Finding New Money

In tough times, researchers have to look outside of government funding. Here are lesser known sources, and tips on how to get your hands on them.

By | April 1, 2009

<figcaption> Credit: © Christopher Zacharow</figcaption>
Credit: © Christopher Zacharow

In 1997, Domenico Pratico, a third year University of Pennsylvania postdoc, was seeking funding for his molecular research on brain aging and neurodegeneration. For nearly three years, his lab had worked on developing a specific, sensitive new assay to measure oxidative stress in a patient's brain. The results were promising, but he knew he didn't have enough data for an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

There are many alternative funding sources, says Gila Budescu, Director of Sponsored Research and Program Development at Rockefeller University. But, it's "difficult to convince people to apply to them," she says. Researchers "look mostly at NIH because they are already familiar with those procedures and feel they understand them to some extent." However, funders "need applicants as much as applicants need sponsors," she says.

Pratico, who searched for grants on his own, eventually found the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR). "Their Young Investigator grant shaped my career." He received $39,000 through that award. It now goes for $75,000, and the 2008 basic research success rate was 17%. (By comparison, the success rate for first-time applicants' awards at the NIH hovers at around 12%.)

"One research grant leads to another," says Pratico, now an associate professor of pharmacology at Temple University School of Medicine. In 2001, he received an NIH R03 grant, and finally, in 2004, a four-year R01. Since then, Pratico has been recognized with two American Heart Association grants, another AFAR grant, a new five-year R01, and his current $250,000 Zenith Fellowship Award from the Alzheimer's Association.

Pratico's strategy is one that every researcher should be comfortable with. Depending on the work you're doing, a lower-profile funding source might best match your particular area and assets, says Budescu. Often, "they're not as bureaucratic as the federal government, turnaround is usually faster, and the success rate is often higher than at federal agencies," she says. Here are pointers from experts on getting alternative funding.

One private funding institute's story, and a few of its grants

It has a funny name, but Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer (ALSF) is a serious funding source in pediatric oncology. Over the past decade, they've given $19 million to more than 80 research projects in America. Their commitment originated with four-year-old cancer patient Alex(andra) Scott's lemonade stand, her effort to raise money to help find a cure for all children with cancer. (Alex passed away at age 8.)

"Our applications have been going up every year, and so have our resources," Jay Scott (Alex's father) says. The Wynnewood, PA–based foundation is trying to fill a void in developing and testing new treatments. ALSF-funded projects include research on leukemia, Wilm's tumor, osteosarcoma, and neuroblastoma.

<figcaption> Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Mader</figcaption>
Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Mader

Their 2008 grants totaled $4 million. In the most competitive category, "Innovation," the success rate was 12%. Other categories such as the Young Innovators awards reach about 25%. For Innovation grants ($100,000, up to two years), "We'll take a chance on something not done before, something not yet proven," explains Scott. "We see this as two years of seed funding so an experienced investigator can get some significant research done and then apply for bigger grants."

ALSF's newest grant category, Young Scholars, will provide $100,000 to $125,000 annually up to two years. The Young Investigator grants are $25,000 to $40,000 for new researchers in basic science, with no clinical component.

Grant aggregators

The Foundation Center has an extensive subscription database (, with information on nearly 100,000 foundations, not-forprofit, and corporate giving programs. If your library doesn't subscribe to their services, you can use them for free at any one of their 400 locations nationwide. The site offers guidance on finding and utilizing 990 forms which list an organization's mission, programs, and finances, from smaller grantmakers.

Community of Science (COS) lists over 25,000 funding sources, including international, public, and private funders ( In addition to the typical search activities (free for registered users), COS posts a weekly list of new grants in Health Sciences.

GrantsNet A free compilation site from the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS), this list is especially quick and easy to explore. Users can choose from GrantsNet's thorough list of selection criteria, encompassing 12 experience levels and 38 broad research areas. A quick search for 2009 grants in molecular biology for initial postdocs yielded 50 listings.

University funding pages Some large research universities offer nonrestricted grant information on their Web sites. For example, the funding database from Duke University's medical center is fully accessible to the public at Users searching a particular discipline can sort by order of grant amount, or deadline. The Advanced Search function brings up a small, more select list of granters and is simple to specify.

The Medical Foundation (TMF) has advised clients interested in funding outstanding medical researchers for 50 years. They represent a varying number of foundations (currently 11). Several support basic research areas. Grants from most of TMF's funders start at $40,000 per year (

Simplifying searching

Deduce the best keywords. Identifying the right keywords in the funding universe can take some experimenting, says Judi Margolin, the Foundation Center's Vice President for Planning. "Start with the broadest category, like microbe, and see which words come up repeatedly." Search for funding that's been provided to institutions similar to your own, to see how they've been worded, and note the keywords used.

