As the availability of federal funding has decreased in recent years, diversifying your funding sources has become critical to cultivating a successful portfolio. The first step to ensuring that diversity is to make sure you’re familiar with every corner of the funding landscape.
In addition to federal funding sources—which still account for nearly 60 percent of research funding in the U.S.—there are three other funding areas that are worth exploring: state programs, private foundations and for-profit entities, like corporations. Below is a quick guide that will provide some insights into the particulars of each sector, as well as outlining some benefits and drawbacks.
Federal funding may feel like familiar ground, but keep in mind that every federal agency, institute or program likely has a separate budget. Don’t stop with the big familiar acronyms. Get the lay of the land, and go digging for lesser-known programs, which may have less-competitive opportunities.
Keep in mind that federal funds are frequently at the mercy of political agendas. This is often a pain—when Congress isn’t getting along, they tend to withhold research funding—but it can also be a boon. For an example, consider this: In the ‘90s, a congressman who was chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee learned that military hospitals were not providing access to routine mammograms. He was able to tag some of the Department of Defense budget for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) to start funding breast cancer prevention and research. This has now expanded to several research areas and is a formidable area of funding. Political currents in appropriations committees will often serve to telegraph the creation of new funding opportunities.
Pros: Largest source of research funding, opportunities for virtually every discipline, relative transparency.
Cons: Complex application requirements, difficult-to-navigate organizational structures, dependent on Congressional appropriation.
Takeaway: Staying up-to-date on Congressional politics will make it easier to keep track of where the money is, and where it isn’t.
Navigating state funding opportunities has many of the same pitfalls you run into at the federal level. Political caprice is doubly a concern, as state funds must pass not only through the federal gauntlet but through the state legislature as well. Funding at the state level is also siloed and compartmentalized within complex organizational structures, so learning the idiosyncrasies of local agency branches and organizations is crucial.
Be aware that the ratio of contracts to grants at the state level is much higher. Contracts can be excellent opportunities, but they’re less flexible to changes in scope or budget, and they place a higher premium on deliverables.
Pros: Opportunities to take advantage of local agency resources, application requirements sometimes less complex than federal opportunities, no risk of being disqualified for geographic reasons.
Cons: Doubly vulnerable to political whims, not listed in any central database, pure research opportunities less common.
Takeaway: Pursuing state funding often means contracts rather than grants.
Private, non-profit foundations offer some exceptional opportunities, but they require a very different approach. For a foundation application to succeed, it needs to be accessible to and establish a personal connection with the reviewers, who often include lay people. Many foundations also require proposals to be collaborative across multiple institutions, to maximize the impact of their investment. Eligibility requirements are extremely specific, and foundation grants rarely cover much, if any, of the indirect costs of a project, which puts an additional burden on the investigator to identify a source for those funds.
Pros: Encourages collaboration with other institutions, good for growing into new research areas, frequently fund projects in niche disciplines.
Cons: Don’t typically cover indirect costs, persnickety eligibility requirements, less transparency than public sources.
Takeaway: Many foundations cover little, if any, of the indirect costs of a project. Be prepared to make the case to the institution for why (and how) it should cover those costs.
Private, For-Profit Funders
Like foundation opportunities, landing for-profit funding often relies making a personal connection to the people reviewing your proposal. Unlike foundations, though, in the corporate research environment patents are paramount. In addition, it is standard for corporate funders to try to require the researcher to waive all intellectual property rights to the work they produce. That said, corporate funders often have impressive resources to offer researchers, and they have fewer regulations on the types of research they can support.
Pros: Can be less bureaucratic, available in areas that public funding is not (e.g., stem cell research), and often have deep pockets.
Cons: Investigators have less control over the direction of their research, intellectual property rights often belong to funder, projects are product- rather than research-oriented.
Takeaway: Investigators will likely be asked to waive their intellectual property rights to anything they produce while working on corporately funded projects. Make sure you read the fine print.
What other insights have you found useful in navigating the research funding landscape? We’d love to hear about them—drop us a line in the comments section below!