NSF Program Officers are often asked whether it’s a good idea to include a section in a proposal they’re writing that explains how the current version differs from a previous version that was declined. There’s no easy answer. In this post we discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of providing a section on responses to prior reviews.
Potential advantages of including a section addressing prior reviews:
- It suggests that you were open-minded about weaknesses identified by reviewers and that you’ll take to heart reviewers’ opinions of the current proposal.
- It gives you the opportunity to quote text from the Panel Summary about the proposal’s strength(s).
- It seems to document that the current proposal is stronger than a previous version.
- If you mention that the proposal was rated at High Priority, Medium Priority, or Low Priority, most reviewers will recognize that the previous version must have been competitive, and they may view the current proposal in a more positive light.
Potential disadvantages of including a section addressing prior reviews:
- Given the strict limit of 15 pages for your Project Description, it takes up valuable space.
- Even if you think you’ve successfully addressed key weaknesses, reviewers’ attention will be drawn to them. That’s problematic if they’re unconvinced by one or more of your responses.
- If you mention that the proposal was rated at High Priority, Medium Priority, or Low Priority, most reviewers will recognize that the previous version must have been competitive, and they may have higher expectations of the proposal.
- Consider including a section that addresses prior reviews if you can start from a position of strength – i.e., if your prior submission was rated High, Medium or Low Priority. Conversely, if your prior submission was rated Not Competitive, the disadvantages of adding that section are more likely to outweigh the advantages.
- Keep it short and focused on the key point(s). One paragraph should do the trick.
- Don’t sound defensive. If reviewers missed a key detail or were confused about something, take responsibility for not being clearer.
- If reviewers were generally uninspired by your previous submission(s) – for example, no or few scores of Excellent or Very Good – an effective revision is likely to be so major that the changes can’t be concisely conveyed. Focus on looking ahead, not behind.