Options if Your Application Isn't Funded

Options if Your Application Isn't Funded

It's a fact of grant life: most applications do not succeed. If yours is one of them, you need to first spend some time identifying what went wrong.

First, we explain how to assess the application and critiques using two key resources: your program officer and your summary statement.

Second, we show you how to decide on next steps. Were they the right reviewers? Is it worth fixing? Which strategy suits the problem?

How To Decide on Next Steps

You may feel that some of the criticism from the reviewers is off the mark. It may very well be; reviewers may misinterpret, overlook, misread, or simply have a different viewpoint. (And PIs err too—your reviewers can only review what you wrote, not what you thought.)

To constructively address the review results, carefully size up the problems your reviewers raised. Delving into the nature of those issues should reveal the path that's right for you:

To help you choose one of those options, read on. We describe five “stops” along the route to your next application: two for an assessment and three for a decision.

Assess Peer Review Results

To start, gauge how serious your application's problems are.

Assessment Stop 1: Your Summary Statement

Read your summary statement carefully and analytically to gain insight into two questions:

  1. Are the application's problems fixable?
  2. Was it reviewed by the right study section?

Show the summary statement to colleagues for their interpretation. To assess the type of criticism you got from your reviewers, ask the following questions:

Did the reviewers think the topic was significant? This is critical! Did your reviewers seem excited about the research topic? Try to read between the lines to get at the essence of their enthusiasm—they may not state it overtly.

Did they identify fixable problems?

  • Did your reviewers find problems you can readily fix to meet their expectations?
  • Did they misunderstand some points that you could easily clarify?
  • Did they have major conceptual issues, for example, the research was not state-of-the-art, or the experiments you proposed would not prove your hypothesis?

Did they seem to be the right reviewers? Did their world view seem to match yours or was it radically different? Did you get the sense that no matter what you wrote they wouldn't have appreciated it?

Summary Statements Are No Panacea

Not to minimize this critical step, but be aware of your summary statement's limitations for assessing the seriousness of the problems and how to resolve them.

First, if overall enthusiasm for the proposal is low, no amount of revising will help, even if you address all the points in the summary statement.

Second, once reviewers find a "fatal flaw"—for example, an unprovable hypothesis—they usually stop discussing the application to save time.

  • When the discussion stops, the reviewers' feedback ends, and you have no way of knowing what they may have found—good or bad—had they continued.
  • Because the feedback is incomplete, you can correct all the problems and still not get a fundable score when you resubmit.

Last, for your resubmission, your application may encounter different reviewers who identify their own issues.

Assessment Stop 2: Your Program Officer

Now that you've thoroughly combed through your summary statement, it's time to contact your program officer.

First ask about your chances of special funding. We fund a handful of applications that score above the payline through special actions. Your program officer will discuss with you what, if anything, you are expected to do next.

If you are on the list for special funding later in the fiscal year, our best advice is to revise and resubmit your application as soon as possible.

Unless you are going to be funded imminently, look to your program officer to help you understand your summary statement and possibly give you more insights into the review meeting. NIAID program staff often attend review meetings as observers and may be able to fill you in on more details about the discussion.

It's key to get his or her take on the level of reviewer enthusiasm for your idea and whether there were other criticisms or positive statements that didn't make it into the summary statement.

Then for a broader field of advice, reach out to senior colleagues, mentors, or other investigators at your institution. Get their take on the reviewers' critiques in the summary statement and advice on how to proceed.

Your Decision Points

If they could not appreciate your scientific area or understand what you were proposing, maybe your application was assigned to the wrong study section.

After carefully reviewing your summary statement and checking in with your program officer, you should have a better sense of what to do next. If not, the following "decisions stops" may help.

Decision Stop 1: Were They the Right Reviewers?

In most cases, it is advantageous to revise and resubmit your application and request assignment to the same study section—if it had the right people to review the application.

If they could not appreciate your scientific area or understand what you were proposing, maybe your application was assigned to the wrong study section.

To figure that out, ask the following:

  • Did the reviewers' expertise fit your topic?
  • Were they knowledgeable about your methods?
  • Did they understand the rationale for your research?

If you answered "no" to any of these questions, the study section may have been inappropriate—just one caveat here, keep in mind that in most cases the problem is the application, not the reviewers!

Check out the expertise of the people listed on the roster attached to your summary statement before deciding. And get input from your colleagues and your program officer.

If reviewers found deal-breaking flaws such as an unexciting topic, no amount of revising will help.

