Perspectives on Institutional Bridge-Funding Policies and Strategies in the Biomedical Sciences.

Author:Yates, Robin M.


With steadily declining funding success rates for academic research by major funding organizations in North America, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), academic researchers are facing month-by-month uncertainty with respect to the financial stability and sustainability of their research programs. The NIH funding success rates for first time operating research grants (R01 and equivalent) has dropped from 38% in 1998 to 18% in 2015 (NIH, 2015), and the success rates of CIHR open operating grants have dropped from 33% in 2005 to 18% in 2014 (CIHR, 2014). Significant and unexpected reductions in funding success rates inevitably increase the probability that any academic research program will encounter a period of underfunding or complete lack of funding. This phenomenon is putting pressure on research-intensive tertiary education institutions (TEIs) who historically have financially supported underfunded researchers between grants with bridge-funding. The slow recovery of the global economy from the financial crisis of 2007-8 (IMF, 2014) has eroded the financial stability of most TEIs, causing internal research funding programs to be stretched thin (Glied, Bakken, Formicola, Gebbie, & Larson, 2007; Holbrook & Sanberg, 2013; Neiman, 2013).

Bridge-funding is a mechanism by which institutions can financially support a researcher or research group between external grant funding periods. As the name implies, this is not intended to be a perpetual source of operational funds, but to "bridge" the financial gap between past and future external funding. When executed successfully, it creates a win-win situation: the researcher is able to continue his/her research program and career progression; the institution retains a productive research asset, while emboldening other researchers in the institution with a sense of security that facilitates their own research decisions (Glied et al., 2007; Neiman, 2013). When executed poorly, the researcher's career is unnecessarily drawn out and internal funds are depleted. Hence, the decision of who or what to bridge-fund, for how much, for how long, and what conditions should accompany bridge-funding is paramount, particularly in these times when other sources of income for institutions are also uncertain. Indeed, Paul Neiman (the first director of the Basic Sciences Division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA) states in reference to decision-making in bridge-funding management: "In times of financial stress there may be no other more important need for a research institution to address" (Neiman, 2013, p. 17).

Despite the importance of institutional bridge-funding mechanisms for the stability of research careers and the global academic research system as a whole, there is surprisingly little literature on the policies, strategies and management of bridge-funding schemes. Given this scarcity of information, much of this paper will draw upon opinion-based literature and personal observation. To address the deficiency of data on the topic, a brief analysis of publicly available policy documents on bridge-funding from medical faculties in North America will be presented. This document does not attempt to critically evaluate the effectiveness of particular bridge-funding strategies--although such studies are particularly warranted. Instead, it attempts to provide a considered perspective on current bridge-funding strategies and the rationale behind these schemes.

Who, what and how to bridge-fund: application of the principles of cost-benefit analysis

In a perfect world, all researchers who request bridge-funding would be supported at the level and term requested. In reality, the institution is most likely to provide bridge-funding to a proportion of those researchers who are underfunded and at a level that may be suboptimal (Glied et al., 2007). Hence, those in academic leadership positions need to strategically allocate bridge funds to maximize institutional sustainability and do so in a logical and defensible manner (Taylor, 2006). The simplest economic principle that could be theoretically applied to strategic allocation of funds in a business decision would be cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Simply, the objective of the CBA would be to calculate the ratio between the estimated costs and the total anticipated benefit (Scarborough & Bennett, 2012). For determining bridge-funding for individual cases, a simple CBA would ideally identify the lowest bridge-funding amount and the shortest possible time that would give the greatest return (e.g., facilities and administrative (indirect) costs from future external grants). If it were anticipated that the costs outweigh the benefit, bridge-funding--purely from a CBA perspective--is not a sound investment. When establishing priorities to optimally deal with multiple bridge-funding requests and finite funds, applying CBA principles can assist in determining a strategy to reach Pareto optimality (an equilibrium reached through allocation of resources where no one person can be made better off without someone else being made worse off (Scarborough & Bennett, 2012)). While the core principles of CBA and Pareto efficiency are rational approaches, their application to setting bridge-funding priorities becomes more complex, particularly because predicting the benefits of bridge-funding in different cases and quantifying the non-monetary advantages are at best unreliable (Kern, 2011; Nelson, 2006). While risk can be incorporated into CBA using probability algorithms, the complexity of calculating risk and the vague parameters precludes a strictly analytical approach. Hence, qualitative indicators should be used to guide reasonable predictions of the probabilities and the magnitude of benefit.

Given the topic, it is almost impossible to resist the physical "bridge" analogy. Merriam-Webster defines a bridge as "a structure carrying a pathway or roadway over a depression or obstacle" (Bridge, n.d.). Likewise, bridge-funding is a financial structure that may allow the researcher or research group to survive a downturn in funding. When building a physical bridge, however, the other side of the gap is visible and the decision how and whether to build the bridge is simplified. Deciding the format and whether or not to bridge-fund a researcher is complicated by the uncertainty of what, if anything, does the bridge-building link to in the future? Nonetheless, the analogy illustrates some of the outcomes of bridge-funding in an obvious manner. Three world-renowned bridges will be used to illustrate three bridge-funding scenarios: the Peace Bridge between New York State and Ontario ; the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys; and the Bridge to Nowhere in Whanganui National Park, New Zealand.

Low cost: high benefit--The Peace Bridge

The Peace Bridge was completed in 1927, joining the USA and Canada across the Niagara River (Figure 1). This single bridge allows safe passage from one expansive land mass to another. This example is an optimal outcome of bridge-funding. The researcher with a solid track record uses bridge-funding to allow his/her research team to return to solid, consistent...

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