YEARS OF KNITTING TOGETHER A network of strategic partnerships have shown me that focusing mostly on proposal writing can limit your research horizons. If you’re trying to build something big, engaging more broadly in what I call “opportunity creation” may be something to think about.
I was a graduate student in mathematics departments where research funding wasn’t needed to support graduate students; instead, we were almost exclusively supported by teaching assistantships. Research funding seemed like a “nice-to-have” thing rather than something essential to keep your research going.
As a postdoc, I was a part of an interdisciplinary center and was funded on research grants. My perception of research funding at that time was that you responded to requests for proposals, or proposed programs, based on the broad agency announcements. A principal investigator who had a long history of funding with a mission-based organization got an “inside look” through his or her connections with a program manager. Because the PI learned early on about program changes that might be ahead, he or she could think about how to modify the work to meet the new funding calls.
Just as I was being promoted to professor, I took the opportunity to go to the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) to manage one of their programs. While there, I realized that investigators could actively help to scope the program. Topics for programs such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative were often “seeded” with an idea from an investigator. Sometimes those ideas were solicited by program managers; other times they happened somewhat organically through program reviews.
The part of federal funding I’d missed in all that time was the inception of funding for federal research programs. I knew that programs were funded by Congress and that budgets were provided to agencies to fund research. While at AFOSR, I saw program managers meet and plan for budget requests for the “out years.” What I hadn’t seen, however, was the powerful synergies that occur when congressional staffers are informed about opportunities and program-savvy lobbyists are brought in to help build budgets.
Then, when I served as a school head, our dean asked us for input to the “Federal Agenda.” I realized that though I had been in academia for years, running a successful, funded research program and even serving as a program manager in a federal agency, there were still things I didn’t know. I didn’t know, for example, that universities compile a document that presents their priorities to its congressional delegation. I didn’t know that the delegation takes those desires and needs into account when making policy and structuring budgets.
What I also learned is that lobbyists, through their connections with federal agencies and Congress — and through being particularly well informed about research areas — can serve as the link between all of these people and with the research university. They can help build large, strategic programs that serve the needs of targeted sectors. They can help Congress work on policy modifications. They can help inform researchers about opportunities where they can be competitive. They can introduce researchers to program managers in strategic places. In short, lobbyists can be the interface that connects everyone and advances research priorities.
As director of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center (NNMREC) — a collaboration among OSU, the University of Washington and the University of Alaska Fairbanks — I’ve worked closely with SMI, a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., that engages in a variety of topics, including marine energy. Being involved in the process from informing congressional staff about the opportunities and needs for research and development, and being connected, through SMI, to programs interested in marine energy research, has been most rewarding.
Belinda Batten is a professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University and director of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center.