Grant Programs Get Persnickety

October 21, 2015

To tame a rising tide of grant proposals, federal agencies are becoming sticklers about enforcing their application requirements — stating deadlines in hundredths of seconds and using software to prevent the submission of error-riddled applications.

In announcing grant programs now, a variety of agencies include explicit language warning applicants that failure to follow the guidelines for file names, content, and format could result in the proposal’s being returned without review. It is more important than ever to closely follow all requirements spelled out in a call for proposals and to submit early enough to fix any mistakes caught by the submission system.

Application guidelines are nothing new, but the ferocity with which they are being enforced is. The wrong font size on a proposal could lead to its rejection, forcing the applicant to wait months until the next grant cycle to resubmit. The delay can prove damaging with the tenure and promotion clock ticking.

I have written previously about what federal agencies are doing to cope with the growing number of grant proposals. While applications have increased, agency staff and the pool of prospective reviewers have not, resulting in heavier workloads for those involved in the vetting process. The pool of money has stayed flat, which means investigators have less chance of being funded for a given project.

To reduce frustration and keep the grant process more productive, agencies have adopted practices like limiting the number of grant proposals that an institution or an individual can submit to a particular competition. Agencies also have requested shorter preproposals for some programs — and then invited only the most promising applicants to prepare a full proposal.

Strict adherence to submission criteria is another way that agencies are reducing the application-review workload. Proposals that don’t follow the instructions can be rejected outright. When it’s submission software, rather than a program officer, checking for compliance with format specifications — sometimes called automated compliance — there’s no opportunity for negotiation. Mistakes will prevent you from submitting the proposal, and if you can’t fix the problem before the deadline, you’re out of luck.

Application guidelines are nothing new, but the ferocity with which they are being enforced is.
Don’t expect sympathy from the agencies if your proposal is rejected by their software. It’s a matter of basic fairness to require everyone to follow the same rules; no one will feel guilty that your otherwise brilliant scientific work has been turned down because you used the Palatino font instead of Times New Roman. It is not a gut-wrenching decision, compared with the way reviewers feel when a tight budget means they can support only one of two exciting proposals.

The National Science Foundation’s submission portal recently began checking electronically for the inclusion of more than half a dozen documents, including a project summary, a reference list, a biographical sketch, and a budget justification. The absence of any of those documents from an application package will prevent its submission. In addition, the NSF system checks for compliance with regulations governing vertebrate animal and human subjects. Such studies need approval by appropriate campus committees, and the approval date must be included on the grant proposal. If that date is missing from the application, the system will block the submission. also determines whether applicants have exceeded the page limit for the budget justification, mentoring plan, and data-management plan.

Other agencies have emphasized that compliance with application guidelines will play a major role in their review process. The National Institutes of Health issued a notice several months ago to remind applicants of the importance of preparing applications properly: "To be fair to all concerned the NIH needs to consistently apply standards for application compliance." Applications that fail to follow NIH instructions can be withdrawn from consideration.

I have noticed similar language in many updated versions of program announcements from other agencies. Sometimes agencies put a warning in red type or in all caps, saying that proposals will be rejected without evaluation for failure to follow submission requirements.

Scientists are sure to be frustrated by all of this emphasis on formatting details. Grant applications have become increasingly complicated, with more components and more rules about what each element needs to include. Faculty want to devote their time to science, not a biosketch, data-management plan or other document. But right now, the only way to get money for your science is to follow the rules. Here are some key ways to avoid administrative rejection:

Submit ahead of time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that to satisfy a 5 p.m. deadline, an electronically submitted proposal must be received by 5:00:59. However, the U.S. Department of Education states in one of its publications that its 4:30 p.m. deadline means 4:30:00.

Proposal submission is not an Olympic sport, and there is no prize for making a successful submission as close to the deadline as possible. There is, however, a substantial penalty for failure to meet the deadline — rejection of the proposal. In today’s budget climate, it is not unusual for grant programs to be suspended or even eliminated, so you may not get a second chance. Don’t risk throwing away months of work by submitting your proposal at the last second.

Stick to the page limits. Don’t try to dodge them by sneaking scientific material that belongs in the research plan into a section without a page limit or an appendix. NIH warned against that tactic in its notice about application compliance. A recent Department of Defense program announcement also cautioned applicants against including figures, graphs, or diagrams as supporting documents when they really belong in the project narrative. At best, the information will be removed. At worst, the application will not be reviewed.

Read each program announcement carefully. Pay particular attention if you are applying to an agency for the first time. Margin, font size, and typeface restrictions are common, but I was surprised at how they vary across agencies — and even among programs within a given agency.

More than half a dozen agencies require grant proposals to use 12-point Times New Roman font, but it is not currently permitted by NIH, which calls for 11-point type in one of four permissible fonts. However, the agency recently announced changes to this policy that will take effect in late May. NIH allows half-inch margins, but many other agencies require at least one inch. Some agencies also limit the number of lines per vertical inch in proposal narratives (usually 6, but sometimes 5.5).

Watch for requirements on how to name and format attachments. Sometimes they need to be PDF files with specific labels. There may also be requirements on where to put page numbers.

Cautions aside, automated compliance can work to your advantage. If you start early, the submission system can identify errors while you still have time to fix them. But don’t depend entirely on these systems., the most commonly used federal grant submission portal, checks for basic errors, such as missing information, but it does not check for compliance with program-specific requirements. Your proposal can sail through and then be turned down for failing to follow the requirements of the request for applications. There is no substitute for paying close attention to the program announcement.

If you are frustrated by the lack of consistency in these requirements, consider voicing your concerns to federal officials. It is well known that the administrative workload for federally funded researchers has been growing heavier. Agencies periodically request comments when they update policies and publications, and they do make changes in response to some suggestions.

Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University of Rhode Island’s research office.