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Research Funding in Sociology

Importance of External Funding

Jesse Unruh, a well-known twentieth-century politician in California, is alleged to have said, ‘‘Money is the mother’s milk of politics.’’ Observers at the century’s close may have made similarly accurate comments about the importance of money in the conduct of research. Natural scientists (including those in fields ranging from basic biomedical science to space exploration) have traditionally depended on funds beyond the internal resources of the organizations at which they are employed. Major discoveries in the natural sciences would be unthinkable without funding for particle accelerators, field expeditions, and clinical research staffs. Social scientists and particularly sociologists may be moving toward similar dependence on funding from beyond the boundaries of their universities and institutes. Such resources appear crucial for truly significant investigations, at least those which require original empirical data.

Sponsorship citation in the leading sociology journals in 1997 and 1998 provides an indication of the importance of external research support to sociologists. Volume 62 (1997) of the American Sociological Review (ASR) contains 55 articles. In 31 of these articles (56 percent), the authors cite sources of funding outside their home organizations. An additional 3 authors, all university based, cite internal sources of support (such as university research committees), which presumably grant awards through a competitive proposal process. American Journal of Sociology (AJS), volume 103 (1997 and 1998), contains 27 articles; 9 of these cite funding sources, 6 (22 percent) of which are clearly outside agencies or internal units distributing funds obtained from outside. At century’s end, external research funding appeared to be a frequent if not ubiquitous part of the research process in sociology.

Review of research published a generation ago presents a similar picture. Volume 42 of ASR (1977) contains 59 articles, 23 (39 percent) of which cite outside funding sources. An additional 4 authors cite funding sources internal to their institutions. Volume 83 of the AJS (1977 and 1978) includes 38 articles, of which 24 (63 percent) cite funding from sources outside the authors’ universities, institutes, or agencies. An additional 3 AJS articles cite internal sources.

Sources of Funding

Sources named in the above-cited AJS and ASR volumes provide an indication of where sociologists obtain research funds. Among the articles published in 1997 and 1998 that cite external funding, a plurality (17 citations) named the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the sole or primary source of support. The second most frequently cited source was the National Institute of Child and Human Development (NICHD), with three citations, followed by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), with two citations. One article cited the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the remainder acknowledged a variety of private funders, such as the Ford, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim foundations. Among 1977 and 1978 journal articles that cited external funding, the National Science Foundation Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the Grant and Guggenheim foundations.

Comparison of funding patterns in ASR and AJS across the decades carries some risk. These journals do not necessarily represent the most important work of general sociology and may not reflect patterns of support (or its absence) in subdisciplines, such as medical sociology and sociology of religion. Conventions and habits prevailing among authors regarding citation of funding sources may have changed between the 1970s and the 1990s, but inspection of acknowledgements in the articles cited above suggests that external funding of major sociological research remained as common a phenomenon in the late 1990s, when 43 percent of ASR and AJS articles cited external funding, as it was in the late 1970s, when 47 percent of ASR and AJS articles acknowledged such support. Funding of the research leading to these articles depended somewhat more on public agency support in the late 1970s than in the late 1990s. About 80 percent of the above-referenced 1977 and 1978 ASR and AJS articles which acknowledged external funding cited public sources and 20 percent cited private sources. About 71 percent of comparable ASR and AJS articles in 1997 and 1998 acknowledged public funding, 29 percent citing private sources.

Structure and Operation of Funding Organizations

Public and private sources of research funding comprise different social worlds. Representatives of each evaluate research proposals according to different rules and criteria. These differences derive from the distinct institutional surroundings of public agencies and private organizations.

Public Funding Organizations

Procedures followed by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) illustrate the processes by which public research funding takes place and the organizational components which facilitate these processes. The PHS, a subunit of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), houses a large number of agencies making research grants. These include several of the sources cited in the above-mentioned AJS and ASR volumes, such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Aging (NIA) and the National Institute of Child Health and Disease (NICHD). Other PHS subunits such the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR) have funded significant sociological work, principally in the fields of organizational and medical sociology. It appears likely that other governmental funding organizations, such as NSF, operate in a manner similar to these PHS units.

