Trends in large proposal development at major research institutions.

Author:Mulfinger, Lorraine M.


Institutional change scholars rely on social psychology constructs, principles or models for designing organizational change strategies. Focusing on an understanding of the psychological basis for changing an individual mindset or managing the dynamics of a group, change scholars often develop tools that equip change agents to effectively engage institutions and steward the change process (Eisold, 2005; Gardner, 2006; Morgan, 1997). Both internal and external challenges can drive the institutional necessity for change. For institutions of higher education a legal mandate, such as, legislation, statutes, other policies and court decisions, serve as major external drivers of change bearing serious institutional risks including fines, non-fiscal punitive measures, loss of prestige and privilege, and public criticism.

Despite the high liability for higher education institutions, change scholars have yet to create a tool for implementing legally mandated change. Ideally, a tool that facilitates institutional compliance while minimizing legal liability would remedy this omission. Currently, institutions facing a changing legislative landscape must respond on a policy-by-policy basis to develop adequate plans. Each institution runs the risk of making changes that may not embed in institutional practices and result in non-compliance. Institutional non-compliance can manifest in several ways: by misinterpreting the law, by ineffectively implementing the law, or by failing to guide institutional enforcers of the law (Kern, 2014; Lipsky, 2010). Creating a remedy requires a solution that addresses each of these risks and removes barriers to effective change from a human behavior perspective.


The Highly Competitive Funding Environment

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently reported to the National Science Board (NSB) that the number of all proposals acted upon from 2001 to 2013 increased by 53% while the percent of submissions receiving awards (i.e., proposal success rate) over the same period decreased by 9% (National Science Foundation, 2014c), as reported by the NSF Enterprise System. In the same report a similar trend in research awards was noted for the same 2001-2013 period, showing a decrease in success rate of 27% in 2001 to 19% in 2013. NSF noted to the National Science Board that some specific factors (e.g., increase in mean award size and budget changes such as the Budget Control Act of 2011 and American Tax Payer Relief Act of 2012) affected the number of new awards that could be made in 2013 which resulted in a 5% decrease from 2012 to 2013. The overall increase in the total number of awards since 2001 is one story, but the decrease in proposal success rates (those acted upon by NSF) tells another. Although the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 provided some temporary relief to the downward trend in funding rates at NSF (boosting the rate to 32% in 2009), this impact was short-lived (NSF, 2014a; 2014c).

A similar funding history is seen at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While current budget discussions portend hope for a significant budget increase for the NIH in the near future, this agency has seen an overall drop in proposal success rates of more than 14 percentage points between 1999 and 2013. In 1999, the overall success rate for all types of awards was 34% and this reached an all-time low of 18% in 2013 (NIH, 2014). ARRA had much less of an impact at NIH. Here the biggest drop in success rates occurred between 2003 and 2004 (a 32% to 26% drop), concurrent with the end of the historic annual budget increases that doubled the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003 (Smith, 2006).

Large Research Proposals and Team Science

The second factor impacting the size of grant requests and awards has been increased emphasis by funding agencies on collaborations across scientific disciplines, as reflected by an increase in multiple principal investigator (multi-PI) grants (including centers and other multi-year programs) and larger average award sizes. At NSF alone, the number of awards in both single PI grants and multi-PI grants has increased 4.8% and 18.6% respectively between 2004 and 2013 while the success rate of multi-PI grants has remained mostly unchanged with a slight decrease from 18% to 17% (NSF, 2014c). This impressive shift to larger and multi-PI research grants is even more prevalent at the NIH where the number of multi-PI grants has grown by two orders of magnitude from 2006 to 2013 (National Research Council Committee on the Science of Team Science, 2015). Therefore, the opportunity for this larger proportion of multi-PI grants is available and is just as competitive as it was more than 10 years ago. These multi-PI programs are especially attractive to research institutions not only because they are large dollar amounts per award, but most also cover a longer lifespan (5-7 years) compared to typical single investigator grants (2-3 years). This provides a certain level of economic stability not available with singular, smaller grants. Validation for this increased emphasis on team science is provided by a 2014 study by Stipelman et al. (2014) in which the impact of team-based transdisciplinary research was shown to have more rapid and broader impact across the science community than investigator-initiated programs.

Team Science approaches to research is clearly a developing trend among academic researchers. The trend is reflected in the nature of both publications and grants. A co-authorship analysis of articles published in three leading science journals (Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, and Science) shows a steady increase since 1958 in the number of authors per publications, extrapolating to a predicted average of 19 co-authors per publication by 2040 (Pavlidis, Petersen, & Semendeferi, 2014). While some agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) has long recognized multiple principal investigators on grants, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) formalized this multi-PI status in 2007 (NIH, 2006). NIH currently gives about a fifth of its external awards to projects with multiple Pis, and some suggest this trend could and should grow at the NIH and other funding agencies in the coming years (Chronicle Staff, 2014).

As team science seems to be blossoming, agencies have responded by making more large awards (Figure 1). Between 2000 and 2014 (U.S. Office of Management and Budget, 2014), a general trend toward more awards in either or both the $1-$5M and $5M-$25M ranges can be seen across at least four major agencies: NIH, NSF, USDA [US Department of Agriculture] and DoD [Department of Defense], It is apparent that, despite often being affected by federal budgeting delays, economic policy change, and special initiatives such as the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, both trends and special windows of opportunity (e.g., DoD and DoE [Department of Energy] in 2010) are obvious for five of the six major agencies explored, even when award sizes are adjusted for inflation.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that research administrator interest in the topic of large research proposals is high-arguably in response to the trends described above. Feedback obtained at a session of a major research administrator conference (Dressier et al., 2014), a related webinar, and additional informal conversations around the topic of large proposal development provided anecdotal evidence that support for large, multi-investigator proposals was seemingly heterogeneous. An obvious question of interest for this group is whether evidence exists that specific support models impact proposal-funding success. Thus, a team from Penn State University and the Huron Consulting Group developed and administered a survey to better understand the models that are being used to support these large, multi-investigator proposals. Many studies have been performed on the science of team science with the most recent comprehensive study published by The National Research Council Committee on the Science of Team Science in 2015 that focused on opportunities to enhance the effectiveness of collaborative research in science teams, research centers, and institutes. While typical science of team science studies such as this one focus on the teaming aspect of these groups, this study focused specifically on proposals submitted by such teams for large proposals. In this way, our research is complementary as this is one of many activities these teams perform in their pursuit of research and education outcomes.


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