Proposal Writer's Guide

by Don Thackrey


V. Why Proposals Are Rejected

Assuming that funds are available, that geographical distribution is not a criterion, and that political considerations are not present, the success of a proposal will depend both on the quality of the project itself and the quality of its presentation in the proposal. Different reviewers, of course, will weigh merits and defects differently, but the following list of short-comings of 605 proposals rejected by the National Institutes of Health is worth pondering. The list is derived from an article by Dr. Ernest M. Allen (Chief of the Division of Research Grants, National Institutes of Health) that appeared in Science, Vol. 132 (November 25, 1960), pp. 1532-34. (The percentages given total more than 100 because more than one item may have been cited for a particular proposal.)

A. Problem (58 percent)

  1. The problem is not of sufficient importance or is unlikely to produce any new or useful information. (33.1)
  2. The proposed research is based on a hypothesis that rests on insufficient evidence, is doubtful, or is unsound. (8.9)
  3. The problem is more complex than the investigator appears to realize. (8.1)
  4. The problem has only local significance, or is one of production or control, or otherwise fails to fall sufficiently clearly within the general field of health-related research. (4.8)
  5. The problem is scientifically premature and warrants, at most, only a pilot study. (3.1)
  6. The research as proposed is overly involved, with too many elements under simultaneous investigation. (3.0)
  7. The description of the nature of the research and of its significance leaves the proposal nebulous and diffuse and without a clear research aim. (2.6)
B. Approach (73 percent)

  1. The proposed tests, or methods, or scientific procedures are unsuited to the stated objective. (34.7)
  2. The description of the approach is too nebulous, diffuse, and lacking in clarity to permit adequate evaluation. (28.8)
  3. The overall design of the study has not been carefully thought out. (14.7)
  4. The statistical aspects of the approach have not been given sufficient consideration. (8.1)
  5. The approach lacks scientific imagination. (7.4)
  6. Controls are either inadequately conceived or inadequately described. (6.8)
  7. The material the investigator proposes to use is unsuited to the objective of the study or is difficult to obtain. (3.8)
  8. The number of observations is unsuitable. (2.5)
  9. The equipment contemplated is outmoded or otherwise unsuitable. (1.0)

C. Investigator (55 percent)

  1. The investigator does not have adequate experience or training for this research. (32.6)
  2. The investigator appears to be unfamiliar with recent pertinent literature or methods. (13.7)
  3. The investigator's previously published work in this field does not inspire confidence. (12.6)
  4. The investigator proposes to rely too heavily on insufficiently experienced associates. (5.0)
  5. The investigator is spreading himself too thin; he will be more productive if he concentrates on fewer projects. (3.8)
  6. The investigator needs more liaison with colleagues in this field or in collateral fields. (1.7)

D. Other (16 percent)

  1. The requirements for equipment or personnel are unrealistic. (10.1)
  2. It appears that other responsibilities would prevent devotion of sufficient time and attention to this research. (3.0)
  3. The institutional setting is unfavorable. (2.3)
  4. Research grants to the investigator, now in force, are adequate in scope and amount to cover the proposed research. (1.5)

Proposal Writer's Guide: | PWG Contents | PWG Introduction | Parts of a Research Proposal | Title Page | Abstract s | Proposal Table of Contents | Background Section | Description of Proposed Research | Resources Descriptions | References | Personnel | Budget | Appendices | Proposals for Academic Programs | III. Inquiries to Private Foundations | IV. Dealing with Short Deadlines | V. Why Proposals Are Rejected|