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The Main Reasons Grant Applications Get Rejected
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Research is becoming increasingly expensive as we go deeper into various issues using newer and more sophisticated techniques. Most researchers wanting to research a particular topic need to obtain funding for their research via grants from various funding agencies.

Applying for grants, therefore, is becoming increasingly compe titive. Funding agencies receive numerous grant applications from researchers every year. These agencies constitute review committees composed of senior researchers, experts in their field of study, to review the grant applications. Committees usually meet a fixed number of times a year, go through the applications, and then decide which applications are the most meritorious. They inform the funding agency of their choices, and it then distributes the grants based on their recommendations.

Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, a researcher may receive a letter informing him that his application for a grant has not been successful. The main reasons given by the reviewers for rejecting a grant application can be grouped under 6 headings. In this article, we present these reasons for rejection along with the strategy that can be used for solving each problem.
Reasons for rejection
Grant applications are rejected for a variety of reasons, which can be grouped into the following main categories:
  • Incorrectly filled out grant application
  • Problems about the research question
  • Problems about the research goal
  • Problems about the research design
  • Problems about the grant applicant
  • Problems about the location of the research project
  • ernational scientific community.s
Each of these problems is discussed individually below. The strategy that can be used for problem solving is stated under each problem.

Incorrectly filled out grant application
Very often the applicant, already busy with research and academic work, submits a hastily written and, often, incorrectly written application for a grant. This not only conveys an impression of incompetence, but can annoy the review committee, which feels that the researcher is wasting its time by being careless and sloppy.

The grant applicant should use the following strategies to address this problem:
  • Always read the grant application very carefully before starting to write, so that you understand what exactly is required from you. Most agencies have a particular style in which they want the application completed and submitted. Instructions for applying are usually provided, either as a separate document or along with the application.
  • Make an outline, for your reference, of the way in which the agency wants the application made. When you write the application, follow the outline you have made.
  • Make a list of all the supporting documents that the agency wants submitted along with the application. Use this list as a checklist to make sure you submit an application complete in all respects.

Problems about the research question

Before starting the study, the research question needs to be properly framed. What exactly is the aim of the research study? What hypothesis are you trying to prove? The applicant needs to clearly state the reasons for which the research is being conducted and should frame them properly. The reviewers must understand the significance of the research and the importance of obtaining an answer to the research question. Reviewers may reject a grant application if they feel that
  • The research question being asked is neither new nor original
  • The research question/hypothesis is not well-defined or convincing
  • The scientific rationale for the proposed study does not appear valid
    The points i, ii, and iii are a critical component of the application. Enough time must be spent framing the research question (or defining the hypothesis) in order to convince the reviewers that the proposed research has academic importance. The reviewer should understand that conducting the proposed study will fill certain defined gaps in our knowledge or contribute to the better understanding of a particular process or unveil a new and improved methodology for a procedure. The scientific basis for the proposed study must be clear.
  • The reviewers feel that the proposed study will not bring up anything new about the subject or the methodology
    The application must clearly show how the proposed study is going to contribute to the current knowledge on the subject.
  • Enough background, in the form of a comprehensive review of the literature, has not been provided
    The review of literature is a critical component of the grant application. It provides a background to the proposed study and indicates its importance based on previous work done on the subject. The literature review should not be just about the proposed research topic, but should also provide references about the techniques and methods used in the experiments and for analysis of the results. If a comprehensive review of the literature has not been provided, the reviewer does not have a context within which to judge the proposed research. Additionally, the applicant appears careless as the application has been submitted without carefully reviewing previous work on the subject. Please remember that the reviewer does not want to read about each and every paper you perused when you were going through the literature. Only mention the most important articles on the subject and the ones most relevant to your research. It is not necessary to quote from each one; providing the citation at the appropriate place is adequate. Citations are required not only to place your research in context of previous work on the subject, but also for any standard techniques/methods you have decided to use for your research. For example, "Immunoblotting will be carried out using the method of Jones et al (1980)c" is adequate; details of the procedure do not have to be provided.
Problems about the research goal
The goals, or aims, of the proposed research need to be very precisely defined. The review committee is interested in learning that the applicant knows clearly where he/she wants the study to take him/her and has designed the study toward a very specific goal. Reviewers may reject a grant application if they feel that
  • The research proposal is too superficial
    While the reviewers do not want very detailed explanations in the body of the application, it is important to provide enough information for the reviewers to feel that serious thought has gone into framing the research question/hypothesis and the research design in order to obtain in-depth answers to the research question, which will make a real contribution to the currently available knowledge on the subject.
  • The research plan is too ambitious and more work has been proposed than is feasible
    Reviewers may be concerned that the research proposal aims to do more than is possible for any one of the following reasons.
    • The time period: Most grants are given for a fixed period of time, within which the research is expected to be completed. If the proposal is too ambitious, the reviewers may be concerned that it will not be completed within the required time period.
    • The capability of the applicant: If the applicant is a junior researcher, or if the proposed research design uses techniques in which neither the applicant nor the collaborators are experienced, the reviewers may be concerned about the feasibility of undertaking such a study.
    • The amount of funds released: The reviewers may be concerned that the amount of the grant may not be sufficient to cover the costs of the proposed research.
  • The project appears to be designed for the sake of "doing research" and not to answer a specific question
    The reviewers would like to see a specific research question that is well-thought out and a research design with a specific end-point to answer that question. Funding agencies allocate funds for very specific purposes and reviewers are unlikely to recommend an application for research that will be conducted without any specific goal in mind.
  • Alternative hypotheses have not been considered when framing the research question and goals of the study
    When writing the application, it is a good practice to mention all the hypotheses/research questions that you considered when framing your study. You should then go on to explain your rationale for selecting one of these. This serves the following purpose

