URBS 4/553—Packaging Grants

Why Proposals Fail (Bill Bernhagen, URSI):

This list is based on an article by Ernest M. Allen entitled “Why Are Research Grant Applications Disapproved,” Science 1960 (11/25): 1533. His analysis of 605 disapproved proposals to NIH suggests shortcomings common to other kinds of proposals. Many of these shortcomings could be overcome by a rewritten proposal and are not so insurmountable as may at first appear. Such a list may help you anticipate areas where your proposal could be strengthened. In order of frequency within each class:


1.      Problem

a.       The problem is of insufficient importance or is unlikely to produce any new or useful information.

b.      The project is based on insufficient evidence, is doubtful, or is unsound.

c.       The problem is more complex than the proposer appears to realize.

d.      The problem has only local significance, or is one of production or control, or otherwise fails to fall sufficiently clearly within the general area of interest to the funder.

e.       The problem is not sufficiently mature and warrants, at most, only a pilot study.

f.        The project is overly involved, with too many elements under simultaneous investigation

g.       The description of the project and its significance leaves the proposal nebulous and diffuse without clear outcomes.


2.      Approach

a.       The project activities are unsuited to the stated objective

b.      The description of the approach to the problem is nebulous, diffuse, and lacks sufficient clarity to permit adequate evaluation.

c.       The overall design of the project has not been carefully thought out.

d.      The measurement aspects of the project have not been given sufficient consideration.

e.       The approach lacks imagination

f.        Controls are either inadequately conceived or inadequately described

g.       The resources needed are either unsuited to the objectives or are may not be available

h.       The number of people/clients served is inadequate

i.         The physical resources contemplated are outmoded or otherwise inadequate


3.      Personnel

a.       The investigator does not have adequate experience or training, or both, for this project

b.      The investigator appears to be unfamiliar with recent pertinent literature or methods (or both)

c.       The investigator’s previous work in this area does not inspire confidence

d.      The investigator proposes to rely too heavily on insufficiently experienced associates

e.       The investigator is spread too thinly; would be more productive if concentrated on fewer projects

f.        The investigator needs more liaison with colleagues in this field or in collateral fields


4.      Other

a.       Requirements for equipment or personnel, or both, are unrealistic

b.      It appears that other responsibilities would prevent devotion of sufficient time and attention to this research

c.       The institutional setting is unfavorable.

d.      Previous grants, still active, are sufficient to cover the proposed project.



Questions Reviewers Ask (Bill Bernhagen, URSI):

  1. Scope of Work
    1. Does the proposal show sufficient understanding of funder priorities and guidelines?
    2. Do the proposal’s objectives fit those of the funder?
    3. Can the proposal’s approach meet its objectives?
    4. Why is the proposal’s approach a good one?
    5. Has the proposal introduced any elements which could result in delay or expansion of the project?
    6. Does the proposal have an efficient time schedule?
    7. Is the time schedule realistic?
    8. Will proposal reports be issued to coincide with major milestones of the project?
    9. Does the proposal provide for the use of community resources and inputs?
    10. If a survey sample is needed, has the proposal chosen an adequate one?
    11. Does the proposal clearly indicate its possible products (eg, publications)?
    12. Does the proposal deal with all clearance requirements from federal agencies (eg, the use of human or animal subjects)?
    13. Has the proposal set up an efficient and realistic evaluation procedure?


  1. Personnel Questions
    1. Does the proposal clearly specify personnel assignments?
    2. Are personnel assignments time efficient?
    3. Are the personnel assigned to specific tasks qualified to perform them (according to training and experience)?
    4. Is there sufficient information (eg, vitae) with which to evaluate personnel and their tasks?
    5. Are the personnel clearly available?
    6. Have provisions been made to deal with sudden personnel changes?
    7. Is there efficient administrative management?
    8. Will there be consultants?
    9. How will the consultants be used?
    10. Is the proposal writer one of the key personnel?
    11. Does the project depend on too many outside personnel?


  1. Facilities
    1. Has the proposal specified the necessary facilities and equipment?
    2. Does the proposal make clear its access to outside facilities?
    3. Are the organizations providing the outside facilities qualified?
    4. Is the use of facilities realistic in terms of evaluation?
    5. Is the time schedule realistic for use of outside facilities?


  1. Track Record
    1. Is the organization’s track record related to the proposal in a clear way?
    2. What is the organization’s reputation in its field?
    3. What are the professional honors won by the organization?


  1. Budget Information
    1. Is the overall proposal budget within the scope of agency funding?
    2. Are equipment costs clearly stated?
    3. Is the personnel budget realistic?
    4. Does the budget account (at a reasonable rate) for use of consultants?
    5. Does the budget account for use of outside facilities?
    6. Does the budget cover development of new measuring instruments (eg, questions for surveys)?



2005 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 28 January 2011