How Do I Review Thee? Let Me Count the Ways: A Comparison of Research Grant Proposal Review Criteria across US Federal Funding Agencies

By Falk-Krzesinski, PhD Holly J.; Tobin, PhD Stacey C. | Journal of Research Administration, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

How Do I Review Thee? Let Me Count the Ways: A Comparison of Research Grant Proposal Review Criteria across US Federal Funding Agencies


Falk-Krzesinski, PhD Holly J., Tobin, PhD Stacey C., Journal of Research Administration


Introduction

The research funding landscape in the United States is highly competitive, with flat or shrinking budgets for investigator-initiated research programs at most federal agencies (American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2014). Taking biomedical research as an example, in 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budgeted $15 billion to fund research project grants, an amount that has essentially remained the same since 2003 (AAAS, 2014; Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 2014). At the same time, the number of research grant applications has steadily increased, from close to 35,000 in 2003 to 51,000 in 2014. The result has been a stunning 30% drop in funding success rates, from 30.2% in 2003 to 18.8% in 2014. Other federal agencies that fund research, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), Office of Veterans Affairs (VA), and Department of Defense (DoD), are feeling the similar sting of budget restrictions.

Within this tenuous funding environment, it has become essential that investigators and research development offices sustain their research programs by continuing to encourage new researchers to apply for grant support and encouraging established researchers to diversify their funding portfolios. New researchers benefit from clear information about the federal grant process, and experienced researchers benefit from considering funding opportunities from federal funding agencies, national organizations and advocacy groups, state agencies, private philanthropic organizations, regional or local special interest groups, corporations, and internal institutional grant competitions that may not be their typical targets for support. With increasing competition for grant funding, investigators who might be accustomed to one set of rules for preparing grant proposals may become quickly overwhelmed by the prospect of learning entirely new sets of rules for different funding agencies.

Yet this process is not as daunting if we start from the perspective that any funder that offers research grants has essentially the same goal : to support research that fits within its mission and will bring a strong return on its financial investment (Russell & Morrison, 2015). Tie review criteria used to evaluate research grant proposals reflect the funders approach to identifying the most relevant and impactful research to support (Geever, 2012; Gerin & Kapelewski, 2010; Kiritz, 2007). Thus, planning and preparing a successful grant proposal depends on a clear understanding of the review criteria that will be used. These criteria directly inform how the proposal content should be presented and how much space should be afforded to each section of the proposal, as well as which keywords should be highlighted. It may seem that each funder-federal, state, local, private-has its own distinct set of rules regarding the preparation and review of grant proposals, and that each funder uses specific jargon in its review process. However, because all funders aim to support research that is relevant and impactful, we suggest that the mandatory' review criteria used to evaluate research grant proposals are based on a set of fundamental questions, such as: Does this research fit within the funders mission? Will the results of this research fill a gap in knowledge or meet an unmet need? Do the investigators have the skills and resources necessary? to carry out the research?

In this article, we examine the research grant proposal review criteria used by? 10 US federal agencies to demonstrate that there exist only a small and finite number ofways that federal research grant proposals are actually? evaluated. Our goal is to help research administrators and research development professionals empower investigators to more confidently? navigate funder review criteria, thereby lowering the barrier to first-time applicants or to grant portfolio diversification for more established researchers. …

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