    • The reviewers understand that you went through a detailed process of inquiry before framing the research question/hypothesis.
    • The reviewers understand that you have considered the problem from all angles and the research question/hypothesis you have chosen is the most appropriat
Problems about the research design
Even if the research question/hypothesis is well-framed and specific and all the concerns mentioned above have been addressed, the grant application can still run into trouble. This is because the research design may be flawed, which would be a serious cause for concern to the review committee. Reviewers may reject a grant application if they feel that
  • The proposal is just descriptive and does not directly test the hypothesis
    The research proposal must be very specific about how it proposes to test the hypothesis/answer the research question. The proposed research must not generally study the problem/disease, but must be designed to provide specific answers.
  • Too many unnecessary details have been provided about the tests
    Funding agencies usually appoint senior researchers as the reviewers of grant applications received by them. They are, therefore, familiar with standard techniques and the research design does not need to go into details about them. It is more important to explain the research clearly so that they understand how exactly the study will be conducted and how this design is the best for answering the research question/hypothesis. It is sufficient to provide citations to the original papers for any standard techniques used.
    Remember: Reviewers want all the pertinent details (to convince them that your research design is well-conceived and will work); they just do not want any unnecessary details.
  • New/innovative approaches have not been described in sufficient detail to convince the reviewer that they will work
    Contrary to the previous point, when a technique is being tried for the first time in a different context, or when the research uses an entirely new technique/method you have devised, it is necessary to provide a sufficiently detailed description. This enables reviewers to understand the new technique or appreciate how the new application of an old technique reveals new data.
  • The rationale for the methods used has not been provided, i.e., why should a particular method be used and not another
    When more than one method is available for obtaining a particular result, the applicant should clarify why he/she chose a particular method in preference to others for conducting the experiment.
  • No appropriate controls have been set
    In any study, whether for a research grant application or a research paper, it is important to define the controls. These serve as the baseline against which the results of the study are compared and interpreted. Reviewers would be reluctant to approve a study where the controls have not been defined, because there would be no basis for verifying the results.
  • No other experimental approaches have been offered as alternatives in case the primary approach fails
    It is always preferable to mention the alternative method(s) you would use if your initial approach is unsuccessful. This clearly indicates your commitment to the study and the importance of the study to the reviewers. The reviewers are also reassured that if one method does not work, you have a back-up plan ready and will not (a) abandon the research or (b) waste valuable time devising an alternative plan, thus being unable to complete the research during the tenure of the grant.
  • The experiments have not been written in a logical and chronological manner
    The actual research to be conducted, i.e., the experiments and their methodologies must always be presented in a clear and concise manner. The steps of the study should follow each other in a chronological order, from the beginning to the end of the study. Try to arrange the subheadings in the order of increasing importance. This has the following advantages
    • The research design becomes easier for the reviewers to understand and appreciate.
    • The steps of the experiment(s) are easily understandable.
    • A precise, chronological description makes the applicant seem like a logical and organized researcher to the reviewers
  • The end-point of the experiment is not clearly defined
    After reading the grant application, it must be clear to the reviewer what exactly the results of each procedure in your research protocol will be. The end-point of an experiment is a measurable or quantifiable outcome. It must be specific, clearly stated, and achievable within a specified period of time. Do not confuse the end-point of an experiment with the research aim, which is broader based.
  • Potential pitfalls and design limitations have not been discussed
    Do not feel that you have to write up the proposed research as though it will succeed perfectly the first time itself. Something that looks good written down on paper may not work in the laboratory. You must always mention what you feel could possibly go wrong during the experiment, the strategies you will apply in case anything does go wrong, and the limitations of your proposed research design. This impresses reviewers with the amount of thought you have given to the problem you wish to solve and convinces them that the research grant will be well-utilized.
  • The proposed experiment/model is not appropriate for the research question
    This is a very serious flaw! When writing the application, make sure that the proposed research is relevant and will answer the research question. Once you are sure of the suitability of your research design, you need to be sure that it is explained clearly, precisely, and in the correct chronological sequence to be understood by the reviewers and convince them that it is appropriate to answer the research question.

