Five types of funding

An intricate page of Chinese printing, overlaid with many chops and seals

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Some people seem to think about research funding in the same way that I think about the doctor – only when it is an emergency.

That’s not the best way to approach it. You need  a plan and you need to know what funds are coming up when.

To plan for the long term and shape your searches, you need to have a picture of what is actually possible. Different types of grants fit different situations. Here is the way that I think about funding.

Scholarships and fellowships

Scholarships and fellowships are given to individuals. That means that more weight is given to the person than the project. Don’t get me wrong – you still need an exciting project, but the balance of assessment will be different.

In general, scholarships are for students and fellowships are for staff, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule.

Scholarships and fellowships can vary in duration. I’ve seen overseas fellowships that are only three months long and I’ve seen senior fellowships that are five years long.

If you are an early career researcher, you should give serious consideration to an international fellowship (such as a postdoctoral placement). It will give you a much wider view of your field, and help you to understand how things work internationally.

Examples of scholarships and fellowships include the Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships and the Humboldt Research Fellowship for Postdoctoral Researchers.

Make sure you know what these scholarships and fellowships offer. Some ‘visiting fellowships’ only offer some desk-space and use of the university library; they don’t provide a stipend/salary, or any travel funds.

Seed funding

Seed funding is intended to get you started on a project. It provides a small amount of money to allow you to prove the potential of an idea, so that you can then move on to a larger project.

Assessors will be looking at the idea. You will still need to demonstrate that you can do the job, but your idea will be the focus of your application. Often the best seed funding applications apply completely new methodologies to established problems, or move out into territory that nobody else has yet explored.

External agencies can often use seed funding to fund risky experimental work. Grants are generally short (often 6-12 months long) and can be quite small. Because the work is high risk, the funding agency wants to give you just enough money to prove that your idea has potential, as quickly as possible.

Universities often provide internal seed funding on the understanding that it will lead to an application for future funding. Ask your local research whisperer what is available.

Examples include the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Development Grants and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health Exploration grants.

Project funding

Project funding is probably the sort of funding that most people think about when you think about research funding. It is the standard term for grants that fund a team of people to work on a particular project for an extended period of time.

Assessors are generally looking for a skilled team that has a viable project. Three to five years of funding for 4-5 people can quickly add up, so the stakes are high. Only the best teams, with the most exciting ideas, can be funded.

Examples include the Australian Office of Learning and Teaching grants and National Science Foundation standard grants in the USA.

Centre funding

Centres are generally funded for 3-6 years, although I have seen them for 9 years. Funds are generally much larger than project funding, and are designed to fund a program of work that encompasses many projects.

Assessors are looking at the track record of the team leader and the team, the long-term benefits of the program of work, the facilities available, the management arrangements, and the support that already exists for the work. The leader of a centre is generally an acknowledged expert who has shown that they can do great research and inspire others to work together.

To my mind, a good centre proposal bundles together the excellent work that is already being done and adds unicorns and rainbows. Some centre proposals start from scratch, but it can mean that you spend a lot of time bedding things down.

Examples include the Australian Cooperative Research Centres and the European Research Council Advanced Grants. The Advanced Grants are really interesting to me.  They are described like project funding, but at €2.5 million over five years, they feel more like centres. They pick one person and let that person build their team. What a great idea!

Prizes and awards

Prizes and awards are given for work that has been done in the past, rather than work that is done in the future. They shine a light on excellence by rewarding and promoting it.

They are almost always given to individuals, and they look very shiny on your CV. As a result, they are very competitive most of the time. Sometimes their scope is quite broad. Others can be focused on a particular discipline or geographic area. Some reward you with money, others just provide you with recognition.

‘Awards’ is a bit of a confusing term, actually. When you get a grant, it is ‘awarded’ to you. The contract with the funding agency is often referred to as the award. Prizes and awards also sometimes have a contract, so I guess that you might need to sign the award when you are awarded an award.

Examples include the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes and the MacArthur Fellows. I love the MacArthur Fellows program because it’s not just a prize, it’s a surprise. You don’t apply. They just pick you out and give you US$625,000. Not too shabby!


So, there you have it – 5 different types of grants for 5 very different situations.

This isn’t a definitive list. There are lots of ways to build a typology of funding: size of award; local vs regional vs national vs international; by discipline; by career stage…

The important thing is to have an overall picture in your mind that is wider than just ‘project grants’.

How do you divide things up? What have I missed?

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

4 Responses to Five types of funding

  1. Pingback: Five types of funding | RESEARCH CAPACITY-BUILD...

  2. Pingback: Five types of funding | FLOSS and Other Tools for Higher Education

  3. What about crowdfunding?

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