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Research Office Uses New Approach for Increasing External Funding
Jan. 31, 2019
Dr. Joseph Pancrazio (right), working with doctoral student Rahul Atmaramani, is leading UT Dallas’ effort to increase its externally funded research portfolio, especially through grants and contracts with federal agencies.
For a national research university like The University of Texas at Dallas, obtaining funding for research projects from external sources is an ongoing — and often challenging — process.
While UT Dallas has been successful at landing grants — the University attracts more than $100 million in research funding each year — the competition can be fierce among universities for awards from federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Endowment for the Arts and Department of Defense.
“Advancing research and scholarly output is a key component of the University’s strategic plan,” said Dr. Joseph Pancrazio, vice president for research. “External funding supports innovation and scientific discoveries among our faculty and benefits our students, who learn from those faculty members and conduct research themselves. It also enables the translation of discoveries to the private sector to drive economic development.”
The UT Dallas Office of Research has initiated several new approaches to help faculty members boost their success rate for attracting research dollars.
ROAD to D.C.
“By meeting with program managers, our faculty members have the opportunity to communicate with scientific leaders who have a view at 50,000 feet and understand how a project fits in the larger portfolio. Ultimately, we want our researchers to cultivate these kinds of relationships so they can get some insight into how to be as successful as possible as they pursue funding opportunities.”
The Research Opportunities and Development (ROAD) to D.C. program will allow approximately 30 faculty members to travel to Washington, D.C., this spring for two days to meet with program managers at federal funding agencies. These program managers oversee the grant process for various research fields and assess submitted proposals using recommendations from peer-review panels to determine which grants should be funded. They are also the point of contact for questions about new programs, ongoing funded projects and follow-up reports.
Pancrazio, a biomedical engineer, previously served as a program director for neural engineering and the neural prosthesis program at the National Institutes of Health. He said such face-to-face meetings provide faculty members an opportunity to build relationships and demystify the grant process, which often has rigorous, exacting requirements.
“By meeting with program managers, our faculty members have the opportunity to communicate with scientific leaders who have a view at 50,000 feet and understand how a project fits in the larger portfolio,” Pancrazio said. “Ultimately, we want our researchers to cultivate these kinds of relationships so they can get some insight into how to be as successful as possible as they pursue funding opportunities.”
Last fall, Dr. Monica Rankin, associate professor of historical studies and director of UT Dallas’ Center for U.S.-Latin America Initiatives, was one of 14 researchers who participated in ROAD to D.C. She traveled with Dr. Vincent Ng, a professor of computer science with whom she collaborates on a project that merges her historical research on propaganda with his work on machine learning.
Dr. Monica Rankin (left) and Dr. Vincent Ng
The pair met with researchers at the Army Research Laboratory and other Department of Defense agencies, including a meeting that took place in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) in the Pentagon.
“The computer science nature of this project takes me out of my comfort zone in traditional history,” Rankin said. “But all of the program managers were friendly and very interested in our work. In fact, one of our meetings resulted in an invitation to give a presentation as part of their lecture series, and from that we’ve had several additional interested parties follow up with us on our research. We feel confident that, after our trip to D.C., we have a strong chance of securing a federal grant to support our project.”
Seed Grant Initiatives
Also this spring, the Office of Research is piloting several seed grant initiatives. The aim is to help researchers purchase equipment, gather preliminary data, initiate collaborations and engage in other activities that will allow them to compete successfully for external funding or that will result in scholarly or creative output.
The grants support many research areas, including interdisciplinary studies, social sciences, and humanities and emerging arts. While each program is designed to support different opportunities, they all share the goal of growing quality and quantity of research and scholarly activities at UT Dallas, Pancrazio said. Collaboration is a recurring theme.
“We have an opportunity to generate a sense of interdepartmental, interschool and even cross-institutional collaborations, which can seed the next great research innovation and research program,” he said.
Many federal agencies require grant proposals to include a public outreach or K-12 education component. For some projects, this requirement can be a challenge.
Dr. Iolani Connolly
Dr. Iolani Connolly, director of the Science and Engineering Education Center (SEEC) at UT Dallas, is one of several faculty members who regularly lend their expertise in science outreach to researchers who need assistance with grant proposals. The center creates and supports educational kits and interactive exhibits that introduce pre-K-12 learners to STEM subjects.
The center collaborates with more than 50 youth-serving community agencies throughout North Texas.
“Working with and through these partnerships, we are able to reach a broad and diverse group of learners at about 115 host locations,” Connolly said. “A majority of our learners are from demographic groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM, such as minorities, females and low-income youths.”
Pancrazio said the University’s efforts to boost research are making an impact.
“Even as federal funding for university research has become much tighter, UT Dallas continues to increase its research portfolio, which is a testament not only to the quality of our faculty, staff and students, but also to their drive to have an impact,” he said.