The institutional background and functioning of AHCPR provide a paradigm applicable to all federal funding organizations. Federal legislation established AHCPR through the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1989 (AHCPR 1992). The legislation authorizes the secretary of DHHS to undertake ‘‘research, demonstration, and evaluation activities’’ regarding delivery of health services in the United States. The AHCPR administrator acts as operational head of the agency and derives his or her authority via delegation from the secretary of DHHS. By statute, the administrator is advised by the National Advisory Council for Health Care Policy, Research, and Evaluation. The council recommends priority areas for research funding. In addition, it provides ‘‘secondary review’’ of grant proposals. All PHS awarding organizations have a similar administrative structure and advisory council.

The council’s composition is mandated to include seventeen public (nonfederal) members who have voting power. These are primarily scientifically qualified individuals. The council also includes health practitioners; individuals drawn from business, ethics, law, and policy; and consumer representatives. In addition, the council includes seven federal officials with voting power, appointed to serve ex officio.

Of key importance in the process of research funding by AHCPR and analogous groups is the Initial Review Group (IRG), sometimes referenced as the ‘‘scientific review group’’ or ‘‘study section.’’ As mandated by statute, the IRG advises the secretary of DHHS on the scientific and technical merit of research grant applications within AHCPR’s areas of responsibility. The AHCPR administrator officially invites individuals selected for IRG membership to join. Selection is made with assistance from the Office of Scientific Review (OSR), the administrative body within the agency with responsibility for organizing the review of applications for grant support and reporting IRG findings to the AHCPR administrator. Normally, IRG members are appointed to overlapping fouryear terms.

Official criteria for IRG membership include scientific expertise in areas of concern to the agency, often indicated by a history of receiving funds under the agency’s jurisdiction. IRG members cannot be employees of the federal government. In 1992, AHCPR operated four IRGs, each covering a different specialty area or agency concern. Agencies such as AHCPR occasionally appoint special panels to evaluate proposals obtained in response to Requests for Applications (RFAs) issued to solicit interest in new or unusual areas of scientific concern.

The IRG meets three times each year, a few months after regularly scheduled deadlines for submission of grant applications. An official of the Office of Scientific Review, known as the Scientific Review administrator, in consultation with the IRG chair, assigns committee members the task of reviewing each application received by the agency. For each application, the Scientific Review administrator appoints a primary reviewer and at least two secondary reviewers.

At IRG meetings, primary and secondary reviewers present evaluations of the scientific merit of the proposals which they have been assigned. Discussion then takes place among all members of the IRG. The chair then requests a recommendation from the primary reviewer to assign a ‘‘priority score’’ to the proposal, defer discussion, or remove the proposal from further consideration. Priority scores are assigned ranging from 1.0 (most meritorious) to 5.0 (least meritorious). Following the reviewers’ reports and ensuing discussion, all voting members of the IRG formulate priority scores according to their own judgment and submit them to the chair. Composite priority scores and summaries of the IRG’s findings regarding scientific merit are reported to the council and the grant applicant.

The agency establishes a ‘‘pay line’’ indicating the priority score below which proposals are likely to receive funding. In the late 1990s, pay lines varied between priority scores of 1.80 and 2.20, criteria stringent in comparison with the early 1970s, when pay lines were often in the 300s. Strictly speaking, the findings of the IRG are advisory to the council and ultimately to the secretary. Rarely, the council or a high official may elect to fund a proposal ‘‘out of priority’’ due to extraordinary merit or urgent public need.

Government research organizations such as AHCPR review all grant applications that are complete and received on time. In a mid-1992 funding cycle, IRGs (including all those of AHCPR, the National Institute of Health [NIH], and related agencies) reviewed 8,017 applications (NIH Division of Research Grants 1993). Three such cycles occur annually. IRGs usually award priority scores resulting in funding of between 10 and 20 percent of the applications they review. Structure and procedures at the National Science Foundation appear somewhat simpler but similar in form to those of the PHS. Proposals are reviewed by technical staff (an NSF program officer) with the aid of outside reviewers. Final award decisions are made at the senior management level.

Private Funding Organizations

If review of funding sources cited in ASR and AJS provides a valid indication, most nongovernment funding for sociological research comes from private foundations. None of the journal articles acknowledge funding from corporations, which are major sources of research support in some fields, such as engineering and pharmacy.

