The Untapped Grant Advantage

Business faculty pursue grants less frequently than their counterparts in other disciplines, but if business schools want to maximize the impact of their research, they should not overlook the benefits of federal grant funding. 
The Untapped Grant Advantage

BUSINESS SCHOOLS PRODUCE research that is scientifically rigorous, practically relevant, and multidisciplinary. These attributes align well with the priorities of federal funding agencies, which strive to produce research that has impact and benefits society. Federal grants also can be a boon to schools that have seen a decline in revenues from state funding and full-time MBA tuition. But why do many business faculty fail to pursue these resources, especially when federally sponsored research offers such benefits to business schools, funding agencies, and society?

To answer that question, faculty at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business in Atlanta developed a workshop, sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), to determine why business faculty are less likely to pursue federal grants. Hosted at Georgia State, the daylong workshop brought together academic leaders from 24 research-oriented business schools in the United States. Over the course of the discussion, the group identified the unique challenges and opportunities grant seeking presents to business schools.

By the end of the day, participants had developed a list of recommendations, which have been outlined in a publicly available report. Their insights, summarized here, can provide a starting point for business schools that want to take better advantage of the many funding opportunities that federal agencies have to offer.

THREE EMBEDDED STRENGTHS

Although business schools do not prioritize grant-seeking activities, they have embedded strengths that would make business-backed project proposals highly competitive with federal agencies such as the NSF. Our participants highlighted three strengths in particular that give business schools an advantage:

Connections to industry. Business schools can facilitate the flow of ideas and resources between industry and science. They can help business organizations see the value of research, link scientists to privately held and unstudied data, and persuade organizations to provide resources to help researchers better leverage federal funding.

Outstanding intellectual capital. Business researchers are trained to frame practical problems in relevant theories. They apply rigorous research methods and analytical mindsets to those problems in nonlaboratory settings. Business schools often attract outstanding scholars from adjacent disciplines, which leads to research of high quality.

Multidisciplinary environments. Business schools bridge multiple disciplines such as economics, mathematics, statistics, computer science, psychology, sociology, and law; they also can be entry points for STEM-related disciplinary areas such as analytics, technology, innovation, commercialization, engineering management, and process optimization. Collaboration between science and business is likely to become only more common, as scientists and business leaders see their social and commercial interests converge.

Industry connections, rigorous research methods, and multidisciplinary cultures would seem to make business schools the ideal ecosystem for federally funded research projects. But, unfortunately, barriers stand in the way.

FOUR UNIQUE CHALLENGES

What’s stopping business faculty from pursuing federal funding in larger numbers? Workshop participants identified four categories of challenges unique to business schools, which are likely discouraging grant-seeking activities:

Lack of rewards and incentives. Because most business schools measure faculty productivity by the number of top-tier journal publications, the incentives they offer faculty—from travel funds to student research assistantships—are geared toward journal publication. Furthermore, because productive business faculty have come to expect such incentives, b-school administrators might worry that their recruitment and retention efforts will be hindered if they create the expectation that faculty generate their own resources via grant proposals.

Even when grants provide researchers with financial rewards, such as summer salary, faculty sometimes find it easier—or more lucrative—to pursue other options during the summer months, such as teaching executive education courses or consulting.

Lack of awareness and skill. Not only are many business professors unaware of federal research sponsorship opportunities, faculty in other disciplines often are unaware of how much business faculty can contribute to interdisciplinary projects as co-principal investigators (co-PIs). Even when business faculty do act as co-PIs on interdisciplinary studies, they might not receive sufficient acknowledgement for their work from the university or the business school. Different colleges value publication in different types of journals—this disparity in their objectives might be another obstacle to collaboration.

Schools should celebrate faculty’s grant successes.

Yet another challenge: Doctoral students and early-stage faculty in business disciplines receive little to no training or mentorship to help them understand federal programs and policies, find sponsors, or write grant proposals. The lack of these skills sets off a vicious cycle: Faculty believe their proposals will be less competitive because they lack successful track records, so they do not apply for grants. Then, because they do not apply for grants, they don’t acquire the necessary skills or receive the necessary rewards to be successful.

Lack of infrastructure and support. Business schools rely heavily on revenue generated by graduate programs, executive education programs, and corporate support. For this reason, they dedicate far less attention to assigning sufficient staff or resources to grant proposal preparation and post-award administration—something that is sorely needed to make up for lack of faculty experience in grants.

Perceived lack of alignment in priorities. Business faculty often assume that the priorities of funding agencies and business research work at cross-purposes. First, business research often involves corporate data that require confidentiality and nondisclosure, something that business faculty might think puts them at a competitive disadvantage to receive federal resources. Second, they might assume that the funding agencies view business research as neither theory-driven nor methodologically rigorous.

Finally, business faculty are sometimes concerned that the timelines that drive their research collaborations with businesses and those required to write, submit, and possibly revise successful federal grant proposals do not coincide. Opportunities for collaboration and data collection in real-time business contexts can emerge quickly, and some projects progress at a rapid pace, unlike the annual proposal cycle times at some agencies. While some sponsors offer special funding for such “fast-paced” situations, it tends to be limited in scope.

