What to do when your grant application is rejected

After a windy and rainy winter, deadlines for the 2020 applications are approaching. Related to this, James Mitchell Crow just wrote an interesting commentary (Nature 578, 477-479) on what do to when your grant is rejected. Because for most applicants, rejection is the rule and not the exception. Rejection can be a rollercoaster experience with anger, disappointment, despair, and grief. Give yourself time to digest the response, and only then get back to the application when you have a clear mind to do it constructively.

At the National Institutes of Health in the US, the 2017 aggregate success rate for research grants was 20.5%. The success rate is similar in Novo Nordisk Fonden. At Wellcome in the UK, around 50% of applications 2017-18 made it through the preliminary stage. Of those, around 20% were funded. In the initial H2020 programme, the success rate was only 14%, and at the Research Council of Norway, it is unfortunately even lower; around 5-10% in the open calls. Hence, a good idea is no guarantee of grant success, and very good applications are rejected due to lack of funding.

So, what to do?

Most importantly, never give up. For each time you write a grant application, it improves a little and suddenly you are over the threshold and/or a new reviewer likes the application.

Can you get key manuscripts for the idea submitted? Can you collect and present preliminary data and/or run a pilot study? These points may be important to satisfy reviewers regarding the key evaluation criterion feasibility.

To establish new collaborations can improve your science by other people scrutinizing your research. Also, that can improve your network and track as a PI.

If you discuss the grant rejection with your colleagues, mentors and others, you might get emotional support in the short term, and constructive feedback to help reapply for the grant at the next round.

When you have feedback from the reviewers, it is vital to address the concerns of these. Still, it is unlikely that the same reviewers will evaluate your application once more, so work through all aspects of the application for the next round.

Most often, your application was not read by an expert in your field. Therefore, it may be helpful to share the revision to scientists who are not experts in your field. Can your spouse understand your abstract and main outline? If not, you should try to rewrite. A message can never be too simple. And think of your application as a story you want to tell and make that journey exciting so the reviewers want to read more.

Good luck preparing your grant applications for 2020. But before that, enjoy the winter holidays!


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