NSF identifies five questions that proposal reviewers should consider in relation to the NSF merit criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.1 One of these questions is, “To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?”
NSF defines transformative research as involving “ideas, discoveries, or tools that radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or educational practice or leads to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science, engineering, or education. Such research challenges current understanding or provides pathways to new frontiers.”2
The Transformative Research section of the NSF website (www.nsf.gov/about/transformative_research/) offers additional insights on this topic. It explains that transformative research, “challenges conventional wisdom; leads to unexpected insights that enable new techniques or methodologies; or redefines the boundaries of science, engineering, or education.”
Understanding what NSF means by “transformative” is important so that proposers and grantees use the term appropriately and do not accidentally overstate their project’s potential or actual achievements. While some projects may bring about important institutional transformation, that type of transformation is of a smaller scale than the “radical changes” in scientific understanding and practices associated with NSF’s definition. Claims related to “transformation” should be reserved for the truly extraordinary, revolutionary, and ground-breaking changes in understanding or practice.