Big grant hunting

Q&A: Sponsored Awards Management director Tommy Coggins

Big ideas don’t come cheap. Equipment, travel, support personnel — as faculty know all too well, even the most promising research project won’t get far without funding. Enter the Office of Sponsored Award Management (SAM), which assists with the very first steps of identifying funding sources. “If you look at any process, the first thing is to know where the money is, and then figure out, ‘How do I get it?’ ” says Tommy Coggins, director of SAM.

And Coggins knows how tricky that can be, particularly for new investigators. When he started working in the SAM office in 1980, about one in four grant applications from researchers around the country was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Now, thanks to a shrinking pool of federal money and more researchers competing for those dollars, the success rate for an NIH grant application is 1-in-12 to 1-in-15.

But that doesn’t mean your dreams need to die on the drawing board. University of South Carolina faculty have set records for sponsored award funding in each of the past three years, garnering $253.6 million for research, training and service in fiscal year 2017. We talked to Coggins about the role his office plays in assisting faculty members searching for funding and how faculty can improve their chances of bringing in big bucks.

How does your office help faculty looking for research funding?

It’s a matter of determining what funding opportunities match your interest. We have a variety of ways to assist with that, including a database, Pivot, which matches faculty interests with funding sources based on keywords. Pivot also allows faculty members to match up with other faculty members on campus.

Within our Office of Research Development (ORD), we have staff available to assist with the larger-than-normal projects, multidisciplinary projects and multi-investigator projects.

How do you get the word out about funding sources?

If a faculty member is waiting on our staff to tell them "where the money is," they’re probably behind the competition. We believe most of our researchers are well-schooled and savvy about how and where to find funding. Occasionally, there could be a nugget out there that is not well known, and ORD regularly announces these opportunities through a campuswide listserv. As agencies, foundations, nonprofit organizations or other sponsors announce programs, we push those out as well.

What types of funding are faculty members typically looking for?

At USC and other universities, faculty are looking to match their research interests with those of a federal funding agency. NIH is our largest federal funder followed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Those are the primary agencies that fund fundamental and basic research.  For more applied research, there are the mission directed agencies, like DOD, DOE and NASA. For USC and all research universities, government funding accounts for the vast majority of externally sponsored projects.

How do the agencies make those decisions about what to fund?

Federal granting agencies have a pot of money, which is allocated for certain programs, including research. Awards are made based on how proposals are scored by expert peer-review panels. Each program within an agency issues grants beginning with the proposals with the highest scores. The process continues until the funds available are exhausted. Some very good proposals often don’t get funded the first time. The key for faculty members is to be responsive to peer-reviewer comments and try again. Researchers are encouraged to reapply and address any shortcomings. For example, the review panel may suggest obtaining more pilot data or suggest revisions to project design or methodology. The big thing is to take advantage of the peer review and resubmit the proposals.

So it’s typical to reapply several times for the same grant?

Some of the agencies have cut back on how many times the same or similar proposal can be submitted. For example, NIH allows only one revision. This policy varies from agency to agency, so researchers should be familiar with their agencies' policies on resubmissions. The message to a researcher may be, "Your idea is good, but we’re the wrong place."

It sounds like a long, difficult process.

You write the proposal based on lots of preliminary work, submit it, it undergoes review and it’s forwarded for a funding decision. Six to nine months later, you hear something. It takes that long for the actual funding to get through the process. But the proposal itself is usually the product of a lot of work, building on years of working in a specific area. A typical grant supports a team, including a principal investigator, one or two graduate students, a co-investigator or a post-doc associate, travel, equipment and supplies.

What’s the funding situation like right now? Is there an average amount for a grant?

In real dollars, the money has shrunk. The 21st Century Cures Act should make more funding available in biomedical and health research, but it’s always subject to cuts. If you look at the federal budget, a huge amount goes to defense and entitlements, so the discretionary part is already small, and the research part is an even smaller sliver.

The average grant is $300,000 to $500,000 per year, but it’s much smaller in areas like the humanities.

What about nongovernment sources of funding?

For research proposals, we do a good bit with private industry, but usually those are contracts.

If we are dealing with industry, we are dealing with somebody who wants us to help them solve a problem. Solving their problem and advancing our research often can mesh. Boeing is an example where our expertise in aerospace engineering can be applied to their real-life production issues. These arrangements provide research funding for faculty and valuable experience for our students.

How do new researchers break through to get funded?

There is growing concern that young investigators are having a hard time getting in the door, so agencies are trying to address that, particularly NIH. There are strategies they are working on to try to encourage more and quicker funding for young investigators. Federal funding is finite, and it is subject to being cut. When funds are cut, new grants often bear the brunt of the cuts.

It’s tough for new investigators. The competition is fierce and the dollars really aren’t growing to stay on pace with the cost of doing research. There have been modest increases at agencies, but not enough to significantly improve success rates of first-time applicants.

New faculty members should to get to know the SAM staff person assigned to their department and create a collegial relationship with that person. Knowing who to call during the crunch of preparing and submitting a proposal can greatly reduce the stress that comes with the process. The sooner they get to know us and let us know what they’re doing, the more we can help them.

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