  • The preliminary data provided is not adequate OR does not appear to support the hypothesis
    Before starting a big study, it is customary to carry out a pilot study. If that is not possible, at least do some preliminary experimental work to check whether you are proceeding on the right track. The data from these simple experiments or from the pilot study helps reviewers understand the rationale behind your proposed study, i.e., the logic underlying the research design.

  • Ethical concerns have not been addressed
    When the research design involves the use of animal or human subjects, or if the proposed research has the potential to impact the environment in some way, all funding agencies require certification that the research meets ethical guidelines. Your application must contain the necessary certification before it is considered. The funding agency's guidelines will state what is needed. Usually a clearance from the hospital/university ethics committee will suffice.
Problems about the grant applicant
  • Not enough expertise in the subject/approach
    The reviewers may feel that the applicant does not have enough expertise to carry out the proposed research. It is helpful therefore to

    • Include in the bibliography, the previous publications of research conducted by you in the proposed field.
    • In the biographical section (where the curriculum vitae of the applicant and collaborators is provided), make sure that you indicate clearly why you are competent to conduct the proposed research: mention any previous research conducted on the same topic and mention that you have previously used the proposed technique(s), either by providing details of the pilot study or other research carried out or by citing papers you have previously published.
    • Make sure that even if the applicant does not have the necessary expertise, one or more of the collaborators on the project does. Highlight this point in the biographic data, so that the reviewers know that the proposed research will not get held up due to a lack of the necessary expertise.
  • Lack of recent publications in the proposed or related areas
    Publications in the proposed area of research are used by reviewers to gauge the experience and expertise of the applicant. As explained above, the applicant should be sure to include all relevant publications, and/or ensure that one or more of the collaborators have prior publications in the proposed area of research or related areas. Toward this end, a pilot study or other preliminary experimental work can make the grant application more convincing. The reviewers get a preview of the expected results, an indication why the applicant felt that the proposed research is needed, and a sense that the applicant is committed to answering the research question.
  • No collaborators with expertise in the proposed research (methodology and/or subject) See i and ii.
Problems about the location of the research project
  • There appears to be little or no institutional support to the primary investigator
    Institutional support refers to the support provided by the institution (university/research center/department) to the grant applicant. This means that

    • The applicant must have a position in the institution before applying for the grant and not assume that once the grant is awarded, a position will become available.
    • The institution is ready to allow the applicant access to centralized resources and facilities, including animal care facilities, computers, instruments, laboratory space, and even human resources such as administrative assistants to take care of the administrative /paper work, particularly in large projects.
  • The investigator does not appear to have the necessary equipment for the experiment (in either the applicant's or the collaborator's institutes)
    When describing the research design, the equipment used is mentioned. It is helpful if the required equipment is already available, either with the applicant or with a collaborator. Very often the equipment is expensive and the grant money would be insufficient to purchase it. In fact, some agencies explicitly state that the grants they provide should NOT be used for the purchase of equipment.

There are a number of comments reviewers make about grant applications that they decide NOT to recommend for funding. These can be divided into 6 main categories. The common thread running through all these is a lack of comprehension on the part of the reviewers about the importance of the research project, the scientific basis for the research question/hypothesis, the applicant and/or collaborators' expertise and/or experience, the viability of the research design, and/or the technical support available to the applicant. If these potential comments are kept in mind while writing the grant application, the applicant will be able to address these issues before submitting the application, thus increasing the chances of obtaining the grant.