Below is a list of some of the most common pitfalls found in grant applications and identified by review committees.
Research Question Pitfalls
- The proposed research is not significant to the overall scientific issues in the field.
- The scientific rationale does not appear to be valid.
- The proposed project is too diffuse, superficial, or unfocused.
- The proposal lacks critical literature references, causing the reviewers to think that the applicant either does not know the literature or has purposely neglected critical material.
- The research is innovative, but there is no preliminary data.
It is important to know your field. Before writing a grant application, do an exhaustive literature search to identify salient issues in the field, as well as what, if any, research has been done in your particular area. Use this information to direct your project. A competitive grant application will propose to expand on current knowledge in the field.
While the grant mechanism gives you the opportunity to explore a new research question, remember that a good proposal is strongly grounded in current research and focused enough to show promise of contributing to the future of the field.
- The studies are based on a shaky hypothesis or alternative hypotheses are not considered.
- The proposed experiment is simply descriptive or does not test a specific hypothesis.
- A rationale for experiments is not provided. (Why is the experiment important, and how is it relevant to the hypotheses?)
- A sense of priority is not clearly defined—there is no apparent starting or ending point to the sequence of research.
Hypotheses are the heart of the proposal. They describe a testable and direction-oriented relationship between two variables. Hypotheses must be strong, well thought out and feasible in order to contribute to the strength of your project.
- The proposed workload is unrealistic or over-ambitious.
- The PI does not have experience with proposed techniques or has not recruited a collaborator who does.
- There is a lack of alternative methodological approaches to the primary approach.
- The applicant lacks the resources or facilities to conduct the project.
- The applicant has no access to the subject population. (Letters of support are very important in showing access to the subject population.)
- The operations for completing certain steps of the project are not spelled out (and therefore do not seem realistic).
Logistics and feasibility are important parts of the project. Even if you have a sound research question, bureaucratic delays and staffing and equipment problems can prevent you from completing the grant. It is important to show the grant reviewers that you have plans and backup plans for getting the work done.
The most common flaw, found in over two-thirds of poorly rated applications, is technical inadequacies in methodology.
- The grant application contains insufficient methodological detail to convince reviewers that the investigator knows what he or she is doing.
- The data analysis is vague or unsophisticated.
- The link between specific aims, hypotheses, and analysis is unclear.
Research methods and data analysis are challenging for most researchers. This is why a consultant review (especially statistical review) is an important aspect of the proposal process and can strengthen the grant application. Although there are as many ways to do research as there are research ideas, your goal should be to show the reviewers that you have considered all feasible research designs and picked the one most appropriate for your study.