Competing for Stimulus Money Puts New Demands on Researchers

Most of the country has been looking at President Obama’s stimulus package and wondering just what’s in it for them. Among the millions of people wondering what economic relief might come their way are researchers—people whose success, and sometimes their jobs, rely on government funding. With $10 billion earmarked for the NIH and another $3 billion of stimulus funds set aside for the National Science Foundation, researchers will be scrambling to compete for the highly sought-after funds.

Jay Katzen, managing director for the academic and government group at Elsevier, has some advice for researchers looking to maximize efforts. Katzen and his colleagues have been putting a lot of thought into this particular problem, as Elsevier gets ready to release a solution to help researchers cope with it. “We performed a significant amount of research over the last 12 months,” says Katzen. In that time, Elsevier has talked to more than 1,000 institutions, individual researchers, and government agencies about the problems facing their profession. Still, Katzen isn’t ready to discuss all the details of the new project, which is set for a June release.

In the meantime, though, Katzen and his team have plenty of advice to share with the more crowded research community. Often, emphasis is put on the rate of output from researchers. In the past 10 years, the U.S. has increased its output by 10%. China, though, has ramped up production by 505%. At that rate, China would surpass the U.S. in terms of output in 2–3 years. Luckily, though, Katzen says, “Research is not solely about output. It’s about impact and quality.”

But as Katzen is quick to point out, being a researcher these days is a lot more complex than it used to be. About 30% of a researcher’s time is spent looking for grants and writing proposals—many of which don’t turn up any results. With funds becoming tighter and tighter, Elsevier is looking for ways to help the community spend their time more efficiently. “Our goal is to get them to submit more focused proposals and increase their funding,” says Katzen.

There are important questions researchers are going to have to ask as they start competing with colleagues to more effectively obtain funding. What are we strong at? Who in the institution is driving that strength? Who do we collaborate with? Who is our competition? How do we improve? Where do we invest? Katzen says Elsevier’s June release will help researchers answer those questions.

Though the economic downturn is affecting research institutions across the globe, colleges and universities in the U.S. are in a different situation than universities in, say, the U.K. Because of the difference in the way public and private universities are funded in America, things are a bit different here. For instance, Katzen says, Harvard University is expecting a 30% drop in endowments.

The changes in funding are affecting these hubs of research and innovation, especially when it comes to staffing levels. “If you all of a sudden get approved after downsizing, that presents a problem in and of itself,” Katzen says. With about 43% of colleges and universities instituting partial hiring freezes, and 5% of them in a complete hiring freeze, allocating resources efficiently will be increasingly important. “Better ways to manage and measure performance” will be paramount when it comes to focusing grant writing energies, says Katzen.

There is a lot that goes into understanding an institution’s strengths. It’s not just about comparing research, though Katzen says that is important. It is also about understanding the individual workflows of employees. “Our tool will be able to tell you what you’re good at and who else is good at it,” he says. But beyond that, Elsevier hopes to help with the other problems that make being a researcher so demanding.

For instance, information proliferation puts more demands on the 70% of a researcher’s time that isn’t spent hunting down and applying for grants. As Katzen says, “Researchers want all the information but want to get quickly to the answer they need.” Improving discoverability is something Elsevier hopes its tools can help users with.

“Very little is black and white,” Katzen says about the stimulus package. Not only will labs be competing against an influx of new proposals but also old, highly rated proposals that didn’t get funded the last time around. “The stimulus package is positive and addresses certain areas, but there’s still more work that needs to be done.” The more efficiently that work can be done, the better.