The LCGC Blog: Nontraditional Research Funding: More than One Way to Skin a Cat

January 17, 2017
Kevin A. Schug
The Column

Volume 13, Issue 1

Page Number: 25–27

As I wrote the title of this LCGC Blog instalment, I could not help but wonder where the cliché “more than one way to skin a cat” came from. Turns out it is from Mark Twain in his 1889 work, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I have never read that book, but I certainly have heard this saying used more than once - even if it might offend some cat lovers. Of course, it means simply that there is more than one way to do something.

Kevin Schug, Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT), Arlington, USA

As I wrote the title of this LCGC Blog instalment, I could not help but wonder where the cliché “more than one way to skin a cat” came from. Turns out it is from Mark Twain in his 1889 work, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I have never read that book, but I certainly have heard this saying used more than once - even if it might offend some cat lovers. Of course, it means simply that there is more than one way to do something.

As most academicians will profess, we are constantly looking for means to fund research. Traditionally, scientists go to federal sources, such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, and compete to hopefully win fairly large multiyear pots of money. However, the competition keeps getting tougher. Federal funding for research has not grown as fast as the number of people seeking that funding. One could write on and on about this dilemma, but here, I would rather focus on what else can be done. There are other ways to fund research - ways that don’t involve pouring 80 hours into a grant proposal for which you won’t hear back on how you have fared for six months.

Some years back I had the opportunity to look over some vitas from a selection of quite successful engineering professors. I was intrigued by how these professors could support quite large and productive groups with seemingly very few large grants. In fact, they seemed to have relied primarily on cobbling together a large collection of smaller short-term contracts with various industry partners.

Given our expertise in analytical chemistry, I felt we were quite well poised to help some industry partners solve their problems, but I was not sure how to start. Our partnership with Shimadzu helped in making some contacts, but I had to learn how to navigate and develop relationships that would induce industrial partners to give us some funding. In the end, we have become quite successful. Currently, my group of 20 students and researchers has no federal funding. All of our support comes from sponsored research agreements and research gifts. Here are a few things that I have learned.

The approach to gain support from private industry is different than trying to coax support from the federal government. A few things are key. At the outset, you need to have an understanding of the problems that a particular company wants to solve. They don’t necessarily want to support your original research ideas at the outset; they want to have their problems solved, so that they can go on making money. You cannot figure out what these problems are and develop a plan to help without talking to them. Developing a relationship with key stakeholders in a company is probably the most important step in the process. This means spending some significant time with vendors at conferences and staying in regular unprompted contact with them. You should be open-minded and optimistic about what you can deliver.

After you land the contract, plan to over-deliver. Restek Corporation has been supporting students in my research group for a few years now. This relationship started modestly with the support of one student. I immediately placed two students doing work relevant to their interests. After two years, they increased their support to two students in our group. To up our productivity, I now have at least four researchers working on projects of interest to Restek. We make it a point to present often and publish often. We supply detailed quarterly reports of our progress, and everyone is happy. Most recently, they hosted one of my students as a summer intern in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, USA. Our relationship has progressed very nicely.

The interactions between Restek professionals and my group further boosts the quality of our work, and the students gain some additional training and experience that they would not otherwise receive. Technicians from Shimadzu and an applications chemist from VUV Analytics, Inc., are also mainstays in our lab. All of these experts provide a big boost to productivity.

 

Restek provides us support in the form of a sponsored research agreement (SRA). Another mechanism to solicit funds is through research gifts. We have benefited greatly from research gifts to operate our Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation (CLEAR; http://clear.uta.edu/) environmental research testing centre; there generally aren’t many opportunities to fund our research on assessing the potential environmental impact of unconventional oil and gas extraction through traditional routes, like federal funding. There are significant differences between an SRA and a research gift. Whereas an SRA includes overhead costs paid to the university, research gifts are free from overheads. This advantage is something that can appeal to a company or an individual, since all of their money goes directly to research. However, research gifts cannot stipulate any deliverables or place any restrictions on the expenditure of funds. In such a case, the company or individual has to trust that the research will be done according to a handshake agreement. That aspect might not appeal to a company. With CLEAR, we have a sponsored research agreement with Asahi Kasei Corporation to develop and test membrane treatment technologies for cleaning wastewater. We have also recently received research gifts from Earth Day Texas and Apache Corporation to support our environmental monitoring efforts. In Texas there are also mechanisms to receive some matching funds for gifts over a certain amount. This arrangement can be a good incentive for givers to up their donations to qualify for match money.

Finally, another avenue that I feel engineers use more prevalently than traditional scientists is the creation and licensing of intellectual property. License agreements are often accompanied by research funds (like an SRA) to continue development of the technology. We have been working in this capacity on the development of a product to responsibly dispose of unused or expired medications (1). The company who licensed the technology gives us some money each year to do this work.

While SRAs and research gifts may not span over several years like a federal research grant might, they can be arranged much more quickly than the latter. Because they may be up for renewal sooner, it is essential to be productive. The benefits of working with industry partners, especially very engaged partners, is not just the money. The added insight given to students through regular interactions elevates motivation and learning. The vast majority of our students will go for a job in industry after they finish their schooling. Such interactions give students exposure to what it is like to work in industry, and also give potential employers exposure to the students we are training.

So, for the time being, I can be a bit more selective about pursuing federal funding. I have seen many scientists rely too heavily on this route, and it has hurt their ability to do research. I think many companies are open to the possibility of working with a university partner. But if inquiries to this effect are not made, such relationships will never develop.

Reference

  • V.B. Waybright, S. Ma, and K.A. Schug, J. Sep. Sci.39, 1666–1674 (2016).

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGCEmerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.

E-mail:kschug@uta.edu

Website:www.chromatographyonline.com