How to attract research funding

How to attract research funding

Communication serves many purposes, including helping to attract research funding. This funding can come from government (federal, state and local), business, philanthropic funds and international sources.

If you are to be successful as a scientist, chances are that you will need to develop your fund-raising skills. Communication lies at the heart of the process.

So let’s start with a quotation from one of the greatest communicators of the 20th century. In January 1961 at his inaugural US Presidential address, John F. Kennedy exhorted: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country’.

I’m going to paraphrase. ‘‘Ask not what your research can do for you—ask what your research can do for your client’. This is your take home message.

That JFK (mis)quote will guide everything you do in searching for funding and partnerships for your research. You need to think about the applications of your work.

Your agency, if you work in one, will probably have senior scientists and business development folk with experience in seeking funds. Get their advice. There will almost certainly be protocols regarding approaching external agencies. Coordination is vital. A company will not be impressed to receive four separate overtures offering four separate world-best models.

I can think of only three reasons why someone will pay for your science:

1.     Helping the government or agency deliver on its promises (making them look good)

2.     Saving money

3.     Making money

Consider your research in these terms. Focus on potential audiences and their needs.

You have Australia’s best database on tropical cyclone tracks. A company planning offshore gas rigs in northern Australia might be interested in statistics and trends for their region to guide their designs. That’s point 2, ‘saving money’.

Your chemistry module includes 1000 reactions involved in formation of photochemical smog. The EPA might fund you to test the effectiveness of planned regulations on the concentrations of peroxyacyl nitrates present in smog. Point 1.

You have skills in helping people adapt to climate change. There are some 190 countries that might be interested in chatting. Points 1 and 2.

Consult widely. Chances are that your research will have applications you haven’t thought of yet.

Getting down to business

Make a list of potential funders. Label them ‘stakeholders’ and you’ll look as if you know what you are doing.

Find out who has relationships with these people. If they say ‘oh, we’ve never got money from them’, put them at the top of your list.

A phone call is 10 times better than an email and a meeting with someone is 10 times better than a phone call.

You are going to ring people, visit people, call in favours, get recommendations and shout people coffee. I know of an example where a $3.00 coffee led to $100,000 of science funding.

Your schmoozing will be more successful if it is part of a carefully crafted communication plan. Your communicator is your friend. So before your contact sips their cappuccino, they will have seen the article on your work in the paper, read your tweets and scanned your LinkedIn profile.

There are as many ways to engage with stakeholders as there are to demonstrate irrefutably the existence of human-induced climate change. Happily, you don’t have to be the climate science community’s answer to Brian Cox to take advantage of them. If you’re more of a listener than a talker, conferences, exhibitions, workshops and social events are all great opportunities to find out who’s who, and make new contacts in the coffee queue.

Never underestimate the time it will take to go from coffee to contract. I had a lead in developing the pitch for the South Eastern Australian Climate Initiative (SEACI). It took the best part of three years and the work of quite a team to bring in more than $8 million external funding. Key to our success was a series of stakeholder-led workshops.

When you sense that success is imminent, ensure that you have done all the internal engagement that will be needed to complete the deal. You will have kept your manager well informed, so your achievement will be no surprise to them. Contact contracting, liaise with legal, find finance, communicate with comms, ID your IP.

Your research is now secure for the foreseeable future. But before you get on to that, we just have a little organisational paperwork for you to complete.

Communication was a key theme at the 21st AMOS National Conference, held in Brisbane in July. Communication can raise the profile of research. It can help ensure research results reach a wider audience and hence have greater impact. Communication can raise general science awareness and increase understanding. It can even affect behavioural change.

These are all noble goals of putting time and resources towards communicating our science. But we also need communication to generate funding to support science. Such funding-focussed communication takes place in an increasingly tight, and therefore competitive, environment. In Australia, and around the world, funds need to be sourced from a diverse base. So who are the funders, how do we reach them, what tools should we use, and where can we go for help? A panel session about communication for partnerships was held at the AMOS conference to answer these questions.

Dr Bill Gail, Past-President of the American Meteorological Society and Co-Founder and Chief Technical Officer of Global Weather Corporation, spoke from his perspective as director of several companies over the years, including ones that charge fees, raise venture capital, and act as a bridge between research and business. He said it was important to understand who could benefit from your research: is it society as a whole, the science community, particular industry sectors, or even specific companies? Once you have an understanding of these audiences, he said you need to seek applied uses of your research, guided by who benefits from your work. Bill also explained that you need to identify alternatives to traditional grant funds, such as technology licensing, commercial consulting, start-up investment, and so on.

Paul Holper, now a communication consultant after his 25-year career working at CSIRO in communication, business development, and science program management, spoke from the perspective of sourcing, attracting and securing funds for science programs. Paul said there’s great value in all research groups having a strong public profile to provide the base for attracting funds. He said that researchers need to work as a team to brainstorm ideas and strategies to reach potential funders, including government, international organisations, industry, and philanthropic sources. This doesn’t need to be done alone – assistance is available within many research organisations, and elsewhere, from professional communicators and business development staff.

Dr Donna Green, a senior lecturer and researcher at the UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, provided the panel with the perspective from a university environment, where she has pitched her research at a level that attracts research funding from a variety of sources. She spoke of the importance of being strategic and playing to your strengths, and emphasised the point that if you aren’t sure about what to do, ask for professional communication advice. Donna said it is important to stand out, to ensure your proposal shows passion and connection to a real world issue, and to ensure that connection stands out in the first paragraph of your proposal, opening conversation, or elevator pitch. Brainstorm anything legitimate that you can use to make your application stickier and therefore more memorable. She also noted the importance of understanding the politics of the funding landscape – not only the written funding rules, but also the unwritten rules.

Karen Pearce, a science communicator, editor, and director of Bloom Communication, provided a practical perspective of using communication to get the message out to potential funders in a changing media environment. She said it is important to be relevant and to lead with the bottom line when discussing your work – explain why an organisation should care about your work, and what’s in it for them. Karen said researchers need to be clear, concise, and not make people have to work to understand what you do and what you want from them. She said you need to be audience-appropriate; that is, know your audience so you can use the right language and tools to reach them. And in terms of getting support for your work, communication doesn’t start and stop with filling in a funding proposal. You need to do the groundwork (profile building, making your work more accessible) and the follow-up (updates, informal/formal reporting, public communication, etc.) to succeed.

In summary, the panel agreed that it is important to understand the benefits to potential funders and clients so you can target the audience and demonstrate impact; that you need to build a public profile to stand out from the crowd; and that you can draw on your wider team – and professional help – to target potential partners to attract research funding.


This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BAMOS

Date Posted:

November 4, 2015