Perfecting the Pitch for Research Funding

Written by: Logan Williams

Primary Source: Logan D. A. Williams

On Wednesday June 3rd I attended the Michigan State University Academy for Global Engagement Fellowship Program public session (see http://vprgs.msu.edu/event/academy-global-engagement-fellowship-program-0). This public session was open to non-fellows (such as myself), and had two parts. In the first part, panelists discussed “Understanding Federal Funding, Congressional Appropriations, and Agency Priorities”, while in the second part they discussed “Establishing Relationships with Funders: How Do You Talk about Your Work in a Compelling and Intriguing Way so that Funders Listen and Remember?”

I wanted to take some time to process what I learned about grant writing so I decided to write about what I learned.

(1) Federal grants are driven by US governmental policy on different time scales. For grants from the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, the time-scale is long where presidential administrations come and go. However, DoD research agencies are unique in that their appropriations by the Executive branch’s Office of Management and Budget tend to be steady. For all other federal agencies, the time-scale is short (perhaps 2-3 years) and the appropriations are usually much more sensitive to various presidential administrations. This is why every couple of years you will see news articles about politicians attacking the research results of various social, behavioral and economic scientists funded through the National Science Foundation (see http://news.sciencemag.org/2013/04/nsf-peer-review-under-scrutiny-house-science-panel), or temporarily disabling programs such as political science at the NSF (conflict of interest anyone?, see http://www.nature.com/news/nsf-cancels-political-science-grant-cycle-1.13501) by taking away their funds. Why do these politicians feel as if they have the right to oversight of federally funded research – because that is a fact. (Although, I would definitely argue, as does the presidential science adviser John Holdren, that oversight is not equivalent to peer review; peer-review is much better at distinguishing the value of ‘basic science’ research projects, which as far as I know is still part of the mandate of NSF.)

(2) Most federal granting agencies are fulfilling policy objectives; thus your research must also fulfill these same objectives. John Albrecht (MSU) and Kitty Cardwell (USDA NIFA)  explain that at DARPA and the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the projects attempt to ‘pull’ new innovations along exciting and novel directions. This means structured long-term technology innovation plans at DARPA. At USDA, Eric Trachtenberg (McLarty Associates) explains, the projects are market-driven by agricultural economics (is this cyclical I wonder?). In contrast, other federal funding agencies (e.g., the State Department’s US Agency for International Development, the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center, and the National Science Foundation’s Office of International Science and Engineering) are VERY responsive to the policy directions of the current administration.

(3) Considering that these agencies must demonstrate their relevance and value to the American public through Congressional oversight, they are very interested in research projects that clearly and explicitly articulate this relevance and value. That is not to say that they do not fund basic research. All of the above federal agencies emphasize basic research except for USAID says Lara Campbell (NSF OISE) and Michelle Jones (USAID). But the “broader impacts” statement at NSF (and its equivalent at the other agencies) is the necessary “icing” that makes the ingredients of the entire cake worth buying.

You will see the influence of governmental policy on the call for proposals (e.g., USDA’s grand challenges), but what is the next step to figure out the fit between what you want to do, and the solicitation? Some of the program officers suggested that a great next step is to actually contact them and give them a “15 minute pitch”. In the interest of conserving the time of the program officers and your own, instead of wandering through a vague exploration of your past research disappointments and future research fantasies, you might start with a clear cut outline of your proposed work.

(4) Communicating with the program officer for the solicitation is key to writing a good proposal. For those working on global research projects, a “clear cut pitch” is one that has realistic outcomes and tells a compelling story about what the agency will gain. Lara Campbell at the NSF OISE explains that such proposals have a viable timeline, are responsive to client needs (the country, institution, or project), and additionally are responsive to funder objectives including an emphasis on the uniqueness of your project. Michael Roth (Tetra Tech ARD) agrees that being responsive to client needs is very important and adds that any proposed innovations should be economically sustainable if being implemented in a poorly resourced region. Laura K. Povlich (NIH Fogarty) explains that being responsive to funder objectives means explaining the connection between your research and the solicitation clearly.

Let’s say you have done all of these things: you have picked a federal agency with a relevant solicitation that matches your research project; you understand the current political priorities that are driving the solicitation creation and have drafted your broader impacts statement accordingly; you have spoken with a program officer for 15 minutes about a feasible project that has unique data (and/or methods) and will incrementally build upon scientific knowledge, technology innovation, or international development. Certainly you will have to be more entrepreneurial than applying to just one funding agency. Time to do all of these steps over again for internal collaborative partners at your research institution and external non-governmental funders!

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Logan Williams
Logan primarily uses this blog to: reflect on policy and professionalization issues in STS (e.g. research funding, discipline formation, skill building, job-hunting, policy applications of STS theory) and to disseminate her own scholarship.