For years, critics have argued that the National Science Foundation's system of grant review is not receptive to novel or unorthodox ideas. But NSF has not failed to take notice of this charge. In 1989, spurred by complaints about reviewer conservatism, NSF introduced a new type of award known as Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER). Although still not widely known today, these grants exist expressly for the purpose of supporting speculative research endeavors that might not otherwise receive funding through normal channels, says James McCullough, senior staff associate for program evaluation at NSF.

In discussing the SGERs, Mc-Cullough is careful to point out that they are not a distinct program of their own, but rather "an alternative mechanism [for awarding research grants] that any program officer can use." The money for an SGER, which is nonrenewable and may not exceed $50,000, comes out of the budget of the program...

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