University Researchers Face Increasing Obstacles in Applying for Grants
Vaccines. Popular sports drinks. Computers.
They share one quality: They were invented by researchers working at a college or university.
Victoria McGovern says research leads to greater discovery and better education.
McGovern is a senior program officer with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an organization that supports medical research in the United States and Canada.
“It’s a very good idea to connect the discovery of new things to the teaching of new students,” she told VOA, “because you don’t want people who come out of their education thinking that the world around them is full of solved problems. You want people to come out of an education excited about solving problems themselves.”
Research, however, costs money and most colleges have limited budgets, as well as competing goals and needs.
A large part of being a researcher at a college or university involves applying for grant money, McGovern says, such as to private companies and organizations like hers, or local and national governments.
The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, is an example. The NIH is the U.S. government agency that supports medical and public health research, distributing about $32 billion a year.
Increasingly complex process
The application process for grant money is highly competitive, McGovern says. It can be challenging for researchers who are less skilled at writing.
Kristine Kulage argues that it is more difficult than ever for university researchers to secure funding. Kulage is the director of research and scholarly development at Columbia University School of Nursing in New York City.
Kulage says that in the 20 years she has been working in university research, the grant application process has become longer and more complex.
“Researchers don’t have time to conduct their research, write their grants and learn how to use all of these new systems through which they have to submit their grants, and all of the ways in which they have to be compliant with regulations,” Kulage told VOA.
“There are so many rules now … it takes individuals who are now trained as research administrators to know what those rules are … and know whether or not the rules are being followed.”
Investing in help
Kulage says schools must do more to support their researchers in gaining grant money. Last November, she published a study that looked at how the nursing school invested $127,000 to create a support system between 2012 and 2016. This system employed administrators to complete grant applications, freeing researchers to spend more time on their work.
Administrators and other researchers met with the grant writers to review the applications. The team was expected to defend its proposal.
Kulage says that over those five years, proposals that went through review were almost twice as likely to be accepted. That $127,000 investment led to Columbia’s School of Nursing earning $3 million in outside funding.
McGovern and Kulage say applying for research funding is very difficult. Having one other person read a proposal and provide feedback is essential.
Large companies often conduct much research and development, but it is typically limited to their industries. University researchers have the freedom to take risks on less popular ideas.
And those risks can lead to important discoveries that colleges and universities have a responsibility to share with the world, she says.
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