A private foundation is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization with funds from a permanent portfolio of investments known as an endowment. Typically, an endowment originates from a single source, such as an individual, a family, or a corporation. Legally, foundations are chartered to maintain or aid social, educational, religious, or other charitable activities serving the common good. They are owned by trustees who hold the foundation’s assets ‘‘in trust’’ for the people of the jurisdiction in which they are chartered. Governance is carried out by a board of directors. Trustees usually sit on boards of directors, but directors are not always trustees. Foundations of significant size employ staff to recommend policy, evaluate applications for funding, and perform day-to-day administrative tasks.

Like federal agencies, private foundations identify areas of interest and disseminate this information to the grant-seeking community. New interests and areas of emphasis emerge periodically through initiation by staff or discussion among directors and trustees. Large foundations such as Robert Wood Johnson and W. K. Kellogg seem to change their areas of emphasis approximately every decade or upon accession of a new president. Foundations often develop initiatives articulating interests focused on specific concerns and issue program announcements and RFAs in these areas.

The process of evaluating grant requests appears considerably less formal in private foundations than it is in government. Typically, foundations advise potential grant applicants to submit short letters of interest as a first step. Typically, lower-level staff read these letters, screening them for conformity with the foundation’s interests, credibility of the prospective applicant, and such nonstandard criteria for consideration as the foundation might maintain. Letters that pass this screening process are transmitted to higher-level staff, which may ask the applicant for a detailed proposal. Some foundations assemble review panels and hire outside consultants to evaluate proposals of a technical nature. More typically, though, foundation officials discuss full-scale proposals among themselves and formulate recommendations to the governing board, which makes final award decisions.

The percentage of letters of interest which result in eventual funding is quite low. Most letters of inquiry generate a notice of rejection via form letter. Likelihood of funding appears roughly comparable with federal sources. In 1999, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Web site advised potential applicants that their chances of success were 1 in 20. In the 1990s, this foundation operated an investigator program in health policy. Each year, this program received over 400 letters of inquiry and awarded no more than 10 grants.

Some features of the private foundation’s informality appear advantageous to applicants. Federal grant application forms are extremely long and detailed, requiring significant effort for completion. Foundation forms tend to be simpler. Many foundations require no standard form. Generally, though, federal agencies provide larger amounts of money to grantees than private foundations. In the late 1900s, for example, few Ford Foundation grants exceeded $100,000. Several AHCPR awards approached $1 million. Generous overhead recovery rates provided by federal grants are attractive to university officials. Many private foundations severely restrict overhead payments or allow no such funds in grantee budgets.

The Politics of Research Funding

The bureaucratic structure of public funding organizations clearly aims at promoting accountability and fairness. Legally, much of the grant award process is visible to the public. All successful grant applications may be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. IRG deliberations, the venue in which key funding decisions take place, tend to be conscientiously conducted discussions in the manner of serious graduate-level seminars.

Key features of the operation of agencies such as AHCPR, though, raise questions about the degree to which awards are made strictly according to scientific merit. Deliberations of the Scientific Review Administrator and the agency administrator which result in IRG membership selection are subject to the same uncertainty as all dyadic interactions. Disciplinary bias, partiality to particular questions and approaches, and personal ties may affect IRG membership appointments. IRG membership, of course, strongly affects the agency’s funding pattern.

Assignment of primary review responsibilities by the Scientific Review administrator and the IRG chair can also have a profound effect on funding decisions. Positively or negatively biased assignment of the primary reviewer responsibility can determine favorable versus unfavorable outcome. Although all IRG members are expected to read all applications, only the primary and secondary reviewers are expected to do so in detail. IRG members look to these individuals for guidance in their determination of priority scores. Given the competitiveness of funding, most applications have no chance of receiving priority scores below the pay line without strong support by their primary reviewers. In a sense, the primary reviewer must function as an advocate for the applicant. Officials prejudiced against a particular investigator or approach could ensure selection of a primary reviewer who shared their negative inclination.

Advocacy plays a role of similar importance in private foundation funding. Communication with a foundation official is a virtual necessity prior to submission of a letter of interest. Established relations with these officials is necessary to avoid the screening process that eliminates most grant-seekers and to promote favorable action at each step in the decision-making process.

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