Decision Stop 2: Is It Worth Fixing?

If you decided that the right people reviewed your application, your next challenge is to figure out whether you can resolve the problems your reviewers identified in the summary statement.

If reviewers found deal-breaking flaws such as an unexciting topic, no amount of revising will help.

On the other hand, an application that piqued reviewers interest gives you a solid foundation to build on, even if it has some warts. Ask brutally honest colleagues, grad students, and your program officer to help assess the reviewers' level of interest in your idea and whether they feel you can resolve the problems.

Surprisingly, it may be a good sign if reviewers pointed to lots of fixable problems. This may show they are interested in the research and feel the application is worth revising.

If Your Application Was Streamlined

Because applications that are streamlined don't benefit from a full review, it's much harder to get a sense of the reviewers' appraisal of their merit.

Some may not have been discussed because the pool contained too many outstanding applications, including resubmissions, which already addressed the study section's concerns.

Your application may be worth revising even if it was streamlined.

Use the feedback from the reviewer critiques to figure out what areas they felt had problems, and follow our advice above to determine your best course of action.

Common Fixable Problems

Many people succeed after revising and resubmitting because they can address the problems identified in the summary statement.

Here are examples of fixable problems.

Problem: Poor writing, formatting, or presentation
Solution: Rewrite; get help with writing, editing, formatting, and presentation.

Problem: Insufficient information, experimental details, or preliminary data
Solution: Assess what's missing; add it to the Research Plan.

Problem: Significance not convincingly stated.
Solution: Beef up that section; show the importance to NIAID's mission, your area of science, and public health.

Problem: Research not shown to be feasible by the proposed staff.
Solution: Recruit collaborators and consultants with the required expertise onto your project.

Problem: Insufficient discussion of obstacles and alternative approaches.
Solution: Describe what you'll do if you get negative results or an approach doesn't pan out. Include decision trees.

Hard-to-Fix Problems

Don't waste your time revising an application that has inherently unfixable problems.

The following problems are either not fixable or nearly impossible to correct:

  • Low-impact research topic
  • Philosophical issues, e.g., the reviewers do not think the work is important
  • Hypothesis is not sound or not supported by the data.
  • Work has already been done
  • Methods proposed were not suitable for testing the hypothesis

If you encounter such problems, it's best to start over with a new topic.

Paradoxically, faint praise can be a worse sign than abundant criticism. You should be concerned if reviewers had no major criticisms of your application, but it fared poorly in peer review.

Often this means reviewers were not excited about your idea. They may not state this explicitly, mostly out of politeness. Same for your program officer.

Try to get honest feedback from coworkers or mentors, and don't shoot the messenger. It's better to find out at this stage than to keep trying with a doomed idea. If a low-impact or dull topic was the problem, revising won't help.

Remember the Importance of Significance

Take heed if you score poorly on the Significance review criterion because that means reviewers aren't excited about your research. Speak to your program officer about what to do before you start preparing another application.

Even if your application had fixable problems in the approach, continuing the same line of research—whether through a resubmission or new application—won't help you get funded if your idea lacks significance.

We understand this is no consolation, but the worst thing you can do is pour more time and effort into an application that NIH will not fund.  

Decision Stop 3: Which Strategy Suits the Problem?

Once you've determined whether you can address the issues, consult with your program officer before you make a decision.

Use the linked information to help you understand your options:

Instead of one of the options above, some applicants instead consider appealing the funding decision, but read below for our advice on that.

Should You Appeal?

You may have grounds to appeal the review under certain circumstances but not for differences of scientific opinion. Read more about when you can appeal and how the process works in our Appeals of Scientific Review of Grant Applications SOP.

In general, we do not recommend appealing as a way to improve your chances of funding. Most appeals are denied and those that succeed don't necessarily yield a fundable score upon re-review of your application.

Appeals can end one of two ways:

  1. Council denies your appeal. Your review outcome stands and you must revise and resubmit or proceed with another one of the options described above. This is the most likely outcome.
  2. Council upholds your appeal. Your application goes back for review by the same, or more commonly a different, study section. You usually have to wait another review round, and you have no way of knowing whether your score will improve.

You're probably better off forgoing an appeal and applying again using one of the other options listed above.

Have Questions?

A program officer in your area of science can give you application advice, NIAID's perspective on your research, and confirmation that NIAID will accept your application.

Find contacts and instructions at When to Contact a NIAID Program Officer.

Content last reviewed on August 11, 2016