What mechanism prevents government organizations from handing out too much money for research during a year with exceptionally good proposals? I'm imagining that people in charge of approving funding go about their business and realize that there's been too many good ideas and they're gonna run out of money before the end of the business cycle if they continue going at this rate, so they dial back and raise standards. However, there should be some ways to quantify this.

Furthermore, they might have to raise standards in an artificial way, creating rejections where the reason is not that there's anything wrong with the proposal, but rather that there's not enough money to go around. In this case, do they write something along the lines of "we couldn't find anything wrong, but money is tight and we received a lot of submissions blah blah blah..." on the rejection letter?

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    Are you asking about organizations that don't have specific calls and deadlines, but just continuously accept (and possibly fund) applications?
    – Mark
    Jul 11, 2022 at 21:39
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    About "there's been too many good ideas and they're gonna run out of money": In most cases they know from the start that there's not enough money to fund all the good projects. (I said "most cases", but it might actually be all cases; I've never known of an exception.) Jul 11, 2022 at 21:49
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    Since spending more money than Congress has budgeted for you is not possible, they literally can't hand out more money then they have...
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 11, 2022 at 22:19
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    creating rejections where the reason is not that there's anything wrong with the proposal, but rather that there's not enough money to go around — doesn't that apply to the majority of rejections?
    – gerrit
    Jul 12, 2022 at 7:34
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    If a funding body doesn't get significantly more good applications than they have money for, something has gone really wrong beforehand.
    – Karl
    Jul 13, 2022 at 10:22

2 Answers 2


Not every funding agency does it the same, of course, but the system I am most familiar with is:

  1. Rank proposals in order of "best" to "worst".

  2. Fund the proposal at the top of the list.

  3. Continue until you run out of money.

There are some caveats about determining exactly how much funding to provide a project relative to the amount asked, as there is a trade off between fully funding the best proposals and funding more proposals at a reduced level. In periods of reduced funding, there may be percentage drops applied to all current projects to avoid reducing the number funded (and risking causing some labs to fold permanently).

For NIH, for example, they will tell you what percentile your project is at, and later, whether that will be funded or not. Things remain consistent enough that for all but the borderline cases, you know based on percentile whether or not your grant is likely to be funded. No comparisons are made to past submission cycles.

For what it's worth, the same is done in other areas: graduate student admissions, hires for open jobs, etc. The bound for success is not "meets requirements", the bound for success is "best option above the cut-off". Many qualified applicants are rejected whenever there is high demand for money, jobs, etc.

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    Yup. And sometimes if more money becomes available after the first batch of funding is allocated they do another round. Jul 11, 2022 at 23:16
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    This is it: It's not that there are fixed criteria a proposal has to satisfy to be funded. It's whether it's among the N top proposals during this round. Jul 12, 2022 at 1:07
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    And where there is more than one round per year, each round is allocated a portion of the annual budget. So if you have 3 rounds, and $3 billion, each round will get $1 billion. Jul 12, 2022 at 9:39
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    Would you be able to elaborate a bit on how agencies [r]ank proposals in order of "best" to "worst"? Since you mentioned familiarity with the system, I'm curious how agencies do this (do they consider "trending" fields/topics, "big-names" on the proposals, potential for money-making/reputation/whatever, etc).
    – Daevin
    Jul 12, 2022 at 14:12
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    @Daevin They give them to a committee of academics in the field and say "please rank these" (or at least, "give each of these grant applications a score"), along with some criteria. Addressing "trending topics" is more about allocating funds for different available funding announcements, categories that people submit to. See for example ninds.nih.gov/funding/find-funding-opportunities
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 12, 2022 at 14:17

realize that there's been too many good ideas and they're gonna run out of money before the end of the business cycle

Most grant programs only fund grants once per budget cycle. They run out of money exactly when they intend to.

There are some exceptions. Funding agencies that have switched to a deadline-free system award grants continuously. They do this because it greatly reduces the number of applications (academics often do not know how to work without deadlines) so it's quite a bit harder to run out of money. There's only a risk of running out of money if all the programs are funded continuously. In my experience, it's only a few, with most being on the annual schedule.

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    That's a very interesting point, that there are less proposals to deadline-free systems. Do you have a source to support this?
    – gerrit
    Jul 12, 2022 at 7:36
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    Even some of the deadline-free funding agencies (UK) actually have set dates for internal panel meetings so for the budgeting purposes, they behave exactly the same as the agencies with hard deadlines for "general" proposals. (These panel dates are published but are slightly different to deadlines, as there is no guarantee that your proposal will be evaluated at the first upcoming meeting from the date of your submission).
    – penelope
    Jul 12, 2022 at 9:34

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