How do professors get funding for new projects?
February 19, 2020 12:23 PM   Subscribe

A professor dreams up a project she thinks has the potential to become a big movement in the future (say, a "lab" within her law school for pursuing Access to Justice initiatives). This requires people, a space, perhaps some funding to develop a website or funding for new software, and down the road, maybe some funding to create a fellowship. How does she get funding? What steps does she have to take? How long is the entire process, and what are the variables that make this process longer/shorter? Who does she need to go through / whose approval does she need, and for what?

I have little accounting knowledge, so I would very much appreciate it if you could explain this without using jargon.

If you have a clear understanding of how expenditures for such projects get categorized, that would also be helpful. For example, I think building infrastructure (say, a new building to house the Access to Justice lab) would go under a capital budget, and buying software or paying for paper would go under an operating budget. How would these categorizations slow down or speed up the process? For example, would having something that falls into a gray area (maybe software) categorized as a capital expenditure mean it takes three years for the professor to get that funding instead of, say, one year if it was under an operating budget?

Thanks in advance!
posted by saltypup to Work & Money (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Coincidentally a student of mine just had a new social justice oriented center funded at a major law school. He negotiated for it in his job offer. So that’s one way. As you advance in the profession you can use job offers to negotiate for funding for things to attract you or keep you where you are, too. Usually direct start up funding from the institution.

Universities tend to provide smaller start-up grant programs of many sorts to stimulate early steps of this process in hopes that you’ll produce enough smoke to be fundable later by larger grants from external foundations, endowments, agencies, or corporations. That’s the business they’re in. Many of those grantor agencies also provide smaller start up and exploratory grants.
posted by spitbull at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2020

I've spent a career in higher ed supporting researchers. If you haven't negotiated for it in your hiring package, then I agree with spitbull -- you need incubator funding to show that even a small-scale version of your vision has legs, can get financial support, and makes an impact. From there you can apply for more funding.

Does your institution have internal startup funding, at the department, school/college, or university level? Have you talked with your sponsored program or grant people?

A great angle in general here is to read about your university's strategic plan and try to craft a narrative about how your project complements and advances the strategic plan -- this will make your initiative naturally more internally fundable, and is similar to the dance you'll have to do if you want to seek support from external donors or foundations.
posted by rachelpapers at 12:32 PM on February 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

The short and uninformative answer is: grants. It can vary by the field. A law prof wouldn’t chase NSF funding, a scientist wouldn’t pursue NEA or NEH, etc. There are large grants and small, internal and external, public and private, open and closed call.

It’s a whole complex (and cryptic) ecosystem and there is a lot of variability by institution too. One point I’d like to clarify on funding: Rather than having a single funding source for perpetuity, ‘Center for X’ type outfits often are supported by a stream of several simultaneous ‘soft money’ grants. These can run from one to several years, sometimes are renewable etc. Keeping track of all this can be its own job, and so as these places grow they sometimes have in-house people to write and manage grants (and are also themselves funded by those grants). Since lots of people involved are (partially) paid by grants, they often don’t have permanent appointments at the center, and sometimes the whole thing goes under due to a few bad years and not enough new blood and money coming in.

Typically a group of people who have all demonstrated prior success at securing funding and producing deliverables in related ventures get together to propose a center based on that, they are seldom born as the result of one person with a brand-new big idea.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:00 PM on February 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

Grants, yes. And the university has a system under which to categorize different elements. The university takes a cut - called indirect cost. Here's an example of a university website where they explain all of this stuff. It has been my experience that some people are surprised about how indirect costs work. I've seen organizations offer up $5000 grants and when I tell them that it isn't worth my time to apply because of indirect costs, they seem to not always be aware.
Also some stuff, like laptops, get categorized in a certain way, but a server or other depreciating asset, is categorized in a different way.
There are sometimes choices made to make the grant proposal more attractive. For example, having a certain number of graduate research assistants or postdocs looks good as opposed to summer salary for the PI. Or maybe in the PI's department, she needs to fund her own graduate students, so she needs to put them in the grant proposal.
That grant proposal goes through a ton of stages in the Office of Sponsored Research where different people check it for compliance and all sorts of things. It is a huge pain. But then when you're done at the university level, you have to then upload it to the grant organization's site.
FWIW, a lab or a center would not probably get a new building. And new buildings on campus are financed in an entirely different way. Labs are often linked to a new faculty member starting up.
posted by k8t at 1:13 PM on February 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

Something else I have seen for projects like this (in the absence of internal start-up funding, negotiation as a hiring package, or grants from agencies) comes from monetary gifts or other types of external individual or corporate support. Obviously, success at getting this type of funding depends a lot on personal connections and other things like that (which itself can be an ethical minefield), but it comes with potentially a lot of flexibility and freedom.
posted by zingiberene at 2:34 PM on February 19, 2020

by "ethical minefield", some of what I mean is, is it fair and cool that you can accelerate a research or education initiative way faster because someone rich that you have access to takes an interest in it? Of course not. But, people (and educational institutions, and nonprofits) do it all the time.
posted by zingiberene at 2:37 PM on February 19, 2020

BTW “Indirect costs” AKA “overhead” can run anywhere from
9%-60% in my experience. Usually that is mandated by institution, and that’s why smaller competitive grants are not worth pursuing for some people with high costs.

Some funding sources have so much political power they can say “we won’t pay any overhead” or only some small percent, and they get away with it bc institutions often prefer to absorb their own overhead rather than turn away that sweet sweet money source. This in turn pushes indirect costs up for everyone else...
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:58 PM on February 19, 2020

In my academic institution, which is focused on doing very technical scientific research that delivers value to industry, you would:

a) pursue funding from a commercial partner (or recruit one with a grant proposal or commercial partnership proposal);
b) pursue a grant from our national science foundation;
c) pursue a grant from the EU;
d) demonstrate how your project aligns with one of our 6 strategic goals and go for internal funding.

We have entire internal teams to support A, B and C. Combinations of the above are common. The process can take 18 months.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:40 AM on February 20, 2020

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