Search by state. Funding is often geographically explicit. Learn about the active grantmakers in your state and region, where competition is less intense. For specialties not federally funded, grants may be offered at the metropolitan level.

Apply outside the box. In addition to the funding sources on the major databases, are there less obvious or traditional organizations you could interest in some aspect of your research? Michael Holick, a professor of medicine and biophysiology at Boston University School of Medicine, researches how Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin and the physiological effects of this signaling hormone. He sought and received funding from the Indoor Tanning Association.

Be alert. Sign up for the personalized Funding Alert options wherever they're offered. The aggregator will send news about announced grants matching the specific criteria you select, saving you return trips to the site to keep up to date.

Tips for grantseekers

Don't let the shriveled economy deter you For now, downturns in investments "will not affect our funding," says Roger McCarter, chair of AFAR's research committee. "We're able to cover all our proposed grants until 2011." With 50% of its income from grassroots donors, ALSF isn't reducing grants, either. "It's way too early to see the effects of the economy," says Margolin from the Foundation Center. "We may see some fallout in 2010, but we find foundations are honoring all their current commitments."

If you're small, join forces Smaller institutions with fewer resources and limited infrastructure can be at a disadvantage for biomedical research projects that require costly instrumentation, says Budescu. Finding collaborators that could pitch in resources and expertise "increases the likelihood that the research application would be awarded," says Budescu. One good source for collaborator-seekers is

Get free advice Many people are generous with information, so ask everyone for feedback on your ideas—even an organization that declined your application. Margolin suggests asking institutions to refer you to other funders that may be a better fit. It's appropriate to ask, "'Should I try again next year?' They'll be honest—they don't want you to reapply if they'll never fund you because you have the wrong focus," she says.

Customize your applications Tailor every application scrupulously—anything that seems mass-produced will fail. At every prospect's Web site, analyze guidelines, the mission statement, President's Letter, and annual report "to get a sense of their ethos," advises Margolin. What have they funded before? Where? Who's on their Board?

Check for smooth writing Good writing and organizing helps an application significantly, says McCarter. "Imagine that primary reviewer sitting and reading your grant at two a.m. If the ideas don't come across clearly, you won't be funded."

Call before you apply Although this wasn't always the case, today "funders are more willing to talk to someone, especially if it will save them and the grantseeker time," Margolin says.

Use your university resources To encourage Rockefeller investigators to apply to other funding sources, Budescu's office holds seminars, sends weekly email funding alerts, and continually updates research coordinators on new grants.

Lesser-known $ sources

Alzheimer's Association Offers eight award categories, including New Investigator grants spanning the entire spectrum of dementia research ($100,000, up to two years). The success rate across all categories is 17%. They offer a $400,000 two to three year grant for developing molecular imaging techniques associated with neurodegenerative processes.

American Federation for Aging Research Supports all aspects of aging research in seven different awards of $44,000, minimum. The success rate in 2008 was about 17% for their three Young Investigator grants. A recently funded project studied diapauses and the trade-offs between reproduction and longevity, and the immortal DNA strand hypothesis.

Davis Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in Eating Disorders Research Presents a brand-new program to accelerate medical research discoveries that could lead to improved therapies for anorexia and bulimia. Ten three year fellowships ($43,000 to $63,000 per year) are available for applicants with less than three years of postdoctoral research. The first awards will be made in 2009.

Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Offers five of the 11 award categories for basic research: autoimmunology, complications of diabetes, regeneration, replacement, and metabolic control. The organization has funded $1.3 billion in research since 1970, with a success rate of approximately 25%. Awards range from $42,000 to $660,000.

McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Welcomes collaborative and cross-disciplinary studies. The organization focuses on funding the development of technology that can be used or adapted to monitor, manipulate, analyze, or model brain function at any level, from the molecular to the entire organism. The success rate for Tech awards, $100,000 annually for 2 years, ranges from 4% to 6%.

Pancreatic Cancer Action Network Awards research from early-career scientists and pilot grants for higher-risk research that might otherwise go unfunded. One study funded in 2008 looked at how radiation therapy can add to the effectiveness of pancreatic vaccine therapy. Awards range from $45,000 to $100,000.


