Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dangers of Internal Funding

by , The Research Whisperer: http://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/dangers-of-internal-funding/#more-2932

Funding (Photo credit: HowardLake)
I’ve benefited from different types of internal university funding for my research over the years.

The schemes I’ve accessed
range from conference money to pilot project grants and new staff grants.

They’ve offered the stepping-stones I needed to get projects going and build momentum.

This post talks about the dangers and opportunities presented by internal research funding, and flags the Top 3 types of internal funds that I’ve found most useful. It’s important to plans ways to do research, even without a fat grant.

One of the internal grants I secured was specifically for developing and writing up a major grant proposal. It paid off a couple of years later when our team got that ARC Discovery project.

Being able to get together for concentrated periods of time to nut out the grant application saved us heaps of time and focused our energies. It really worked well.

Most institutions have some form of internal funding for their researchers. Some have more than others. Some barely cover their researchers’ conference travel, others offer plush suites of articulated funding for just about every segment of the research cycle.

Internal funding is a good thing. It can boost project competitiveness and track-record before a go at a bigger external grant. It can certainly boost the confidence of researchers trying to get their work off the blocks, or build their CV in the early days of their research career. It can bridge external grant gaps and allow researchers to stay on the radar.

Internal funding can be a bad thing, however, when you have too much of it and no consequent profile in securing external funds.

When your institution talks about wanting you to get funding, they are talking about external funding. That is, getting research money from organisations and institutions outside of your own university.

In addition, they usually mean external competitive funding, as that’s the marker of prestige in the university sector. The ability to win external funding has become a de facto indicator of ‘quality’.

If you can make it to the top of the heap in a large external grant round, you must be the best there is … (I’ll leave that there for you to ponder. I don’t necessarily agree with it!).

So, if you can score heaps of internal funds but don’t seem to be able to get any external money, what does that mean?

From hearing assessors and seasoned researchers talk about it, it seems that they assume you have either been:
  • not good enough to gain external funding (i.e. no-one believes in your work or thinks your track-record is any good outside of your own institution), or
  • you haven’t had the initiative to apply for external funding.
Either way, not good.

Even though the internal funding might be from the different universities you’ve been at, it’s all still internal funding.
The message here is: Make the absolute most of internal funding and the opportunities it can afford you, and plan to apply for external funds regularly.

With that in mind, I’d say my Top 3 most useful internal research grants for an institution to offer are:

1. Research collaboration or exchange

This kind of funding ticks a lot of boxes. All universities like prioritising inter-institutional connections. Team them up with research accountabilities (not necessarily grant applications!) and it’s the kind of thing that’s good for all involved. Some universities have international research exchange schemes, and these can be great platforms on which to build longer-term collaborations.

2. New staff grant

Institutions that don’t offer new staff grants, even modest ones, are shooting themselves in the foot. When new researchers start at your organisation, whether they’re fresh out of their PhDs or coming from overseas or finding their feet at a new place/city/state, supporting them to kickstart a research program in that space is a no-brainer. It doesn’t have to be much - enough for some collaborative work, hours from an RA, or preliminary research steps. It’s goodwill in the bag, and having your researchers on their way with their work.

What’s the alternative? Unless a researcher comes to you with their own funding streams already in place, they’re going to have to apply to various schemes (external or internal) before they can even get started. This means they’re dependent on much longer timelines before finding out  if they even get the money.

On top of acclimatising to a new institution, colleagues, and space, having zero research money will retard research.

3. Seed funding / pilot project funding

These kinds of grants are invaluable. It is crucial that your work gains runs on the board before big grant applications because we know that successful ones often have to have ‘walked through’ their project before actually doing the project.

Being able to do early work on a project means several important things: testing out hypotheses and critical frameworks, giving insight into the feasibility and scope of certain kinds of work, and - by no means least - trialling collaborative teams you may not have worked with before. All of these elements lead to stronger project applications.
So, if you’re landing, or have recently landed, at a new institution, make sure you check  out the internal funding situation. There may be schemes offered at the local (school/dept) level or at a broader institutional level. There is no harm in asking and, even if there isn’t any of a particular type, enough people asking about it could change the situation.

Those of you who have control of such things, and want to find ways to support your early career and new researchers, look to what kind of schemes you have in place internally. Are you supporting activities that build and push momentum?

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