Extramural Funding at PUIs

25 Nov

Like many faculty at liberal arts colleges, I will be spending the majority of my time during the upcoming breaks (Thanksgiving and before Spring 2014 starts) on research related activities. I have one manuscript that I’d like to get started on writing and I’ll be preparing to submit my first NSF grant. In this next series of blogs, I’ll discuss how the grant process looks like at liberal arts colleges, some information I recently found out about the NSF RUI grant, and in the future, some ideas on how to successfully prepare grant proposals from other faculty at liberal arts colleges.

Research Support

Research, whether it is done at a liberal arts college or an R1, is expensive. Many liberal arts colleges that expect some sort of research productivity (usually in the form of peer reviewed publications) offer start-up packages and modest research support throughout the academic year and/or summer (e.g., here is Allegheny’s institutional support program). Some departments also have some type of “slush fund” set up to provide money for research supplies; some departments even cover the cost of disposables (e.g., gloves, pipette tips, tubes, etc.). This type of institutional financial support is essential because teaching is our priority and we don’t have as much time to spend writing grants as many of our collaborators at R1 universities. Although helpful, these funds are not sufficient to run the type of research program that I, and many of my colleagues, desire to have. Believe it or not, many faculty at liberal arts colleges apply for extramural funding from granting agencies… and we are often successful.

The Culture at Allegheny

Like my colleagues at R1 universities, our tenure and promotion committee evaluates our faculty on whether we have tried to obtain extramural grants. The emphasis on grant dollars is no way comparable to that of an R1, but it is still something that we are evaluated on. Writing a proposal for funding is, in many ways, a form of scholarship in and of itself — articulating ones ideas and having them critiqued by a group of referees is an informative process, regardless of the outcome. In our Biology department, the outcome is generally good: 50% of our tenured/tenure-track faculty have received a grant from a federal funding agency (e.g., NSF, NIH, HHMI, EPA, USDA), 2 of which have received NSF CAREER grants. If you consider grants from private foundations and other grant agencies, we jump to to 65%.

NSF RUI

NSF has a “process” (different from a “program”, as I will highlight) for Research in Undergraduate Institutions in which it recognizes that research from predominately undergraduate institutions is a priority for NSF. Unfortunately, the information on the NSF RUI website (including the RFP) is outdated and incorrect. For example, RUI proposals now follow the pre-proposal submission process, are not accepted on a rolling basis as per the RFP, and need to be submitted directly to a program of your choice such as DEB. Once at a specific program, the proposal is judged in the same pool as all the other proposals submitted to that program. However, as I understand it from my recent conversation with a program officer, “the criteria used during the review are appropriate for the particular educational setting at the institution submitting the review” and  “the scale of the effort need not be as large as projects submitted by research universities.” In other words, there is no special pot of money set aside for researchers at undergraduate institutions — only solid research proposals get funded. NSF recognizes, however, that the scale of research that faculty at undergraduate institutions is going to be different than what faculty at R1 universities can pull off. We have significantly more contact hours, rarely have postdocs (although I know of a couple faculty at liberal arts colleges with postdocs), and our undergraduate researchers spend substantially less time in the lab than graduate students researchers.

“Small” Grants

Faculty at liberal arts colleges live off smaller (< $50,000) grants. The combined factors of modest internal research support, lower indirect costs, and not having to provide salary and health insurance for our graduate student RA’s, TA’s, and/or postdocs allows us to stretch money much further than R1 institutions. Thus, many granting agencies that offer smaller grant awards are often overlooked or ignored by R1 faculty… my guess is because the cost of their time preparing and submitting a grant proposal for a small chunk of change outweighs the benefits (= grant dollars) that will actually come their way. I know of a couple of these foundation-type grants (e.g., National Geographic Society and The Research Corporation), both of which I’ll be submitting a proposal.

Future Posts

I plan on having a series of blog posts on this topic as I continue to prepare my pre-proposal for my first NSF grant. Some of the topics I hope to blog about, and converse about with you all, relate to some ideas on how to successfully prepare grant proposals in terms of Broader Impacts and suitable projects at liberal arts colleges.

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