Non-conformance to formatting requirements leads to rejection of grant proposal: A case study
Case: A researcher’s grant proposal was rejected by a government funding agency without a review. The reason for rejection had nothing to do with the content. It was, as explained in the rejection letter, purely an issue of “non-conformance to the formatting requirements.” The researcher, as well as his superiors and peers, had been certain that the research idea had considerable merit.
Naturally, it was upsetting for the researcher to see his groundbreaking idea being rejected for a mere formatting issue without even getting a chance to be reviewed. What is more, he was not even sure what had gone wrong as there were no details of the error in the rejection letter. He wanted to know if he could appeal against this decision of the funding agency and request them to at least review the content.
He sought our help in identifying the error as he feared he might be rejected again if he submitted the same application elsewhere.
Action: Our publication support team went carefully through the grant application as well as the formatting guidelines of the funding agency. We found that the guidelines required strict conformance to all instructions provided and proposals that did not meet the requirements could be rejected without review.
On scrutinizing the grant proposal, our team found the following problems:
1. The References Cited section used the term “et al” instead of mentioning each author’s name.
2. The line spacing of the References Cited page did not meet the funder requirements.
We advised the researcher to make the necessary changes and submit the revised proposal to the same funding agency once again in the next grant cycle, since the researcher had not identified any other funding body where he could submit his application. We also recommended that the researcher should identify a few other funding sources, so that, in case the proposal is rejected again, he could submit it to another funding body.
Summary: Rejection of a grant proposal is quite common, and funding bodies usually have strict conformance rules. Applications are first screened for “non-conformance” before being sent for review. According to the National Science Federation (NSF), the leading governmental funding agency in the US, “It is important that all proposals conform to the instructions provided in the GPG or NSF Grants.gov Application Guide. Conformance is required and will be strictly enforced....NSF may return without review proposals that are not consistent with these instructions.”
It is, therefore, extremely important to follow every small detail mentioned in the funding agency’s guidelines and make sure all the requirements are met before submitting the grant application.
The NSF also makes the following recommendation to ensure conformance: “Prior to electronic submission, it is strongly recommended that proposers conduct an administrative review to ensure that proposals comply with the proposal preparation guidelines established in the GPG or NSF Grants.gov Application Guide.” Many universities have an Office of Research Administration that conducts a review of the grant proposal before submission. Such administrative reviews are helpful in eliminating formatting or other non-conformance errors before submission.
Writing a grant proposal involves a lot of time and effort. Grant proposal rejections are definitely difficult to deal with as it is disappointing not only to the grant writer, but also to the colleagues, supervisor, and the larger community that have supported the cause and helped in putting together the proposal.
To ensure that such an effort-intensive work at least gets through the review process, the grant writer has to be very careful about conforming to the guidelines set by the funding body. The grant writer should make a checklist of all the requirements of the funding body and ensure that every requirement has been met before submitting the proposal.
Supervisors and senior colleagues should guide young researchers about the grant application process and educate them about the importance of conforming to the funding agency’s guidelines. Institutions and universities should conduct an administrative review of every grant proposal before submission.