Workshop participants recognized that these challenges are not easily overcome. But they also agreed that the benefits of grant funding to research were too great for business schools to ignore.

FIVE SUCCESSFUL PRACTICES

Participants then explored an important question: What steps can business schools take, right now, to encourage more of their faculty to seek out grant opportunities? They identified five practices that could lead to grant success:

Offering rewards and incentives. There was a consensus that most business schools do not sufficiently recognize or reward grant procurement in promotion and tenure reviews, faculty evaluations, or merit salary adjustments. The group recommended that administrators not only recognize and reward grant procurement appropriately in faculty reviews, but also offer simple incentives to faculty who write successful grant applications. Such incentives might include reduced teaching loads, summer salary, merit raises, and salary supplements. Schools also could reward faculty who collaborate with scholars in other disciplines on grant-funded research or invest in “seed grants” or similar support to help generate grant proposals and build research infrastructure.

In addition, overhead costs charged by universities—often referred to as facilities and administrative (F&A) costs—can run upward of 50 percent of the cost of research. Some institutions will return a portion of recovered F&A to the college or unit that generated the grant income. Giving the investigator and the home department some control over these funds creates an additional incentive for grant activities. It’s equally important to ensure that PIs retain control over the grant funding they procure.

Looking beyond financial rewards. Intangible or intrinsic rewards matter, too. Participants agreed that schools should celebrate and publicize faculty’s grant-related efforts and successes. Such recognition helps all faculty understand the advantages of grant funding—for example, giving faculty the ability to pursue dream research projects that otherwise cannot be done with existing school budgets. This can provide ample motivation for them to pursue those advantages themselves. An understanding that external funding can potentially provide them with a level of independence, above and beyond that provided by the school, can be a strong incentive.

In addition, policies at both the business school and university level should be adjusted so that universities provide appropriate credit (financial or otherwise) for the contributions of co-PIs to grant projects. The lead PI’s home college should not be the sole beneficiary.

Highlighting benefits to students and to the school. Administrators can communicate the fact that funding agencies such as the NSF prioritize projects that support students and student researchers. Grants can provide great learning opportunities for students, and the ability to use grant funds to hire talented graduate students, postdocs, and other research staff can appeal to faculty and administrators alike.

Providing administrative support and infrastructure. Grant procurement takes a great deal of time and effort. Business schools can streamline the process by dedicating staff to help faculty search for opportunities tailored to their interests, prepare forms and budgets, collect information, navigate proposal submission systems, obtain signatures and approvals, track budget expenditures, and manage awards. Schools might retain consultants to provide support on a project-by-project or contractual basis. In short, business schools can take some of the pain out of the process.

Grants allow faculty to pursue dream projects.

Further, schools could offer formal training to faculty to help them develop their grant-seeking skills and hold faculty focus groups to identify their interests, share ideas, build awareness, and enhance collaboration. Administrators should regularly communicate the school’s policies, priorities, and resources related to grant activities, as well as help faculty learn to align the content of their journal articles with their grant proposals. These strategies not only could serve as motivating forces, but also would highlight commonalities between faculty research and potential federal sponsorship opportunities.

Finally, administrators can encourage their research centers, departments, and unit leaders to support grants. And if business schools designed their research centers to become at least partially self-supporting over time, they would encourage more attention to grant procurement.

Deploying appropriate human capital. Administrators should consider not only which subdisciplines offer the most significant opportunities for grants, but also which professors are best positioned to take risks. Those professors can then be encouraged to pursue grant work. Administrators also could recruit faculty with grant experience—perhaps from related disciplines or nontraditional backgrounds, or from clinical faculty—and make them responsible for generating grant projects.

TOWARD MAXIMIZING IMPACT

Research grants provided by funding agencies are intended to maximize research outcomes; therefore, if top business school researchers are not being paired with these resources, this is undesirable for business schools, for their sponsors—and for society. On the other hand, when business faculty take full advantage of grant-funded research, they expand their capacity to generate new solutions, commercialize university intellectual capital, improve workforce and economic competitiveness, drive research innovation, improve partnerships with industry, and promote well-being in their communities. In short, they magnify potential research impact.

It will take a deliberate effort on the part of business school administrators to implement the strategies our workshop participants identified. But those who make the effort will help raise widespread awareness of the unique contributions of business research. They will enhance communication channels between business schools and federal funding agencies. The more business schools align their faculty’s research with federally funded resources, the more opportunities they will have to make a positive impact on our economy and society in the decades to come.

Todd Maurer is associate dean for research strategy and professor of organizational behavior at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He previously served the college as a faculty member, department chair, and multidisciplinary research center director, and he was principal investigator on National Science Foundation Grant No. 1545303 supporting the workshop described in this article. Read Maurer’s full report.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

 

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