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Why Proposals are Rejected

Why Proposals Are Rejected

Assuming that funds are available, that eligibility is met, 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, NIH) 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 (Significance) (58%)

  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%)

  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%)

  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 themselves too thin; they will be more productive if they concentrate on fewer projects. (3.8)
  6. The investigator needs more liaisons with colleagues in this field or in collateral fields. (1.7)

D. Other (16%)

  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)

More recent statistics largely support the rankings of proposal sections above. Sally Rockey, Deputy Director for Extramural Research at NIH, published a blog that included a discussion of the correlation between the overall Impact score (essentially what determines whether you get funded), and the five other NIH criteria. Scores for the criterion in order of regression weight were Approach (6.7), followed by Significance (Problem) (3.3), Innovation (1.4), Investigator (1.3), and Environment (-0.1). This means the most important sections of the Project Description are the Approach (work plan) followed by the perceived importance of the work (Significance).

The following list is composed of grant proposal “dos” and “don’ts" that are in addition to those above:


  • Respond directly to the priorities of the funder and make the connection clear (do not assume the sponsor will change the guidelines just because you have a good idea that falls outside of them).
  • Follow the guidelines explicitly both in content and format.
  • Positively represent your capabilities, e.g., "We have a strong academic program, but we want to reach more students” vs "We do not have any resources."
  • Present evidence that (a) this issue is significant in the field (based on literature review, statistics, stakeholder opinions, etc.), and (b) your project is likely to succeed (e.g., preliminary data or pilot study).
  • Make sure you have described adequate expertise on your team and physical resources to do the work.
  • Make sure you have an evaluation plan for project proposals (e.g., measure outcomes in the classroom or in the community).
  • Use foundation funds to leverage other funding and at minimum show sustainability of the program.
  • Publish results of all funding.
  • Write clearly, succinctly; follow an outline; and support your assertions with references or data.

Do not:

  • Try to do too much in light of your experience and skills, the budget, the time allotted, your access to study participants (e.g., subjects), and your resources. Being “too ambitious” is a common rookie mistake, and is reflected in many of the comments above.
  • Duplicate other funded projects.
  • Resubmit a proposal without revisions in response to reviewer’s comments.
  • Submit a large research proposal without a publication history in the area.
  • Write a budget that is either too small (skimping) or too large (padding) for the proposal work.

Remember, many of these “don'ts” can be identified by your peer reviewers before you submit. Best wishes! 

References and Resources


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