Big News for Small Sites Seeking Research Grants, Part II

by Stephanie Burns

– A Q&A on Government Research Grants –

In the first segment of this two-part blog series, we heard from Johnna Medina (University of Texas, Austin), a fourth-year clinical psychology doctoral student, on her views and thoughts about clinical research at the university level and the process and struggles in obtaining government grant funding. While much of the process is similar for both graduate students and faculty/staff, the experiences and perspectives between the two groups can be much different. Today we will explore the topic of grant-funded research with Dr. Mark Powers, Research Associate Professor at the Anxiety & Health Behaviors Lab (University of Texas, Austin). Dr. Powers is conducting a five-year, NIDA-sponsored study of integrated PTSD and smoking cessation treatment.

Q: What were your research goals before graduate school, and how have they changed over time? Has any of this been due to awareness or your experience obtaining grants/funding?

A: I have always been interested in the nature, causes, and treatment of anxiety disorders. However, funding for research in anxiety disorders has decreased over time given how powerful many of the treatments are even though there is still room for growth. There is much more funding in the area of substance use disorders given that the standard treatments are generally less effective. Thus, from a funding perspective, my research is focused on a combination of anxiety disorders and substance use disorders.

Q: How many grants did you apply to before receiving funding?  How do you feel this compares to other organizations?

A: We apply for funding from the National Institutes of Health. The success rate is quite low. I had previously applied for about 14 before being awarded two grants.

Q: What was your experience like trying to obtain funding for your study as a graduate student at a smaller university? How do you feel this compares to others attending or working at universities in general?

A: My success/failure rate has been relatively steady at all of the various universities. I believe it may provide a more unique challenge at a very small or new university. However, for most of the relatively well-established universities this is usually not the primary factor.

Q: What are the pros/cons to even having government-funded research in the first place?

A: If one’s job does not depend on funding then what they study is far more open. If you need grant funding then you are at the mercy of where NIH wants to spend money.  If you are passionate about a specialized area that government research wouldn’t be interested in, then government-funded research obviously would not be considered a “pro.”

Q: Don’t universities get blanket research funding from the government? Why would your study or program not automatically fall in that category?

A: I am not personally aware of any such funding at my level.

Q: Do you feel there is a bias in what type of research is funded? (Tell a little how it is selected).

A: Yes. The NIH decides on what they want to focus on in funding grants. Currently the focus is on biological bases of mental disorders. Thus, if one wants to do, for example, a study on cognitive behavioral therapy, they would need to do so with biology in mind. This can be a challenge given that no biological causes of mental disorders are firmly understood.

Q: We know that pharmaceutical research is generally heavily funded by the private sector, which can create bias (thus causing problems in the structure of research itself). How do you feel that this level of bias compares to that placed on what is funded through government grants?

A: The purpose is different. Pharmaceutical companies are based on profit whereas government-funded projects are more geared toward the public good (as they see it). However, given the lack of biological mediators for mental disorders to date, “big pharma” is pulling out of central nervous system research and development.

Q: For smaller sites, universities or individuals looking to obtain grant funding for their research, do you have any advice based upon your experiences?

A: Yes, I would recommend checking with their targeted funding agencies and inquiring about funding priorities to help guide successful applications. Also, they can check what type of research is currently being funded as another indicator.

Q: You have obtained grant funding for your research. Does this show promise for the future of those aiming to do the same, or what do you feel set you apart from the many who got rejected?

A: Sure, someone once told me to be successful at grant writing you need to be OK with failure.

Many in the research community are unaware of the struggles and processes that smaller sites and universities have to go through to fund their work.  It’s unfortunate that some may not be able to freely study what interests them most, but it is valuable information to keep in mind if one is considering a career in research. It is also interesting to think that what is being funded currently will heavily impact the future of science and medicine and, at the moment, our future shows promise of knowing more about the biological mechanisms and basis of mental disorders.

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