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Funding opportunities are primarily government, industry, and non-profits, each with distinct motivations. Government grants sustain universities’ research rankings, but competition is fierce. Foundation funding offers growth opportunities with less bureaucracy. Industry funding prioritizes applied research, and profit and intellectual property rights may demand negotiation. Early-career scientists can benefit from foundation funding, but balancing federal and alternative funding is a good long-term strategy.

I’m Joel Berry, Founder and Chief Scientist at Astound Research. I spent 30 years as an academic scientist, and most of that time involved chasing money by searching for funding opportunities and writing grant proposals. Even with great mentors and some successful proposals, finding grant funding was an arduous task. It took a long time for me to truly understand the flow of money in science, the many different sources, and how the source of that money shaped who I became as a scientist.

I’m sharing my experience here with the hope of making the system of science funding a little less opaque and daunting. This is a high-level introduction to a very deep topic. 

Not All Money Is the Same

Money for science comes from three primary sources:

  • Government.
  • Industry.
  • Non-profit organizations (foundations).

Let’s start by understanding how much money is available from each.

In the US, the government provides the majority for life sciences and engineering (~$50B), followed by non-profits (~$6B) and industry (~$5B).

Understanding the motivations behind why these sources fund what they do makes it easier to decide where you spend your time along your career trajectory.

Federal Research Grants: Navigating Government Science Funding

In the quest for money, there is the long game and the short game for scientists and the universities employing them.

The government sets its priorities for funding from input from a long list of constituents, legislators, committees, scientists, and community groups.

The long game for most research universities in the US is to tap into those priorities. Universities are keenly aware of their ranking in The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. R1 universities have “very high research activity” and R2 universities have “high research activity.” R3 universities exhibit moderate research activity while emphasizing teaching.

All universities strongly encourage their faculty to secure government grants because:

  • Grants are usually large.
  • Indirect costs (overhead) are also large.
  • Grant duration is long (3-5 years).
  • Acquisition of this grant money helps maintain R1 status or helps move R2 and R3 institutions up in the rankings.

Higher rankings are important for recruiting good scientists (usually resulting in more grant money) and good students (usually resulting in more tuition money). Universities also use their “R” status to encourage philanthropic giving from generous donors. 

To incentivize faculty, research universities link promotion and tenure to success at obtaining federal funds on a consistent basis. This is the current reality and should be the long game for academic scientists to advance through the system. This game is highly competitive and requires sustained effort.

Government money for research is nearly flat or declining when adjusted for inflation. Even more disheartening is the fact that roughly 10% of the National Institutes of Health grant winners receive ~40% of available funding.

Leveraging Foundation Funding: A Pathway for Emerging Scientists

Many people with money like to give it away. Some people are motivated by a genuine desire to support technological development, some are in pain over a loss to a devastating disease or disability, and some just want a tax benefit. Whatever the case, foundations exist to help these people make good use of their money.

The advantages to securing foundation support for your science are multiple:

  • Foundation support for science is growing at about 4% annually. This is advantageous because this support is not vulnerable to the same political whims as federal funding for science.
  • Submitting the proposal is typically similar to federal funding with a smaller administrative burden.
  • The competition for foundation funding is usually not as great, especially for lesser-known foundation opportunities, thus improving your chances of being funded.
  • The time between proposal submission and the start of funding is typically less than for federal funding.

Foundation funding can be a great way to start your scientific career or even act as bridge funding between lapses in larger grants. These funds can support salary, supply and equipment purchases, graduate and postdoctoral students, and even travel to conferences.

The disadvantages are that you usually cannot get funded repeatedly by the same foundation as you can with federal grants, the size of foundation grants is typically smaller (there are exceptions), and they pay small or no indirect costs.

Universities will take money almost any way they can get it—so they won’t refuse foundation grant funding. However, these awards typically don’t count as significantly in promotion and tenure consideration as does federal funding.

Industry Grants for Researchers: Bridging Academic and Commercial Science

Industry funding is quite different from federal or foundation funding. The motivations of industry are applied research and profit, whereas government and foundation funding are much more about scientific discovery.

The relationship between industry and academia is complicated. There is no real infrastructure that allows academic scientists to find industry funding. Universities love to feed their graduates into industry jobs as a metric of student success and for alumni giving after graduation.

Scientists employed in industry frequently favor their alma mater in the search for academic expertise. Companies who wish to perform scientific research at universities are often disenchanted with the contract negotiations on the sharing of intellectual property, data ownership, and publication rights. Companies move fast; universities move slow.

In spite of these challenges, industry funding for your science comes with many upsides:

  • Industry support for science is growing at about 3.5% annually.
  • If a company likes your science, there will be little or no competition for the funds to support your research.
  • The proposal process is often only a few pages long.
  • If the industry likes your work product, they may create more opportunities for you. Industry-funded research is a great way to understand how your science fits into the concept of bench to bedside.

My own experience with getting several industry grants taught me how to articulate the value of my research to people who were always asking, “How is this going to help us make money?”

A lightbulb surrounded by coins and upward arrows to represent funding opportunities.

Funding Opportunities in Summary: What Should You Do? 

So, what’s a scientist to do? Should you just keep applying for federal funds in the hope that you might succeed one day?

In short, yes.

However, you can actually tilt the playing field back in your direction, improve your odds, support your lab, and demonstrate productivity to your institution with non-federal funding.

Consider where you are in relation to where you want to be as a scientist. If you are just starting out and looking for anything, you should look at foundation funding opportunities, as many of them support scientists at all levels in a wide array of scientific fields.

If you want to explore funding more deeply, read our guide on how you can advocate for science funding and check out whether crowdfunding is feasible for your project

Astound Research’s Role

Astound Research has collected and curated over 1,000 funding opportunities in life sciences and engineering disciplines. Provide the platform with your CV or biosketch, and we go to work on your behalf. We use AI to extract the scientific keywords representing your expertise and match them to relevant funding opportunities—in seconds. Your task is to decide which opportunities are right for you. Visit www.astoundresearch.com to learn more.

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