Dangers of internal funding

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov (http://madebyvadim.com), sourced from unsplash (http://unsplash.com).

I’ve benefited from different types of internal university funding for my research over the years.

The schemes I’ve accessed range from conference money to pilot project grants and new staff grants. They’ve offered the stepping-stones I needed to get projects going and build momentum.

This post talks about the dangers and opportunities presented by internal research funding, and flags the Top 3 types of internal funds that I’ve found most useful.

It’s important to plans ways to do research, even without a fat grant.

One of the internal grants I secured was specifically for developing and writing up a major grant proposal. It paid off a couple of years later when our team got that ARC Discovery project. Being able to get together for concentrated periods of time to nut out the grant application saved us heaps of time and focused our energies. It really worked well.

Most institutions have some form of internal funding for their researchers. Some have more than others. Some barely cover their researchers’ conference travel, others offer plush suites of articulated funding for just about every segment of the research cycle.

Internal funding is a good thing. It can boost project competitiveness and track-record before a go at a bigger external grant. It can certainly boost the confidence of researchers trying to get their work off the blocks, or build their CV in the early days of their research career. It can bridge external grant gaps and allow researchers to stay on the radar.

Internal funding can be a bad thing, however, when you have too much of it and no consequent profile in securing external funds.

When your institution talks about wanting you to get funding, they are talking about external funding. That is, getting research money from organisations and institutions outside of your own university.

In addition, they usually mean external competitive funding, as that’s the marker of prestige in the university sector. The ability to win external funding has become a de facto indicator of ‘quality’. If you can make it to the top of the heap in a large external grant round, you must be the best there is… (I’ll leave that there for you to ponder. I don’t necessarily agree with it!)

So, if you can score heaps of internal funds but don’t seem to be able to get any external money, what does that mean?

From hearing assessors and seasoned researchers talk about it, it seems that they assume you have either been:

  • not good enough to gain external funding (i.e. no-one believes in your work or thinks your track-record is any good outside of your own institution), or
  • you haven’t had the initiative to apply for external funding.

Either way, not good.

Even though the internal funding might be from the different universities you’ve been at, it’s all still internal funding.

The message here is: Make the absolute most of internal funding and the opportunities it can afford you, and plan to apply for external funds regularly.

With that in mind, I’d say my Top 3 most useful internal research grants for an institution to offer are:

1. Research collaboration or exchange

This kind of funding ticks a lot of boxes. All universities like prioritising inter-institutional connections. Team them up with research accountabilities (not necessarily grant applications!) and it’s the kind of thing that’s good for all involved. Some universities have international research exchange schemes, and these can be great platforms on which to build longer-term collaborations.

2. New staff grant

Institutions that don’t offer new staff grants, even modest ones, are shooting themselves in the foot. When new researchers start at your organisation, whether they’re fresh out of their PhDs or coming from overseas or finding their feet at a new place/city/state, supporting them to kickstart a research program in that space is a no-brainer. It doesn’t have to be much – enough for some collaborative work, hours from an RA, or preliminary research steps. It’s goodwill in the bag, and having your researchers on their way with their work.

What’s the alternative? Unless a researcher comes to you with their own funding streams already in place, they’re going to have to apply to various schemes (external or internal) before they can even get started. This means they’re dependent on much longer timelines before finding out  if they even get the money.

On top of acclimatising to a new institution, colleagues, and space, having zero research money will retard research.

3. Seed funding / pilot project funding

These kinds of grants are invaluable. It is crucial that your work gains runs on the board before big grant applications because we know that successful ones often have to have ‘walked through’ their project before actually doing the project.

Being able to do early work on a project means several important things: testing out hypotheses and critical frameworks, giving insight into the feasibility and scope of certain kinds of work, and - by no means least - trialling collaborative teams you may not have worked with before. All of these elements lead to stronger project applications.


So, if you’re landing, or have recently landed, at a new institution, make sure you check  out the internal funding situation. There may be schemes offered at the local (school/dept) level or at a broader institutional level. There is no harm in asking and, even if there isn’t any of a particular type, enough people asking about it could change the situation.

Those of you who have control of such things, and want to find ways to support your early career and new researchers, look to what kind of schemes you have in place internally. Are you supporting activities that build and push momentum?

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

6 Responses to Dangers of internal funding

  1. ucfhistory says:

    Thanks for the post! A few years ago, we received seed funding for one of our projects. This was absolutely wonderful for the project and we were grateful; however, as we are now trying to fundraise, we have found potential donors don’t always understand the concept of seed funding. They argue that if the university has supported our project in its initial stages, surely they will continue to fund us. It has been very interesting!

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Yes, interesting indeed! There’s a lot of confusion at times between universities and external organisations in terms of what support could/should be expected, and what they mean (not to mention the timelines!). Were you successful in securing further funding? And was it from the sources you would have thought?

  2. Thanks for the post. I feel I should confess that I have both set up and dismantled internal faculty funding schemes in my time, so I have a view of what is good about them and what some of the dangers are.

    As a rough generalisation I’d say that the main (only?) good thing about internal funds is that they make it possible to do things – go to a conference, do a piece of research, write a paper, write a research grant or whatever.

    The main danger from the researcher’s perspective are that an internal grant may generate an expectation that you do something with outcome of the work you do on the grant, such as win external funds. It’s also important that, as you say in the post, internal grants don’t really count the same on your cv as external grants. So the important this is to deliver what you promised on the small grant and move on.

    The danger from an institution’s perspective is that competitive evaluation systems for grants are expensive. The salary costs of running an application and review system for small internal grants can far exceed the costs of the grants themselves. For that reason I have always preferred to make the process by which new staff get star-up funding very simple.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks, Andrew, for your take on this. Do you mean that you don’t feel internally funded things lead to bigger projects of more competitive applications down the track?

      Yes, most of the internal grant schemes I’ve seen demand all manner of promised outcomes for the funding. In Australia, some small seed grants often require a promise of applying to a Category 1 (most competitive) level scheme in the next year or so after the internal funding project is done.

      While I can see what you mean about the internal grants review systems’ potential to cost dearly, I feel that some of this cost may be ‘offset’ by the assessment/critique experience (for the non-professorial assessors and the assessed) that would be gained, and the inter-school (or faculty) mixing that would happen. I realise these are intangible elements but they’re worth fostering as part of building stronger research cultures?

      Totally agree re new staff funding. Having high threshold processes for this kind of award doesn’t make much sense (you employed that person for good reasons, right?).

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