Disputing a reviewer’s decision

  • May 16, 2023

No one likes to hear bad news, especially when seeking funding. However, there is a big difference between disagreeing with a reviewer’s opinion and outright bias and inequity. We have heard horror stories from our clients about completely inappropriate comments from the review board and rampant bias.

One reviewer had the audacity to say, “why would you help these kinds of people” in reference to historically marginalized populations. 😮

Other applicants were openly discriminated against for their gender or ethnicity. This article is not meant to encourage applicants to dispute the outcome of their proposal review, but rather to provide guidance on how to proceed if an applicant was a subject of bias. This is the information and process for disputing a review decision for an NSF applicant.

Step 1: Reconsideration Overview:  A proposer whose proposal has been declined may ask the cognizant NSF Program Officer or the cognizant NSF Division Director for information over and above the explanatory materials received with the declination notice. If the PI is not satisfied that the proposal was fairly handled and reasonably reviewed, the PI may request reconsideration by the cognizant Assistant Director (AD) or Office Head. An organization (or an unaffiliated PI) still not satisfied after reconsideration by the cognizant AD/Office Head may request further reconsideration by the Deputy Director of the Foundation.  The decision made by the Deputy Director is final.   

If a proposal has been declined after being reviewed by the NSF, only an explanation will be available. The aim of any reconsideration is to ensure that NSF’s review has been fair and reasonable, both substantively and procedurally. The scientific and technical merits may be examined within the context of budget availability and program priorities. Reconsideration also may address any procedural errors in peer review or other aspects of proposal review, including unaccounted-for conflict of interest or inappropriate consideration of records, information, or rumor. 

Step 2: Request for Reconsideration: If dissatisfied with the explanation provided by the NSF Program Officer or Division Director, the PI may request in writing that NSF reconsider its action. Such a request will be considered only if the PI has first sought and obtained further clarification from the cognizant NSF Program Officer or Division Director, and only if the request is received by the Foundation within 90 days after the declination or the return.  The request should be addressed to the AD/Office Head for the Directorate or Office that handled the proposal and should explain why the PI believes that the declination or return was unwarranted.

The AD/Office Head will reconsider the record to determine whether NSF’s review of the declined proposal was fair and reasonable, substantively and procedurally, taking into account the availability of funds and the policies and priorities of the program and NSF. 

In the case of a returned proposal, the record will be reviewed to determine whether the proposed project was inappropriate for NSF consideration. The AD/Office Head may request additional information from the PI and may obtain additional reviews. If additional reviews are sought, they are subject to standard review procedures (e.g., instructions must be provided to reviewers, and conflicts-of-interest policies must be followed). The AD/Office Head may conduct the reconsideration personally or may designate another NSF official who had no part in the initial review to do so. As used here, “AD/Office Head” includes such a designated official. 

Step 3: Results of the Reconsideration: Within 45 days after the date of the request, the AD/Office Head will furnish the results of the reconsideration, in writing, to the PI. If results cannot be furnished within 45 days, the AD/Office Head will send the PI a written explanation of the need for more time, indicating the date when the results can be expected. If the AD/Office Head reaffirms the declination or return, the AD/Office Head will inform the PI that the PI’s organization may obtain further reconsideration by the Deputy Director of NSF as provided below.

Further Reconsideration by the NSF Deputy Director Within 60 days after the AD/Office Head has notified the PI of the results of the reconsideration, the proposing organization or an unaffiliated PI may request further reconsideration by the Deputy Director of NSF. A request for further reconsideration need not be in any particular format, but it must be in writing and must be signed by the organization’s president or other chief executive officer and by the PI. For declinations, it should explain why the organization believes that an error may have occurred in the initial evaluation and why it is not entirely satisfied with the reconsideration by the cognizant AD/Office Head. For returned proposals, it should explain why the organization believes that an error may have occurred in the initial determination that the proposal was inappropriate for NSF consideration.

Step 4: Final Decision: The Deputy Director will review the request for further reconsideration and the record of earlier NSF actions, including the original review and the reconsideration by the AD/Office Head, to determine whether NSF’s review of the declined proposal was fair and reasonable, or, in the case of a returned proposal, whether the proposed project was inappropriate for NSF consideration. The Deputy Director may request additional information from the PI or the proposing organization and may obtain additional reviews. If additional reviews are sought, they are subject to standard review procedures (e.g., instructions must be provided to reviewers, and conflicts-of-interest policies must be followed). Within 30 days after a request for further reconsideration is received at NSF, the Deputy Director will furnish the results of the further reconsideration, in writing, to the organization. If results cannot be furnished within 30 days, the Deputy Director will send the organization a written explanation of the need for more time, indicating the date when the results can be expected. The decision made by the Deputy Director is final.

Be advised – Award of NSF assistance is discretionary, and reconsideration is not an adversarial process. A formal hearing, therefore, is not provided. Because factors such as program budget and priorities factor into the decision on a proposal, NSF cannot ensure proposers that reconsideration will result in an award even if the error is established in connection with the initial review. 


We work with high-growth startups and organizations that support the startup and innovation ecosystem. We build highly specific non-dilutive funding menus, provide proposal preparation services, and measure outcomes of funding through evaluation. Schedule a consult call with us HERE.

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