Thursday, October 23, 2014

Funding 101: Mechanisms

Recently I attended a seminar giving an overview of different funding mechanisms for scientific research, and advice. This will be the first of two posts, talking about a variety of funding mechanisms. The next post will be advice from very successful researchers.

Traditional government funding 

111th US Senate class photo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Do your homework
  • Understand the structure of the funding agency
    • what have they funded
    • what is their relationship with your home institution
    • what are you colleagues doing
    • be able to articulate what kind of research your colleagues are doing that is already funded by that agency
  • Identify who the appropriate program officer is
    • send an email with a paragraph in hand about the kind of research you do, and where you are moving. Is this the kind of research you are interested in funding? If not, can you point me in the right direction, and can I use your name?
    • Don't ask for information you could have gotten ahead of time online.
    • What concepts or priorities have already been approved? Look up the strategic plans. In particular those that are supported by the PO you are going to contact.
  • Look for requests for information, and respond with ideas in your area.

Establish relationships
  • There are no "cons" about talking with PO.
  • You cannot talk to PO about a submitted funding proposal that is in review.
  • You can (and should) ask, "Do you think this is something your funding agency is interested in in the future?" 
  • Diversify your support - don't go only to one PO or to only one funding agency.

Serve on review panels
  • The best experience you can get for preparing proposals.
  • Helps you to develop a good relationship with the PO.
  • You learn about what other panelists are expecting.
  • Hearing the way people critique, especially what can rule out a proposal.

Foundation, philanthropic, and business funding
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, photo by Adbar via Wikimedia Commons

  • Structured foundations (corporate and foundations group) generally follow the same rules as government funding agencies.
  • Unstructured foundations - do not accept proposals! How to get an "in"?
    • Have to make a personal connection with someone who sits on the board
    • Pitch your idea in email or on the phone
    • Quickly you will hear either: "Great! Send 1 page summary." or "Not interested"

Individuals philanthropists
  • You are immediately competing with colleagues at your Institution
  • How do you interact with rich people? Be social. Join the United Way committee. Join and attend one of the balls that support hospitals.
  • Be aggressive about getting out in the community.
  • If you are going to meet people with capacity, you need to make the time to do it. Probably difficult for early career scientists.
  • Talk with your Institutional office about possible philanthropist connections.
  • Check what the past history Institution with the organization-of-interest is.

Public versus private benefits for philanthropists
  • Public benefit - Interested in scholarship, research, public outcome of the gift.
  • Private benefit - Makes the philanthropist feel good. Seat saved in the front row.
    • Most people donate money for the private benefit. Figure out what their private benefit is (prestige, recognition, intellectual discussion, name on the wall), and target that.

Pitching your idea to businesses
  • Businesses are interested in partnerships - spinoffs
  • Talking to venture capitalists can seem like talking into a vacuum
  • Put up the money to start something yourself.
  • 10% of something is better than 100% of nothing.
  • Businesses/Corporations don't give much to start (average $25-30k), but this can improve
  • Underpromise and over-deliver
  • Business endeavors are designed to solve a specific problem

Crowd funding for science?
How to capture the interest of the crowd? Photo by brand via Wikimedia Commons

When I asked about crowd funding for research, I got the general sense that most people on this particular panel were not optimistic about crowd funding as a sustainable mechanism for scientific research. Here is the small summary:
  • On average crowd funding supports $5,000 grants, generally not hundreds of thousands or millions
  • Must utilize all of your networks - at least 12-15 primary people to expand to their larger networks.
  • Need a key statement, appeal, and to sell the research
  • Often a large time investment, with fairly low pay-off.


Zen Faulkes said...

On crowdfunding: Yes, the time investment is substantial. However:

1. Some crowdfunding platforms allow you to keep funds raised even if you don;t hit your target, so you are generally able to get something. Compare to grants, where you can invest a lot of time and have nothing to show for it.

2. Crowdfunding can be a heckuva a lot more fun than filling out yet another set of government forms.

mathbionerd said...

Ooh, good to know about #1. I wasn't aware that some let you keep the funds raised, even if you didn't meet your goal.

Second, I couldn't agree more about #2, and I only have limited experience with filling out government forms.

I was surprised about the near silence about crowdfunding.

Unknown said...

There are more crowd funding avenues coming available. Labcures is a spin off from the Buck Institute that aims to be able to generate decent funds.

Anonymous said...

The very fact that crowdfunding is now touted as a potential solution to funding science is a part of why I'm strongly considering leaving science. The whole notion reduces science to an unsustainable popularity contest.

mathbionerd said...

Not to be totally jaded, but isn't it already a popularity contest, with a history of big names funding big names? I'll check back in after a couple grant cycles.