The proposals being reviewed were mostly K-awards and R03s (with a few other things, like symposium support proposals). But I’ve seen this kind of critique for R01’s, including my own.
I think, hands down the comment I heard the most, although it was certainly not for all, even a majority of proposals was:
“the theoretical underpinnings of the project were weak or insufficient or not clear”
It’s one I’ve had, too. It’s a really hard one to deal with. We all know that NIH does not want a literature review that demonstrates your mastery of PubMed. They do not care what you know. They care about why they should fund your project. That’s what “theoretical underpinnings” means. It means the justification of your specific aims.
In general, it is hard to go back and address this problem in a few well written sentences plopped down in the middle of existing text, though I know that we are all totally able to do that at the drop of a hat. When I’ve done that it comes out awkward and a bit jarring. On the other hand, rewriting your SA’s (or significance, the other place this information needs to be) including your enhanced justification integrated throughout works much better.
As I pointed out in my how to do your SA post, one of the most important things I learned (from my mother, I believe), is that a good introduction (to a paper, the first para of your SA’s, your tenure justification) is an inverse triangle, moving from most general to most specific. Remember in the first para of SA’s you can turn your reviewer into an advocate or irritate them beyond belief so that they struggle through the rest of the grant to figure out what you are trying to do.
By the time you get to what you are going to do, the reader should be thinking “of course, this is absolutely what needs to be done”. Well done, this strategy includes the justification & theoretical underpinnings in every sentence of the paragraph. Questions?