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Breaking the vicious cycle of grant writing and research funding

As I have mentioned before, I’m very lucky in that my institution is extremely supportive of my (and my colleagues’) research endeavours. There are a number of (internal) sources of funding to support scholarly research, from support via start-up funds, to individual research accounts, to competing for internal research grants, to funding conference travel. Because I have international collaborators and I’ve worked a lot within the Canadian and Mexican research funding systems, I’m very familiar with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, and with CONACyT (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia, National Council for Science and Technology) in Mexico. I’m a little less familiar with the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States of America, but I still know their processes a bit. I’m also a bit familiar with European (mostly French and British) granting bodies.


The grant writing cycle, according to PhD Comics (c) Jorge Cham

What seems to be the commonality in all of these is the presence of a vicious cycle of grant funding and grant writing. In order to advance your research, you need to do experiments, undertake fieldwork, participate in academic conferences and workshops. All of these activities, of course, require funding. Which, quite obviously, you don’t have as you start your academic career. More annoying is the fact that most granting agencies will demand from you previous experience managing funded projects and success winning grants. Which you can’t do, of course, because you don’t have the funding yet to execute the research activities required to gain new insights, create new knowledge, and of course, gain confidence in writing new grants so that you can get funding to do more research.

My first year back from Canada and arriving to Mexico, I became increasingly frustrated with the vicious cycle of grant funding and grant writing. I kept writing grant proposals, many of which were unsuccessful. I can tell you the proposed projects were fantastic, and I even received some nice commentaries “awesome proposed research, but we don’t have the money to fund you, so, SORRY”.

Last year and this year, however, I have got quite a bit of a break. I’ve successfully submitted a few grant proposals that have been externally funded and now enable me to mobilize resources in a way I couldn’t do before. And of course, with each successful proposal, I gain a lot more confidence in my abilities to secure extramural funding. So, I feel as though this is a virtuous cycle now: the more successful my grant proposals are, the more I seem to be able to write better requests for funding. But I’m also aware of how capricious these funding cycles can be. For all we know, I may have secured a lot of funding for this year, but I may hit a dry spell in the next two years too.

The funniest and most ironic part of this vicious cycle is that having to manage extramural funding, I’ve learned A LOT of stuff (tricks, techniques, reporting processes, even how much do things cost) that I wouldn’t have been able to learn had I not actually gotten projects funded. Getting my projects funded and executing them has actually enabled me to write better grant proposals, propose better and more robust research designs, and learn the ropes of externally-funded project management (which include budgeting, financial reporting, writing technical reports, etc). Again, as I mention, my institution is extremely generous with internal grants, but not all institutions are, and this frustrates me to no end. I thing we ought to break the vicious cycle of grant funding and grant writing.

I just don’t really know how.

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