Working on soft money... not for the faint of heart
In 2021, I submitted three grant applications. I will not know the outcome of these competitions until the spring of 2022, but regardless of the results, I probably will not be submitting any more grant proposals …
With the exception of a five-year stint in the US federal government, I have worked and lived on “soft money” for over 30 years. It might be time to "retire" .... sometime in the near future.
What is soft money?
Some say that "soft money" is a polite euphemism for funding that comes from a source outside a university or research institute and usually spells precarity. In the United States, many independent research institutions are operating solely on soft money. In academia, tenured or tenure-track faculty are funded predominantly by hard money coming from tuition (in public colleges, the state kicks in some extra dollars), external funding (grants), services (e.g., patient care), and philanthropy (endowments).
Fleeting and fragile funding sources
An increasing number of research faculty are funded by soft money: public grants and contracts from federal and state governments, and grants from private foundations.
Soft money positions are dependent on repeated grant writing to stay funded. A soft money position is likely to disappear if the grants that fund it end and are not replaced.
I will never forget the day back in 1987 when my boss told me I would have to drastically reduce my time until our next grant comes in. Back then I didn't quite understand how soft money worked … In order to pay rent and eat, I took on a weekend job with a telephone survey company. I survived but barely.
Funding sources, be it public or private, are fleeting and fragile. Funders’ priorities change, sometimes overnight. Congressional budget battles become personal when a large fraction of your research portfolio is funded by federal sources. Foundation funding priorities are also seldom sustained for the long haul. If you are a migration scholar, you have probably seen several foundations that dropped migration issues from their portfolios (e.g., Mellon, Hewlett-Packard, and most recently MacArthur), hired their own researches to conduct studies in house (e.g., German Marshall Fund) or limited their funding to a particular geographic area (e.g., The Kaplan Fund).
Shaking the money tree
Much has been written about writing grants. Some funders provide their own advice on what makes a successful grant application. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is one such agency. Individual researchers have also shared their experiences with writing grant proposals. Jørgen Carling of PRIO penned an excellent piece on Pathways to an ERC Grant: Learning from Success and Failure to discuss how to overcome initial rejections.
The how-to in grant writing is very important, but the team and the leadership are key to producing high-quality grant applications and surviving in the soft money world. Without a leader committed to support her team, chase after funding, things fall apart, team members move on. The home institution team is crucial but equally important is collaboration with international and interdisciplinary teams. In my career, I have been fortunate to work with wonderful leaders and teams in the United States as well as in Poland, Norway, and Thailand, to name just the most recent collaborations.
Networking with colleagues outside your home institution also contributes to diversification of funding, another crucial element in long-term survival on soft money. If you collaborate with international teams, you gain access to funding that otherwise might not be available to you. If you are a dual citizen, the opportunities to tap into different funding streams expand even further. Don't overlook these opportunities.
If possible, seek funding to support individual projects, ideally multi-year projects, and core support funding for the research institute. Core support will allow you and your team to bill time spent on writing proposals, (re)designing your research agenda, and might even provide precious quiet time to read recent research.
Conducting research while searching for new grants
In order to thrive in the soft money world, researchers spent a lot of time writing new grant applications while conducting research and being involved in multiple research projects. Some say that this can be quite demoralizing, especially since the success rate in recent years on most grants and contracts hovers in the one to five percent range.
I do not want to minimize the challenges inherent in juggling multiple projects and fundraising. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is also not so different from other fields. When I was in the government, I was involved in a half dozen or more initiatives (technical assistance, writing position papers, fact-finding efforts, etc.), while traveling, reviewing grant applications, and monitoring grantees. I think the image of a lone scholar pursuing one research project at a time is a thing of the distant past. No contemporary anthropologist works the way Bronisław Malinowski did, spending five years in the Trobriand Islands (and he probably would not have stayed there so long if WWI did not interfere.
Where is the silver lining?
The challenges of building a research career on soft money are real, but there are also many benefits--a silver lining if you wish--to the soft money research strategy. If you can secure your own funding, you can create a job for yourself and if you think big, you can create a research institution. Soft money also gives one a certain degree of flexibility and freedom in choosing research topics commensurate with your own interest and not dictated by the departmental chair.
The demands of research projects funded with real dollars force the Primary Investigator (PI) and her teammates to learn skills that have street value beyond the rather narrow confines of academic research, namely to budget, manage staff, and navigate bureaucracy. You are also required to work effectively and efficiently in inter- and intra-disciplinary teams. It is very rewarding and educational to work across disciplines.
And finally, if you are an applied scholar, your services are often sought to design and execute a study that will inform policy-making or program design. Enormous satisfaction comes also from projects based on participatory methodologies where you get to work community members as your co-researchers.
I hope you find my musings useful. If you are a young person aspiring to a research career, look at existing soft money positions or create a sof money-based position to spearhead your research career.