Someone—I believe it was a German statesman—once said that there were two questions to which most people did not really want answers: What goes in to sausage? and How are government decisions made? I am sure there is some truth here. Although I'm not familiar with what has been happening in the area of sausage making, there have been many discussions and several recent studies about the use and effectiveness of peer review in federal agencies deciding what research to support.
This article is precipitated by these recent studies, by the availability of quantitative peer review data in the Ocean Sciences Research Section (OSRS) of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and by continuing questions and statements concerning the peer review process that suggest some misunderstanding about what it is and how it works. My intent in this article is to describe the general process of peer review used in OSRS and to explain some of the variations in that process. Data and statistics on proposals considered for support with Fiscal Year (FY) 1981 funds help illustrate the process.