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Collaborative Grant Proposals:  Four Reasons to Collaborate

As certain research questions and social needs have become increasingly complex, so have the projects that effectively address them.  Such complex projects often benefit from, or even demand, collaboration among partners with varying disciplinary backgrounds and skill sets.  Funding agencies are likely to be staffed by researchers and scholars who have been drivers of these trends, and therefore recognize and are responding to this shift. Thus, funding proposals that include collaborative (especially multi-disciplinary) approaches tend to be more competitive, assuming that such collaboration is justified.   While the general funding trend is moving in favor of collaborative efforts, the tail should not wag the dog, as it were.  The trend should never trump a precise research methodology, and funding cannot be the sole determinant of project structure, as proposal reviewers will easily recognize a forced and unnecessary collaboration. 

This article begins to address this shift in the funding landscape, by exploring four reasons to collaborate.

  1. To add new disciplinary perspectives to the question
    A research, instruction, artistry, or public service project addressing a complex question or problem will benefit from and may, in fact, require - the additive knowledge and talent brought to bear by a collaborative effort.   Consider autism, for example.  To fully understand this condition might require knowledge brought to the table by health care scholars, speech/language/voice experts, psychologists and other mental health professionals, and educators.  Depending on the nature of the research questions, you might need to include less obvious disciplinary experts, such as an epistemologist. Because there is growing evidence that theater and music are useful intervention tools, scholars from those disciplines may also have an important contribution.

    In another example, public policy experts frequently characterize childhood obesity as a challenge stemming from poor food choices.  However, if nutritionists, who care mightily about this issue, could have solved this problem alone, it would have been long-since solved.  Perhaps it is time to bring parenting, childhood development, physical activity, and poverty experts to the table, to see if the collective wisdom of the group can solve a problem that individuals working separately cannot.

    While an overall collaboration to address a larger issue may involve all of the expertise available, individual projects will typically require a subset of those disciplines, based on their goals.  A multi-disciplinary approach in a grant application should be appropriate to the question or problem being addressed and the project goals. Grant reviewers have a keen eye for seeing through unjustified collaborative efforts, and adding inappropriate disciplinary approaches can take a project off track, resulting in poor outcomes.

  2. To bring additional skills or resources to the project
    Bringing needed additional skills or physical resources to a project is another reason for and benefit of collaboration. An individual scholar may not possess the complete set of skills necessary for thoroughly answering a question or addressing a problem or task at hand, or, it may be more efficient to farm out a portion of the work to be done.  An intervention project for autism involving theater or music will require theater space or instruments.  A project addressing childhood obesity might best take place in a local school setting, or might require access to parent groups, or lab analyses.  A project may require a different type of statistical analysis than you have used previously, or you might want someone else to handle that piece of the project to free your time for other things (the Research Methodology Services Unit may be useful in such a situation).

    A logic model might be a useful tool for determining the full complement of skills essential for successful outcomes.  (If you have not worked with Logic Models, refer to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Logic Model Development Guide.)  If you do not possess each of the required skill sets, it is probably time to bring some other expertise to the table.  Again here, as with disciplinary approach, grant panels will recognize unnecessary skills foisted upon a project in the name of collaboration, so the caution is to only include those talents that are necessary to conduct methods appropriate to the question or problem at hand.

  3. To gain contributions from outside academe
    You might also consider the thorniness of the problem as a whole, and seek contributions from outside of the university.  The insight provided by experts who work daily with a target population and/or in a community setting, for example, may provide a unique and valuable perspective on a particular problem and the feasibility of proposed approaches to addressing it. Collaborative HIV prevention studies frequently involve expertise from both university scholars and local community agencies that conduct day to day prevention activities with the target population.  Teachers at a local school may be able to speak to whether a proposed approach will work in the classroom.  Alternately, you may have a compelling idea for a new product, but lack the expertise or resources to get that product where it will be most useful. Partnerships between universities and industry facilitate the successful dissemination of such new technologies into the marketplace.  (See the Technology Transfer Office article in this newsletter for a discussion of steps you can take to protect intellectual property in such partnerships.)

  4. To gain insight
    Finally, you might consider collaboration when there is something going on with the project that you literally cannot name.  Sometimes data reveal that something you have not yet identified has an active role in outcomes; sometimes the same thing is revealed by reflection and reason.  When that happens, it might be time to consider collaboration.  Scholars from different fields use language very differently.  While this certainly leads to amusing and occasionally frustrating situations (more on that, later), it is also a potential strength of collaboration.  Different “languages,” if you will, allow problems to be conceptualized differently, which may be exactly what your project needs.

Collaboration can lend strength to a grant proposal, when the decision to collaborate is a direct result of the needs of a particular project.  Innovative approaches that bring new disciplines, methodologies, skills, or resources to bear on a problem or question can make for a more competitive funding proposal, as long as those approaches are justified by and appropriate to the task at hand. 

Last year, OSP held a Chat Session on campus to discuss collaborations on large proposals.  See the Activities & Outreach/NIU Events section of our website for a PowerPoint of that session.