How to find funds for the research you want to perform

by Michael Ickowitz and Arthur Stewart, Ph.D.

Performing scientific research is not free. It takes time, and frequently it requires equipment and supplies. Like it or not, part of being a scientist requires finding the money you need to do research. In fact, the ability to navigate through the funding process and secure funding is crucial to your professional success. Here’s a closer look at how to identify funding resources, how to target specifically allocated dollars, and tips for pursuing government research funds.

Identifying funding sources
The good news is that there is a strong likelihood of available funds for your research. The bad news is that it will take a considerable amount of time and effort to find and secure it. Funding isn’t gathered in one big pile, waiting for you to take it. Rather, funding sources may move around from place to place, could suddenly vanish, and oftentimes come with various restrictions. One can wear themselves ragged looking for the right amount, in the right discipline, and for the right purpose. The first step of identifying funding sources is knowing where to look. Money for science most often comes from four main sources:

  • Community/professional organizations
  • Industry
  • Private foundations
  • State or federal agencies 

These sources are listed from least to greatest with respect to the amounts of potential funding, the effort required to acquire funds, the complexity of rules and regulations, and the complexity of reporting. The next step is deciding what type of funding is required and how to acquire it. The ease of answering this depends on how well you formulate your research objectives:

  • Who/what would be impacted by this research?
  • What is the level of funding required?
  • Will the result of this research be valuable enough to justify the level of funding needed to do the study?
  • What sort of organization(s) might have an interest in this research?·
  • What is the result (if any) if the proposed research is not done? 
  • What projects with similar focus have been funded in the past, and by whom?  

Targeting dollars
When targeting research funds, it is best to think in terms of the size of the research effort needed to address the problem and the size of the research’s resulting impact. For example, a graduate research project that tests the most efficient way to control traffic through an intersection might require a small amount of funding, which might be obtained from a professional engineering organization that supports young civil engineers. However, if we think about this project on a larger, more complex scale, we can possibly identify several other funding sources. Here’s how to think bigger:

  • Determine if the topic is novel and timely. Using a citation indexing service will help to identify recent papers focused on a particular subject and the funding sources that paid for those studies. For each prospective funding agency, consider the number of studies funded per year over the past 10 years. This information may help determine if the topic is considered to be a rising star—and will likely continue to receiving funding—or a fading topic—and is less likely to receive future funds.
  • Think in scale. Perhaps the intersection in our previous example is on a rural two-lane highway and your research calculates the amount of energy required to stop and start semi-trucks that frequently travel in the area. In such a case, the impact of the study might involve making an economic choice as to which traffic stream should stop and which traffic stream should continue through the intersection. Such a decision could impact the amount of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere and ultimately either improve or damage the environment. Potential health issues also can be studied if, for example, intersection traffic resulted in measurable levels of pollution in homes and offices located nearby.

Pursuing government research funds
It is very likely that the government would be interested in supporting research that addresses these topics. The key, however, is identifying the specific agency and division. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy might be interested studying engine wear-and-tear, but DOE’s Office of Science might be more interested in examining materials science issues or computational requirements. Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development or Office of Air and Radiation might be interested in supporting this research. When thinking about government-sponsored research, think about the divisions within agencies and carefully review their websites. Some will offer information on the kinds of research they support, noting application deadlines and contacts, and provide additional details related to their funding programs. 

A word of caution: even excellent proposals submitted at the wrong time, or at the right time but to the wrong funding body, or without complying with proposal requirements, will not be funded. That is why finding a funding source means not only imagining who might be interested, but also knowing how potential funding sources work. Use resources available at your university or laboratory, and tap into the expertise and experience of others who can help.

Now go dream, think hard and get funded.

About the authors
Michael Ickowitz, a former ORISE science education project manager, serves as senior manager for international recruitment and market development (North America) for the University of New South Wales. His research is focused on government investments in the development of future scientific workforce and innovation capacities, as well as the measurable relationship between these investments and resulting economic and societal impacts. He has extensive experience in scientific workforce development planning and securing project funding from both government and industry partners. Michael holds a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology with a concentration in political economy with a statistics minor.

Art Stewart, Ph.D., is a science education project manager for ORISE. He worked as an aquatic ecologist and ecotoxicologist for 17 years in the Environmental Sciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has significant mentoring and teaching experience, and is a well-published scientist-poet.