Why Did My Research Proposal Fail?

The success rate for research proposals submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) is in the teens. So why do more than 80% of submissions fail? The reasons vary from poor writing, to not following directions, to a lack of examples. The major cause, however, is that many submissions are not research projects at all. For those that are, clear explanations of the need and methodology are missing or flawed. Here are the five most common reasons why research proposals are rejected:

1. Failure to follow submission guidelines

Many Federal agencies, including the NSF, will return proposals without review. The simple reason given is that the guidelines were not followed. Few events are as frustrating as losing a grant competition because the margins on your proposal were a quarter-inch too wide or a mandatory section was missing. This is perhaps the easiest flaw to address in a rejected proposal. Researchers must become students of the Request for Application (RFA) to ensure their applications do not stop at this stage.

2. Poorly written proposals

Proposals that make the reviewers question the author’s credibility as a researcher are fatal. Poorly written proposals, including mistakes such as poor grammar and misspellings, can detract from your idea. If you have a good idea, you must present it in the best possible light to beat the competition. Ideally you can have your proposal professionally reviewed and edited. Alternatively, you should send it to a naïve reader and a grammarian. Each will provide necessary information that pertains to the readability and communication of your ideas to the reviewers.

3. Failure to immediately address the purpose of the proposal

The first sentence of the first paragraph should be what the proposal is about. Unfortunately, it is not unusual to not see the purpose of the research until several sentences into the first paragraph. Since the ratings of your proposal often depend on the ease of finding the information about your request, you must be obvious and direct. It is imperative that you begin the first paragraph with: “The research objective of this proposal is…”

4. The scientific investigation is not methodical, repeatable and verifiable

The probability of reaching your objectives depends on your methodology. You must be able to clearly state how your project will unfold, and describe how you will conduct your research. Success also depends on your project being repeatable by other researchers. With the wave of rescinded grants and questionable research results making their way into mainstream news, accountability and complete objectivity are absolute necessities. Your research must be verifiable. In other words, can you show that the results you claim are true?

5. Not stating the research objectives appropriately

The statement of your research objective should lead you directly to your methodology. If it does not, you don’t have a clear statement of your research objective. To quote the NSF, the acceptable ways to state a research objective are:

  1. The research objective of this proposal is to test the hypothesis H.
  2. The research objective of this proposal is to measure parameter P with accuracy A.
  3. The research objective of this proposal is to prove the conjecture C.
  4. The research objective of this proposal is to apply method M from disciplinary area D to solve problem P in disciplinary area E.

At the end of the day, it is important to understand that a research proposal submitted for funding is not a manuscript, a paper for publication, nor a novel. It is a request with clear objectives and methodology. Also, adhering to the RFA guidelines may require sections that are not directly related to your research, such as Broader Impacts and the inclusion of underrepresented groups. Selling your idea depends on remembering that you have to convince the reviewers of the need for your research in the clearest, most understandable, and logical manner. As the NIH asks us to remember: “Think of yourself as a used car salesman, selling a used car to a group of seasoned used car salesmen.”

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

2 comments on “Why Did My Research Proposal Fail?

  1. I am definitely in favor of supporting young investigators through administration of handicaps where new investigators are recognized at the time of grant review or by the Institutes providing funding. We need more resources put into K awards and training programs and less in Centers and Collaborative awards (U) that are very expensive. The best accounting of our research dollars comes from programs that are small enough that each investigators must be accountable for what they produce. We all know of large scale programs where some researchers are highly productivity while other researchers are along for the ride. Why can t we investigate these and other ways to save research dollars for young investigators rather than assuming everyone with past histories of grant-getting success should quit doing the very thing they are good at doing.

    And Happy New Year!

  2. Thanks for this post. In my opinion, it is really helpful. Are there any more articles on research proposal writing?

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