Avatar of: Beth Schachter

Beth Schachter

Posts: 2

April 14, 2009

Very informative article, Carol! One thing you didn't get to touch on is that most of the funding sources you mention give little so-called indirect funds to accompany their direct funds. That indirect money goes to the scientist's institution as overhead. NIH grants to individuals typically come with sizable overhead money (60% or more of direct costs), whereas the private foundations rarely include very much indirect money. At least a few years ago, many medical schools were actively discouraging their faculty from applying for grants that came with little indirect funds. I wonder if that situation has changed now that funding has become so tight.
Avatar of: Josine Stallinga

Josine Stallinga

Posts: 1

April 15, 2009

Securing funding is an increasingly difficult challenge in today's competitive research reality. Let?s encourage younger researchers to ?apply outside the box?, and provide them with the right support to do so. Ultimately, this approach will allow junior researchers to shape their own destiny.\n\nUnfortunately, the challenges described in the article are typical for younger researchers. Smaller, often private grants could serve as a crucial stepping stones to help junior staff build experience, seniority and a robust research track record.\n\nJunior faculty should not have to face the complexities of grant hunting alone and the valuable guidance of Research Administrators and senior faculty cannot be underestimated. Involving postdocs in writing grant proposals rather than research papers or actively involving junior faculty in both the proposal development as well as other important elements of the funding process are just two examples of how relevant experience and insights can be fostered. \n\nMoreover, when pursuing funding opportunities themselves, junior faculty should seek advice of senior faculty before they spend considerable amounts of time to prepare their proposal. Another proven method is to study historic data -- what was funded in the past often proves to be a good indicator of future outcomes.\n\nAll in all, only by investing time and effort to teach and encourage junior researchers through the funding process will the community as a whole be able to secure a sustainable future for our future research leaders. \n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

August 4, 2009

There is also the problem that some Academic Promotion & Tenure Review Committees discount the scholarly productivity element of private foundation grants. If you build your career, as is necessary in translational medicine to bridge the gap from animal to human clinical trials, then you may have to confront this problem directly to ensure you receive adequate consideration for private funding.\n


Posts: 11

November 27, 2009

First, kudos on the useful article. \n\nI want to address the comments by anonymous about working at academic medical centers.\n\nAfter having established my career at an academic medical center, and also having started several businesses, I wouldn't call it particularly "cutthroat" at the med school.. It is just like running a business. Either I bring in the money for my business (lab), or my business (lab) fails, and I have to do something else. \n\nI have not experienced people constantly stabbing me in the back, which is what the word "cutthroat" used by the original poster implies. Sure, bad things happen sometimes, but good things do too.\n\nIt is true that, like a business, there is less "cushion" for failure than in a regular (non medical) faculty job. I am under no illusion about what will happen if my funding dries up. But I knew that going into it. \n\nIt does require a certain kind of gritty determination, because it is not just about doing "good science," it is about doing "good business." \n\nI have seen people come into this kind of job thinking it is all about just doing "good (or great) science." Great science is only a prerequisite, but by itself is not sufficient to assure success.\n\nSeveral of my past businesses have failed, but those failures had many valuable learning experiences that apply directly to my academic career. Those include an understanding of cash flow, an understanding of project management, employee management, being entrepreneurial, and most of all, the importance of promoting my "product" (science).\n\nIf you go into an academic career in a med center thinking it is something other than a business that you will be running, you're bound to be disappointed. \n\nBut if you approach it just like a business venture, then it has the same types of risks and rewards (excepting that it has more bureaucracy, but on the plus side, more of a support network to help you get started).\n\nThe anonymous OP is one of many people I've encountered who enter their careers thinking it is all and only about doing "good science." I've seen many of them subsequently leave academia, discouraged, because they weren't prepared what else it was about. There is little training for it in most programs.\n\nA science career, particularly at a med school, is foremost a matter of managing expectations and being realistic going into it. You have to do not only great science, but great business as well.\n\nI recently started a blog site dedicated to examining how to better do those "other things" in science (business/marketing/etc): I want to counter the negativity of the current environment, by giving people the tools they need to succeed in science - tools that most people aren't taught in graduate school. \n\nThe world needs more scientists, not less. But things are presently headed in the wrong direction.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

December 29, 2009

It's worse at my research institution. Not only are researchers "discouraged" from applying for grants that do not provide institutional overhead (as is the case for most of these foundation grants), it is virtually NOT ALLOWED. A researcher is allowed one such grant as a "last resort" during his or her career at the institution. \n\nThis might be a topic The Scientist should consider publishing a story on.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 9

December 29, 2009

I totally agree with the prior posting. It is the same here at our institution . They discourage to apply for grants that do not bring overhead. The administrators have it comfortable making amazing salaries, everyday hiring more administrative personnel and less scientists. I think NIH should start monitoring more how all these monies are spent. It is totally a waste of tax payer money. Our institution has almost a 100% overhead. I know it is unusual but it is true. In other words every million we receive in direct cost the institution receives another million for the fat fishes.
Avatar of: Kenneth Plaia

Kenneth Plaia

Posts: 2

July 7, 2010

Once you do secure your funding, check with your vendors to see if they offer any discouts for new grants. Usually you can receive anywhere from 20-30% off your purchases for a given period of time. This will help you stretch your research dollars that you worked so hard to obtain. New faculty and new laboratory discounts are also commonly provided by vendors to give researchers an extra boost.\nThese offers require no application forms to fill out and are easy to obtain; yet they are often overlooked by researchers.

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