Three ways research offices can lead researchers to more funding

Over half of research office leaders say researchers are disengaged. How can you close the gap to win more funding?

In late 2023, Research Professional™ News, an editorially independent part of Clarivate™, surveyed research office leaders and staff as well as researchers around the world, taking a close look at the challenges facing them today and in the future. The resulting report Research Offices of the Future reveals a clear consensus among respondents about the number one priority of the research office: finding and securing more funding. The survey also revealed that a key barrier to earning grants and awards is researchers’ lack of engagement with their research office colleagues.

“What surprised me the most in this report was the huge discrepancy between researchers and research offices, how they engage and see each other’s value,” said Silke Blohm, Founding Director, 4Sciences Group, in a panel discussion about the report’s findings. She views researchers’ ‘lack of engagement’ as a “big challenge, also a big opportunity, because this is an area where the research office has some control.”

Research offices around the world are struggling to build more effective relationships with researchers with lean staff and increasing workloads. In a prior panel discussion, research office leaders Meg Sparling (University of California, Davis), Daniel Moseke (University of Arizona) and Emily Brashear (Washington State University) stressed the importance of simplifying workflows throughout the research enterprise, shifting time from administrative tasks to activities that are crucial to winning funding.

The time-stretched (and stressed) research environment

Nearly 50% of research office staff rate time-pressures among the top three challenges of their job. “[There is] limited awareness and understanding of the quality threshold needed to win funding and the time it takes to write proposals of this level,” notes a U.K. research development leader.

Research Offices of the Future also notes that 25% of research offices are staffed by fewer than 10 people… sometimes much fewer. Sparling, the research funding coordinator at University of California, Davis, a tier one research institution where grants and awards approach $1 billion annually, supports hundreds of researchers. Despite her own monumental workload, she understands that researchers are just as busy.

Indeed, a 2021 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the U.S. points to a researcher environment that’s overworked and underpaid. It says that one in five researchers is working more than 55 hours a week and earning less than $30,000 per year. Respondents to the Research Professional News survey agree: “Researchers are frustrated with the workload model and lack of administrative support for both teaching and research activities,” said a member of a U.K.-based research office team.

The workload of researchers also has a disabling impact on the research office. Research Offices of the Future quotes one senior member of a research office in Australia: “Time-poor academics find it difficult to effectively plan, draft and submit the highest quality and competitive proposals with limited support.”

Lifting burdens on both sides of the relationship

Building engagement between researchers and research office staff to find and convert opportunities into winning proposals requires a macro view of what will make both sides of the relationship more successful. For example, support staff need tools that cut straight to relevant opportunities and make them easy to share with researchers and their teams. Researchers need tools that make it easy to share opportunities with their teams, labs, collaborators and students. Research units benefit from tools that enable them to display opportunities on their websites.

A growing number of research leaders are using three key strategies to engage with researchers and win more funding:

  • Streamline the process of finding relevant opportunities
  • Improve communication with researchers
  • Help researchers be more autonomous

1. Streamline opportunity searches

Wading through hundreds of calls for funding to find relevant opportunities is both time-consuming and prone to error through oversight. New technology solutions that use funding opportunity databases as a foundation can automate searches and relieve a significant time burden. With these solutions, staff can cut through opportunities from thousands of funders with searches that precisely match research interests and eligibility criteria.

The University of Arizona is a tier one research institution with $955 million in research expenditures that are spread across a host of research areas undertaken by the university’s 3,000+ faculty: a challenge for the university’s Research Development Services (RDS) staff. Moseke reports they’ve tamed the workload by using Pivot-RP™, a research funding solution from Clarivate, to automate opportunity searches. An additional short-cut in Pivot-RP automatically matches funding opportunities to researcher profiles, enabling the staff to simplify the task of direct outreach.

A note of caution: these technologies are only as good as the underlying database. Databases should be updated continually with content that’s editorially curated by experts.

2. Make communications more effective

Panelists noted the dilemma of reaching researchers: their email inboxes are overflowing, a barrier to delivering relevant opportunities in a timely way.

It’s sage advice for research offices in reviewing their communications to researchers. Newsletters that include too few opportunities are unlikely to be relevant to the majority of the researchers receiving them and waste staff and readers’ time. Conversely, pages and pages of broad opportunities are time-consuming to create and a challenge for researchers to wade through.

Emily Brashear, leader of the one-person research office at Washington State University, has solved that dilemma by sending a university-branded newsletter that “everyone pays attention to.” The newsletter includes links to lists of opportunities in Pivot-RP, organized by research interest. The targeted links enable the newsletter to be both a quick read and relevant to nearly every recipient.

Help researchers help themselves

Ironically, a key strategy for building researcher engagement is to help them be more self-sufficient. Making it easy for researchers to search effectively for funding on their own reduces the workload on research offices. That shifts time into more strategic work like helping researchers craft winning proposals or enrich their profiles.

Sparling creates custom, saved searches using Pivot-RP for each campus research initiative and for trending research topics. Then, she makes the funding opportunity searches public so that all users can access them. In addition to including the links in newsletters, she provides them as search widgets to relevant campus websites. Her goal: “Meet researchers where they are,” she said.

Further, she’s enabling teams and groups within the university to become funding information hubs. She creates custom groups using email addresses and populates them with saved searches. “They can easily share specific funding opportunities with the whole group,” she said.

By embedding a Pivot-RP search box directly within research office webpages, UC Davis and other institutions make it easy for researchers to search directly in the Pivot-RP database. University of Arizona and Washington State University include pre-scoped links to relevant funding searches from Pivot-RP directly on research office webpages, streamlining the process for researchers even more.

Another way researchers can help their chances of finding funding success is by familiarizing themselves with the types of projects funders have funded in the past. In addition to high-level previously awarded grants information searchable in Pivot-RP, researchers will be able to perform deeper analysis on this same data with the new release of the Grants Index on the Web of Science™ platform. Researchers will have quick access to information on previously awarded grants from around the world at two different points in their workflow, during their Web of Science discovery and during their Pivot-RP funding search. This will build a deeper understanding of what’s already been funded in an area and who is winning the funding – information that can help them align their new projects and proposals with funder goals.

Do more with what you have

Research Offices of the Future reveals that research office leaders’ three biggest challenges are budget, time pressures and attracting staff. Looking ahead five years, these leaders believe cost pressures will be the biggest driver of change in their operations. Streamlining now, building richer connections with researchers without adding to staff, alleviates burdens today and prepares research offices to succeed in the future.

Let us help you build researcher engagement to win more funding

Request a trial or get more information about Pivot-RP at: