I want them to work hard and feel that what they are doing matters, even if it can’t get funding this time. Many reviewers stick with the top three categories, but others don’t.

Whatever ratings you get, focus on the comments. Even if you get funded, you could get useful advice for improving your study. If you don’t get funding, this is the first place to turn to learn what to change.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to What do NSF ratings mean?

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for all of your insight into NSF! I think that I’d prefer that the ratings were absolute rather than relative (e.g., the funding is tight, so produce fewer excellents). From my few personal experiences and the experiences of others with whom I’ve talked, it seemed as if NSF was giving lower scores for reasons that had little to do with their proposals (e.g., economic climate). While that’s understandable, it is simply easier to read a review that was honest (e.g., “We like it, but it wasn’t as exciting as the others. Sorry.”) rather than receiving forced–and occasionally trivial–criticism (e.g., “It was only a laboratory experiment.” [Yes, that was a review a friend had from a DDIG once.]). I hope that the preproposal process has allowed for more, substantive comments on the proposals. As I near the end of my Ph.D., I need to be thinking about this, and your blog has helped quite a bit. Thanks!

  2. I hope people think hard about every comment they give. They should understand it will be read over and over for hidden meaning, even when there isn’t any. I want everyone to succeed, whether they have NSF funding or not, though obviously there are many things that can only be done with funding.
    As far as relative vs. absolute ranks go, I don’t see how we could have anything but relative ones. After all, there are many people rating at many different times. Science changes also. Would a proposal I gave an excellent to 25 years ago get one today? Who knows? But I would also say the placings on the board are more relative than the written reviews, if that is any consolation.

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