Top of Mind: Capturing Research Dollars

IN DECEMBER 2013, I LAUNCHED THE Office for Research Development with the goal of establishing a framework to catalyze the competitiveness of faculty researchers in winning funding for their research.  The creation of the office was driven by a task force of visionary faculty recognizing the need for someone to facilitate the development of large-scale proposals, institutionalize our “lessons learned,” position OSU to compete successfully on large-scale opportunities, foresee and create new opportunities for large-scale research, and make interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research an institutional priority. All of this is geared toward supporting OSU’s aspirational goal to become one of the nation’s top-10 land grant universities.

“The Science of Team Science (SciTS) field encompasses both conceptual and methodological strategies aimed at understanding and enhancing the processes and outcomes of collaborative, team-based research.”

Oregon State is not alone in recognizing the need for research-development support at the institutional level. Over the past seven years, the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP) has swelled from a membership of about 30 to over 600 individuals, while the NIH Science of Team Science initiative (SciTS) launched a decade ago continues to analyze the processes and problems associated with academic teams pursuing major interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary funding opportunities. I met no faculty researchers at the NORDP meeting, but no one other than I thought that was odd. At the SciTS meeting, however, I met many faculty, a few upper-level administrators, project managers, and numerous program managers. Different people attend different meetings.

Such meetings as NORDP or SciTS are useful in understanding the types of people who “do” research development in support of faculty or teams of faculty-led research. There are many divergent viewpoints as to which activities are critical for success.

“Hill” Politics and Dangling Participles

At one end of the spectrum are the former agency program managers. These people understand the agencies. They understand “Hill” politics and the meaning of lobbying in an era devoid of earmarks. These are the people who can read the tealeaves and will tell you in no uncertain terms that developing relationships with program managers is imperative for success. And they are perfectly correct, for without these managers, it is harder to anticipate or influence the future or understand what an agency is really looking for when it issues an RFP. Chapters, and even books, have been written outlining the etiquette and protocols of interacting with program managers, including the occasional treatise reminding you that they are really just people, like you and me, who care about research. They understand that just about every societal advancement began as a kernel of curiosity in an academic’s mind. They know that new knowledge inspires greatness in our students. And they care about your success.

At the other end of the spectrum is the army of tireless research administrators. These people, who have read and digested the various agency grant-proposal guides according to their current incarnations, could merrily entertain you with the inconsistencies of the Uniform Guidance. They are up-to-speed on the latest imposed layer of baffling federal compliance regulations. And they will always check your budget to ensure it adds up to an agency’s satisfaction. They will compile your proposal documentation using the appropriate font, correct margins, and appropriate bio-sketch. And they will upload your documents to the agency before the deadline. For without this, it matters nothing how brilliant you are or how well conceived your plan. Your research concept is nothing in the eyes of the agencies if it is never reviewed. Many a proposal has been kicked out at the first pass because the rules were not followed.

Then there are the grant writers. These are the artists, the weavers of words, masters of commas, and avoiders of dangling participles. They craft every sentence so that agency reviewers are compelled to read from one sentence to the next, hurtling toward the final page with no alternative but to come crashing to the conclusion that your proposal must be funded, desperate to know how your story will end. These are the people who will tell you that if a reviewer is lost in the opening page, he or she will put your proposal down, forget it instantly and move on to the next.

Secret Sauce and Blue Ocean

Next, there are the “capture planners,” the strategists (few, but growing in number) who are the “secret sauce” of government contractors. It is no accident that these entities dominate the federal research budget. Coming from the private sector, often “Shipley” trained but now employed in the research-development offices of, say, Berkeley, Arizona or Purdue, these are the folks who excel in an environment of ambiguity. They anticipate future funding trends and recognize the deliverables and research impacts demanded by agencies. They marry these with the goals, assets and capabilities of their organization while ever-watchful of the competition. These are the people who develop the winning strategies well before the RFP issues. After the RFP even issues, they have time to tailor the proposal precisely without the need to cut new cloth. These are the people who will tell you with all the sagacity of a Chinese fortune cookie, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Finally,there are the team builders who focus on the faculty teams, recognizing that interdisciplinary/trans-disciplinary approaches pave the way to Blue Ocean research thereby opening up new worlds of discovery, knowledge and understanding. In industry, team building is easier. In industry, employees are required to commit to the team or find employment elsewhere. The appointed team leader is trained and supported. In academia we get to choose our own team based on availability and interest, and leadership is tough.

These people and many more make up the fabric of research development, rallying together around a common goal, motivated by passion to make a difference, to educate in the framework of understanding, and create a brighter, safer, more enlightened future.

Stitching this all together, stealing a leaf from the government contractor’s playbook, and recognizing the need to plan and develop teams early in a world where there is never enough time, an interdisciplinary process framework for nuts-to-bolts research development is needed (see the graph below). This framework connects the upper-administration, visionary faculty and faculty teams with the above-mentioned former program managers, the strategists, the grant writers, the research administrators, and the team builders. At OSU we have all these people, many of whom are inherently multidisciplinary in what they do.

Catalyzing research competitiveness takes a village with everyone willing to engage and play his or her part. In essence, this is the role of the Office for Research Development — pulling the right people together at the right time while constantly seeking to reduce or eliminate the barriers to engagement.

Toppling Barriers to Engagement

Barriers to engagement are often significant. As a first step in driving the process framework, blue-team, pink-team, red-team and gold-team reviews will become a working reality in the development of a select number of major funding proposals. These color reviews provide checkpoints along the way that connect faculty teams with strategic thinkers and subject-matter experts, people with agency experience. These are people with inside knowledge of the tipping points that can make or break a proposal. They can share the secrets of their winning proposals and will read your proposals from the funding-agency perspective before you submit, while there is still time to adjust, and counsel for success. More, too, these reviews provide a mechanism to connect grant writers, “interview” future grant writers (good grant writers should be good reviewers), enablers of research impacts, resolve any cost-share issues, meet the compliance and proposal development folks and grow the pipeline of future leaders as junior faculty sit in and participate in the process. By doing this, connecting the people, the envisioned goal is that membership in a faculty research team will be a rich and rewarding experience, where there is time to develop innovative winning proposals, with solid teams and the full support of the institution.

Reviews, of course, are only as good as the people reviewing. Agility and flexibility are keys to success, as no framework or proposal plan ever survives contact with reality intact. The post-submission evaluation step is truly imperative. It is my way to assess whether focusing on the people and how they engage with certain activities–rather than on the myriad activities nameless people do–is the key to success.

Mary Phillips is Director of Research Development at Oregon State University