Grants: Who Decides Where the Money Goes

The process of deciding which funding to provide and which to cut is constantly in flux. Changes are happening both regionally and nationally, in both the public and private sectors. It was for this reason that the Department of Education of one Southern state invited me to work with those making the decisions about which requests for proposals (RFPs) should be solicited. They wanted those solicitations to reflect the most critical needs of students in a market-driven society. First, we had to determine whether they were making funding decisions strategically or historically. As I examined the RFPs, historic patterns were usually favored. With minor exceptions in STEM education, not much had changed. I then met with three people writing the solicitations, who were all dependent on the political fluctuations of governors, senators and ultimately rotating principals. The fact that I was invited to seek ways of facilitating change as well as to effectively implement it demonstrates the forward thinking of the organization. What should education look like in the 21st century? This question would have to be answered before the process of writing the RFPs could be fixed. Let’s now look at how these kinds of decisions are made both regionally and nationally.

State Funding

The major deciding factor on which grants need to be funded and which should be cut is primarily tied to the state budgets. How those budgets are allocated is often a very complex process, and involves the public, politicians, and experts in the field. After several layers of negotiations the various areas for funding are allocated. The solicitations are a result of this process.

Federal Funding

The federal funding for various types of research reflects a broad need to keep the United States at the forefront of discovery and transformative thinking. The process is similar to that of the states, but the decision making approach remains a mystery to the general public. It is difficult to know how the power is balanced between various interests when these funding decisions are made. There are influences from the public, congress, the executive branch, all the federal funding agencies, the private sector, and experts in the field. Of these, which carries the most weight? It may be that business interests are gaining more influence.

Foundation Funding

The recent New York Times article, Billionaires with Big Ideas are Privatizing American Science argues that American science, “…is increasingly becoming a private enterprise. In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research” (New York Times, Broad, William, March 15, 2014). Of course, this influence on priorities is viewed with mixed reviews from the scientific community. Currently, public money still accounts for most of America’s best research, as well as its remarkable depth and diversity. What remains to be seen is how fast and by what magnitude the balance will shift from the public to the private sectors.

What is certain, however, is the attention that donors are giving to private funding. “Medical institutions are even training their own scientists and doctors in the art of soliciting money from grateful — and wealthy — patients. And Nature ran a lengthy article giving tips on how to ‘sell science’ and ‘woo philanthropists.’ They included practicing an ‘elevator pitch’ — a digest of research so compelling that it would seize a potential donor’s attention in the time between floors” (New York Times, Broad, William, March 2014).

Implications for You

Solicitations are now so complicated and diverse both in content and approach, that a multitude of offices and players are involved in this process. On an individual level in most major institutions, funding is directly related to tenure and promotion. The stage now requires innovative ideas that include political and economic spins.

Implications for the State in the South

The Southern state to which I was invited to assist will see changes, but they will not come easily. It will take time and extensive research to understand how best to teach students for a rapidly changing global economy, where work will involve adapting quickly to new realities. This understanding, however, will ensure that the money is best allocated for the interest of the students.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

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