finding small pots of cash

Feb 08 2012 Published by under academia, grants

The vast majority of my time and energy as an assistant professor is spent trying to get funding for my lab. Without money, there is no one to do my kick-ass science. Start-up funds don't last forever, and (at least at my MRU) if you don't get an R01 from the NIH you won't get tenure. Even if you don't need an R01 in your gig, if research is a big part of your job you are probably expected to secure some sort of federal funding. So, yeah. You are gonna write applications for the big grants.

But at many places there are other, smaller pots of money that you should also keep an eye out for. These can be called "pilot grants" or "seed money" or "intramural funds". These are usually small grants, IME from 10-50K/yr. They generally last only 1 or 2 years. Just enough to do a fun experiment, develop a reagent, or pay part of a salary. In the first years my lab has cobbled together a not-insignificant amount of cash from the pilot/seed programs around here.

I <3 THE SEED $$!!

The question is: how do you find the seed money and get some for yourself? This is clearly going to be specific to your home institute/MRU. If there are any consortium or project grants around these sometimes will have funds for pilot grants. Some Uni will also use some of the money they earn from licensing IP to fund new pilot grants. You may have to keep your ear to the ground, because these opportunities tend to pop up without much warning. Another great thing is that the money can also show up pretty quickly. I have had less than 3 months from application to budget number, for example.

The applications are generally short. You need to propose a project that you can do in just a year or two, after all. It is not realistic to drop a 3-Aim R01 on a pilot grant. When I write for a pilot grant, I try to make it as explicit as possible how doing the proposed research will set me up to write an R01 (or equivalent) in the future. Most of the seed money sources that I am familiar with really want to know that they did something to start up a new project and that their money has been leveraged into something bigger.

The review of these grants can be internal, or your grant could be sent out to external reviewers. Either way, you will want to be familiar to the folks that have this kind of money and run these programs. You gotta get to know the folks that are running the big project grants in your area. Just like any other area, networking is a Good Thing. Even if there isn't a pilot grant on the line (now), you want these BSD folks to know who you are. Pitch your research program to them, and see what they think is most interesting. I have used these kinds of interactions to get an idea of how folks outside my MRU are gonna respond to different research ideas. And it is helpful to know what outside folks will think are the weaknesses, so you are ready to defend them.

There is almost nothing to lose from applying for pilot grant seed money. IME, junior faculty can be really successful in getting these kinds of funds. In fact, some of these programs are actually LIMITED to us jr. faculty. And it may be that more established researchers aren't going to go through the trouble for such a little pile of cash. But little piles of cash can be a big deal when you are starting out. You can generate some preliminary data, and get some feedback on a future Aim for a Big Grant. So, fellow assistant professors: I say, go for the seed money! Good luck πŸ™‚

7 responses so far

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Absolutely! We've gotten $10K, $30K and $25K from various programs here and it has helped in minor and major ways. The $10K project actually turned into our funded NSF grant.

    I'll echo the following key points you covered:

    1) Don't pitch too much. Small money, small goals.

    2)That said, describe in detail how these results will apply to your on-going or planned funding efforts.

    3) Even if you have a decent amount of start-up left, getting these $$ can help when the start-up dries up and fund additional ideas.

  • tideliar says:

    I've got my eye on a $30k seed grant from a National Association. Another one is $7.5, but thing about these little ones is that sometimes a sympathetic dean will give you matching funds... that's me rolling in $45k for a $7.5k investment from the College...

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    I'm currently going after a 1 year, $100K seed grant. The notice was released on Monday and it's due at the end of March. The State releases this once a year, so I've been rolling around a couple of ideas for months now anticipating the announcement. Now the largest decision is which project to push forward...because as iterated above, the goals need to be small and doable, but the ultimate impact (ie studies for an R01) need to be big.

    Also key to these seed grants is sometimes non-scientists read them, so it's really important to keep them very jargon-free and super easy to read without diluting content.

    A little bit of funds can really go a long way! It can be the difference between easily doing what you need to land a bigger grant or scraping by to make it work.....

  • It's nice that your schools do that. My place has almost none of those resources. Even worse we're not registered with many of the private foundations that do young investigator money for TT faculty nominated by their colleges and schools. You would think that the poor schools should be the ones getting help, not the top tier ones of the world that get 5 students and a technician in their startups. I also checked and my state doesn't fund anything remotely close to my research πŸ™ These are all great things to do starting out, but for me its back to the drawing board.

    • gerty-z says:

      That is unfortunate, EP. The private foundations that run the "fancy" junior faculty awards require nominations from approved institutions, and can be pretty competitive. But there are others (in my field, and maybe yours too) that don't. Some of these private foundations can also have separate seed money grants. Not to mention National Associations, like what Tiddles is going for. I imagine it must be frustrating to not have these opportunities. But keep your eyes open, and maybe you will get lucky. But I honestly don't know very much about how non-biomed types of fields work--YMMV.

  • Boehninglab says:

    At my Uni it is very political. In some cases, predetermined. I learned this the hard way.

  • [...] this year. I have secured a reasonable amount of funding for my lab, including my K99/R00 award, pilot awards, and foundation money. I sat on a tenure-track faculty search committee, and served as an Early Career Reviewer for the [...]

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