WASHINGTON—When forest biologist Richard Condit of Princeton University applied for a grant to study how trees in tropical forests are related, the National Science Foundation told him that he had a great idea. But they rejected his application because he couldn’t prove that his approach would work.

Condit is trying again, but NSF has decided to give scientists like him a chance to prove their theories without wasting a lot of federal money on experiments that don't work. The new program is called Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER). It provides one-year awards of up to $50,000 through a process that bypasses traditional merit review and lets scientists venture into unexplored—and therefore often unfundable—territory.

“What we really want is for people to try things that they don’t think are ready for a full grant proposal,” says James M. McCullough, director of the NSF program evaluation staff. The program, announced this...

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