Technology & Innovation

Securing funding for a moonshot

April 12, 2017


April 12, 2017

Veronica Lara

Senior Editor, Americas

Veronica is a senior editor for The Economist Intelligence Unit's thought leadership division in New York. She specialises in market environment topics and trends that cut across industries, including the future of work, technological disruption, and economic competitiveness. In addition to these areas, she has led projects on advancements in manufacturing, historic energy demand trends, and socioeconomic topics such as organised labour, post-war impact investing and growth of cities.

Until July 2014 Veronica was the EIU's commerce and regulations analyst for 29 countries, mostly in the emerging markets. She has written for various EIU publications, on subjects such as financial inclusion, international trade, and policies aimed at attracting investment and promoting innovation.

Veronica holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in international relations from New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Before joining the EIU, she covered industries as diverse as defense, logistics and mining for a research advisory firm.


It is increasingly difficult, particularly in academia, to line up adequate funding for moonshot research projects

Centuries ago, much scientific research was supported through the private patronage of wealthy families or the personal funds of the scientists themselves. While family foundations and individual donors still play an important role, today’s researchers lean more heavily on government grants and funding from within their organizations, as well as the support of nonprofit foundations and R&D-driven corporations.

Regardless of the source, consistent funding is the lifeblood of successful research projects, including moonshots, large-scale projects that aim to tackle grand challenges for the benefit of society. Yet, depending on the sector, the process of obtaining the requisite funding for ambitious research can sometimes resemble a moonshot in duration and complexity. The amount of red tape and the competition for funding can be daunting to researchers—so daunting, in fact, that it may discourage science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talent from entering a career in research.

Funds are also hard to come by in some sectors because research has fewer commercial applications. According to Dr. Arthur Levine, Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, the field of biomedical and behavioral research, for example, has struggled significantly in the past decade. Appropriations for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—the primary funder of such research in the US—have not matched the rate of inflation since 2003. “Meanwhile, industry—one of the other major funders of biomedical research—is spending less and less money on basic science because it’s too much of a long shot,” he says. “Businesses have to satisfy their shareholders with immediate results. So there’s a shift in both federal funding and industry funding away from basic science—that is, discovery and invention—and toward translational research.”

 Indeed, a recent survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit confirms that many researchers—particularly those in academia, who tend to focus more on basic research in the natural sciences—experience significant funding challenges. Just over one in four researchers in the public, private and academic sectors report dissatisfaction with the level of funding they can obtain, though the level of satisfaction varies significantly among sectors. Respondents in the private and government sectors are overwhelmingly “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with funding levels—at 80% and 76%, respectively. Meanwhile, far fewer academic respondents express satisfaction—just 63%. Indeed, more than one in three academic respondents are dissatisfied with the amount of funding they receive. 

Government grants are a major funding component—but they alone do not support STEM research

The dissatisfaction of many academics may stem from the fact that they generally must cobble together funding from multiple sources. Dr. Peter Adriaens, a researcher at the University of Michigan, says that he often must look beyond government grants to obtain funding for his work. “When you have an unstable funding success rate, you start to look to other resources,” he says. “I’ve gotten funding from the Department of Environmental Equality, from Dow Chemical, from Credit Suisse, from investors, from trade groups and whatnot. I’m starting to focus more and more on foundations and corporate entities.”

Indeed, the academic researchers surveyed report a wide array of funding sources for their largest projects; the majority (55%) say they have received funding from government grants, followed by funding from within their organisation (25%) and “other sources” (14%).

The experiences of government researchers were similar to those of academics in that they relied heavily on government grants (47%) and internal funding (37%). Private-sector researchers, meanwhile, generally start with an advantage: 80% of them indicated that their organization itself was the primary project funder.

Competition and the grant application process may be hindering research

When asked why they are dissatisfied with their typical level of research funding, nearly half (49%) of respondents point to the competitiveness of their field—which Dr. Adriaens says is not necessarily an evil in itself. “Competing for funding is great from the perspective of forcing innovation, because people have to try to differentiate themselves from one another in order to get that money,” he says. “And you differentiate yourself by trying to engage with corporations, by spinning out start-ups, by engaging with large NGOs—so basically you start looking at impact-driven research.”

But a laser focus on impact or translational research, Dr. Levine warns, may come at the price of basic research. “The problem with translation is that it’s based on discovery and invention,” he says. “If you haven’t discovered or invented something in basic science, there’s nothing to translate. But basic science … is abstract, it’s remote, it’s complex and it often takes decades to reach fruition. Many basic science results, at the end of the day, fail to progress. And for all these reasons, it’s very difficult to support basic science in general, unless one philosophically accepts the need to do so. But, as it has been noted, there’s no point in sending a rocket to the moon until you know how to get off the earth.”

According to the survey, academic researchers most often work “to advance our field through basic research.” However, the foundational nature of academic research may put academics at a disadvantage in securing funding. According to respondents across sectors, the top five most underfunded research fields are biology, chemistry, biological engineering, math and physics— natural sciences that tend to be the fields favored by academics. As such, it appears that the underfunding of research in these fields disproportionately affects the projects of academics.

More than half (56%) of researchers with moonshot experience say their field of research is underfunded because of a lack of commercial applicability. The red tape to secure funding could be further deterring potential moonshot researchers from focusing their career on research. Indeed, 44% of moonshot researchers say that because of the cumbersome grant application process, they can’t devote as much time as needed to apply for grants.

“I definitely think that overall the funding for risky projects has become less and less available,” Dr. Adriaens says. “About 20 years ago, certain disciplines became very well funded and others became very poorly funded. More and more of that money started going to sciences and engineering. Post-2001, when we saw the whole IT revolution get started and all of the new entrepreneurs coming up in IT space, a lot more money went into information technology-type research such as sensors and software.” 

For his part, at least in the realm of biomedical and behavioral research, Dr. Levine reiterates the importance of allocating money to basic research. “[More appropriations to the NIH] is the first thing that’s needed,” he says. “That, however, is not the only thing, because the money has to be allocated appropriately. We have to be willing to take risks on basic science. If the appropriation were doubled and it all went to translational research, nothing would have been accomplished.” Since basic research is often the backbone of moonshots, greater support of basic research is key to making future moonshots a reality. 

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