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Posted by on Jul 30, 2015

Funded or Perish

Twenty years ago next month, my family and I boarded a plane bound for Baltimore and my freshman year at Johns Hopkins. While I never set out to be a researcher, I did have that fleeting semester that I thought about an academic career in the humanities. Once I realized that I’d have to write and publish so much, I was out.

Of course, many of my classmates and friends from my time at Hopkins have dedicated their working lives to teaching and research in the natural and social sciences. What I’ve observed among these talented individuals is not only dedication, but also frustration. It’s challenging for these masters of their fields to design sound analyses of the economic impact of building stadiums or to separate specific genes in pancreatic cells in search of a new cancer treatment.

The frustration kicks in when it comes to the constant stress of finding the funding to support the research to serve as the basis for the paper or doctoral thesis to get you that tenure track position you’ve spent 20+ years pursing. So you don’t perish.

What none of us realized then is that the recognized and notable scientists are masters of the grant funding process. If you thought sending funding through states to localities was complex, then university research projects might blow your mind. Collaboration happens across labs, sometimes with private companies in the mix, not to mention subrecipients and contractors who might be all over the world.

So how can we start developing grants mastery earlier in the process to help keep more people on the bench and in the field? We need to find ways to mix in awareness and capabilities of the funding process with the organic chemistry, differential equations, and applied statistics. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Publicize institutional resources to undergraduates. Many universities have robust research administration departments, often focused on faculty and graduate students. These offices hold a lot of knowledge and can provide a lot of guidance for someone just starting out.
  • Incorporate grant making into the undergraduate curriculum. Based on what I could find in the Hopkins online course catalog, there were only seven courses in fall 2015 on finding, applying, and winning grants. All were focused at the graduate level. If your institution can’t figure it out how to do this, consider sponsoring high-potential undergraduates’ attendance in a non-university grants course.
  • Encourage opportunities for leadership and management in the classroom and lab. Recognize that not everyone is going to be president of the drama club or treasurer for their class on top of completing their degree. I know that I benefited from practicing how to work on a team when my study group had to submit a single problem set for economics in business school. This in turn has helped me in the highly collaborative and coordinated grants field. Let’s spread instructional techniques across other disciplines more often.

If you have more ideas on how to build up the next generation of researchers’ grants mastery, I’d like to hear from you in our comments section or at our NCURA booth next week.

As the premier industry provider of Federal grants management education, we look forward to meeting you at our booth (#316) next week.  We want to hear from you on how you are:

  • Bringing yourself and your colleagues up-to-date on the myriad of changes impacting the research community in the new Uniform Guidance
  • Building the next generation of researchers’ know-how of the grants process
  • Managing the reporting requirements associated with receiving multiple funding sources

Now to go look at some of those Pluto pictures from the JHU Applied Physics lab. Amazing feats of engineering and science can and do happen with well-funded, interdisciplinary teams.



  1. Two comments:

    1. Grant training needs to start at the high school level. There are tons of kids applying for scholarships who don’t understand how to glean specific information from funding agencies to make their application relevant. This is a skill that can and should start super early, especially for low to mid-income kids who are dependent on obtaining those types of funds.

    2. As far as biomedical research goes, there needs to be less emphasis placed on independent investigators. As academic positions that are available decrease, there are a number of researchers who are staff scientists and research associates who can plan and implement independent projects. Funding for those projects are often given to the primary PI which reduces the chance of underlings getting their own funding, an growing prerequisite for the job application process. Astronomy and space research have excelled at allowing researchers at all stages of their development to head their own proposals.

    Actually, there is one more thing – emphasize writing development for science majors. Clear, concise writing is essential for the communication needed for grant writing.

    This is a great idea for a blog. I cannot wait to see how it unfolds. Go CB!

    • High school???? That is insightful coming from you as a research scientist.

      When I’m at #NCURAAM57 next week, I’ll bring up your question on how more people like you can obtain funding. I have a feeling that this phenomenon could be in other fields as well.

      Your last comment on the writing requirement is interesting since I know you had to fulfill the same number of writing-course credits as I did at Hopkins.

      PS – We’d love to hear from your colleagues in the research community about the other learning and capability gaps you have when it comes to grants administration and management.

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