Return to Sender


You have worked for weeks on a proposal and are excited when it is finally submitted. A couple of weeks later you receive a notification that the proposal was “returned without review”. During the June 2023 NSF Virtual Conference, the presenters in a session about the NSF Merit Review Process gave a list of the most common reasons proposals are “returned without review” and ways to prevent it.

  1. Inappropriate research topic for NSF or NSF Division.

Solution: Prospective PIs/Co-PIs are encouraged to reach out to the NSF Program Officers (PO) if they are unsure if the topic of their proposal is acceptable. POs are a resource; they may also be able to direct prospective PIs to a different division at NSF that may be better suited for their research.

  1. A pre-proposal was required, and the PI received a “not invited” to submit a full proposal but did it anyway.

Solution: PIs can reach out to the PO to ask why they were not asked to move forward with a full proposal.

  1. The research topic is duplicative or substantially like something that the PI has in submission or awarded.

Solution: NSF and most federal sponsors do not allow funding for duplicate proposals. PIs must wait for the proposal that has been submitted to go through the merit review process and receive a declination before submitting a new proposal – even if it is to a different division in NSF.

  1. The proposal was previously reviewed, declined, and no substantive changes have been made to the proposed work.

Solution: If a PI would like to resubmit a proposal, they must take into consideration the merit review comments and address the areas in which the proposal was deemed insufficient to be recommended.

  1. The proposal does not contain the required sections, or those sections do not address Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.

Solution: Read the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG) (PAPPG) and understand the required elements of a proposal as well as the merit review criteria. The use of NSF’s online grants management system,, can help; the system has robust validations for proposal submission. Although solicitations may say that can be used to submit an NSF proposal, but it is not recommended since it does not have the same ability to check a proposal for required documents or check the documents themselves before submission.

  1. PAPPG Formatting requirements are not followed such as page limits, margin and font size, font types allowed, etc.

Solution: While many of these can be caught by the validation check in, everyone involved in the proposal submission should read the PAPPG and the specific solicitation carefully and follow the directions.

  1. Specific solicitation requirements are not followed.

Solution: Specific solicitation guidance may deviate from the PAPPG and may require additional documents to be uploaded, have different page limit requirements, etc. Everyone involved in the proposal submission should read the solicitation carefully and follow the directions.

  1. Insufficient lead time before submission to allow review of the proposal for mistakes.

Solution: The PI, Co-PI(s), Department/Unit, College, and the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) need time to look over a proposal before it is submitted to the sponsor. OSP has Proposal Submission Guidance on its website with the timeline below. Adherence to the timeline will give department/college approvers and OSP time to review the proposal for university and sponsor requirements and possible compliance issues.


  1. Proposal did not meet the deadline.

Solution: Everyone involved in the proposal submission process should read the solicitation and pay attention to the deadlines for submission. Generally, NSF proposals are due by 5:00 PM local time and MUST be submitted by an Authorized Organizational Representative (AOR) in the OSP office. Make sure to communicate with your OSP Team early and often.

Bottom line

Read and follow PAPPG and the solicitation; always use for NSF proposal submission; allow ample time to create a proposal that everyone can be proud to submit; communicate!


Blog post by Shannon Irey, OSP Training and Information Coordinator