~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~! Brad Mehlenbacher Phone: (919) 515-4138 Assistant Professor Fax: (919) 515-1836 Technical Communication E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org English Department "Technological innovation disrupts the NC State University stable state of corporate society" (From Raleigh, NC 27695-8105 Donald Schon, "The Fear of Innovation"). ~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!^~!Posted to RHETNT-L@mizzou1.missouri.edu Sun, 9 Oct 1994 23:03:35
Author's note: "I think that it's a wonderful idea for us to share works in progress or published electronic texts. I've attached a semi-completed version of a paper of mine that's appearing in this month's IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Vol. 37 (3), 157-162. Hope it's a useful beginning. Yours, Brad."
To uncover the competitiveness facing contemporary scientific and technical researchers, it is useful to review some of the statistics surrounding the federal funding situation. One observer has noted, for example, that the National Institutes for Health (NIH) funded 23 percent of its applicants in 1990, a drop from 45 percent in 1975 . De Bakey and Novello, as well, estimate that approximately 50 to 60 percent of all grants received by the NIH in 1972 and in 1976 were funded, as compared to 37.3 percent in 1984 , . And Mitroff and Chubin, referring to the National Science Foundation (NSF), cite the growing interest in scientific peer review as stemming, in part, from the new competitive funding situation [10, p. 199].
Given reduced funds, increased research competition, and the recent focus on the funding of science and technology, it is particularly ironic that Suzanne Roberts, of Applied Technology Associates, Inc., has pointed out that despite the U.S.'s huge investment in research and development (more than $100 billion in 1990)--". . . the commercial return on our investment is inadequate, particularly with regard to the lion's share of this tab of about $30 billion sponsored by the federal government" [14, p. 336]. Stephen Doheny-Farina, as well, has argued that the relationship between universities, start-up companies, and research incubators has, at best, been relatively unsuccessful:
. . . the dreams of quick and widespread success of university incubators have not been realized. In the 1990s we are beginning to see headlines like the following from the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Wariness Dampens 1980s Craze for Building University-Sponsored Technology Parks" and "Pitfalls of Research Parks Lead Universities and States to Reassess Their Expectations" [15, p. 35].
One productive way of finding out how we can strengthen the interaction between university researchers and federal and corporate funding agents is to ask academic researchers about their experiences seeking research funding, about their successes and failures in dealing with particular funding agencies, and about their general perceptions of the funding situation in North America.
In the interviews, I focused on eliciting information about the research scientist, his or her research team, facilities and equipment, and perceptions of his or her research field and agenda. The interviews lasted between one hour and an hour and a half, and were organized loosely around the following questions:
I think the proposal we had was a five year budget of about 15 million dollars. We decided what we would do is we would attempt to build a full-scale online library using today's technology. And . . . they had, I think, eight hundred proposals and they funded four and, in fact, it turned out to be pure politics and they didn't fund any in states where there were already engineering centers, and since we had two engineering centers in [this state], none of the science centers went into [it], which I think was a pity because there were at least two other proposals from [this university] which were really good.2The same researcher points out that his being a part of a large project is the result of years of contacts that span numerous universities and corporations:
. . . when I was at University A, one of our star students introduced me to his father who was, at that stage, working for ABC publishing company, and his job was involved with electronic printing publishing. Some years ago, after I was at University B, we wanted to get an online dictionary for the computer system. . . . Knowing that ABC publishes dictionaries, I called up this fellow . . . and said--to cut a long story short--it's through that contact that we came to the arrangement to put the ABC dictionary online. About the time that the project was taking place, what we call the Uranus Project, he transferred from ABC to GHI corporation, and got involved in trying to set up a group in his area. We knew him already, he was very keen to support our work, so it was a joint contact, which led to us sending a proposal to GHI.Also, as one might expect, given the complex and extensive types of negotiation that are part of the funding process, the academic researchers referred to numerous situational factors that constrained their ability to successfully obtain funding (e.g., yearly budget requirements, where specifically the money is located, etc.):
So it was a lot of people who have been working together in the same areas, and that's basically how we did it, and we spoke with our contact and, you know, he visited here, we visited there. . . . He has to put up some money from his budget and, being new to GHI corporation, he spent some time trying to figure out what was the appropriate way to go about things. We took his advice and we put in an equipment proposal, which would have been last June because . . . they wanted it actually to get funded from last year's budget. . . . And they funded it partly from the previous year and partly from this year. And that went through very smoothly. . . . He has also funded some specific projects. He's funded some work by two researchers in computational linguistics. That's not a formal external research grant, that's from his departmental provisional budget.In the above excerpt, for example, the researcher explains that numerous individuals collaborated to make the funding situation a reality, that repeat visits were a part of the process, and that--even though both sides of the negotiation were interested in pursuing a research relationship--proper allocation of funds required intense and creative attention from the interested funder.
And finally, one researcher talked at length about his experiences with what he referred to as "experimental funding arrangements." In one such case, for example, the NSF refused to fund any proposals that did not provide evidence that the research scientists could obtain their own, required equipment:
So part of our proposal process was, not only to propose to do the work, but to line up promises of equipment from manufacturers. . . . This was kind of a new idea for NSF. They were trying to leverage their money in the sense that the head of NSF said, we're not going to pay for equipment anymore, we're going to coerce the manufacturers to give it. So, in many ways, when they first announced . . . that they were going to give these grants, there were people from [four large corporations], they were all there too, even before we submitted the proposals. So, ultimately, the way it works is we prepare this proposal and talk with multiple companies about supplying equipment for it, and they were going to supply the equipment--partly for the people doing the software to use, but partly to put this equipment in critical places in the universities. . . . And ABC corporation, out of all the companies,. . . was extremely straightforward and supportive in the way they handled this one. . . . And, in this particular case, it was almost as if ABC corporation was saying, look, we're going to support the National Science Foundation, whoever the universities are who get the money.In conclusion, in more than half of the 15 academic researchers' opinions, getting proposals accepted had more to do with the political "talk" that took place between researchers and (interested individuals within) funding agencies than it did with the actual proposals that researchers eventually submitted for review. Certainly, this finding confirms what other researchers interested in the funding process have suggested; as Mukerji points out
If you look just at the proposals and research reports sent to agencies, it looks as though the center of the communication system lies in scientists writing documents for the government about their proposed and actual projects, but that is not the whole story. Even more information is gathered informally by scientists and agency personnel. Scientists use their connections to figure out how to make their proposals as fundable as possible [19, p. 62].This, of course, does not negate the importance of understanding how to produce an effective proposal but, rather, points to the importance of incorporating oral communication skills (e.g., the art of negotiation and fact-finding) into the teaching of proposal writing. That is, proposals are never written in isolation, as we often lead our students to believe. Proposals are submitted and funded as part of a complex social process.
Yeah, well the [boundaries between different sources of funding are] fuzzy in the sense that, if one project is funding me ten percent, and another project is funding me ten percent, and another ten percent, and another one ten percent, I have ideas that transfer across all of them. Okay, so where do I create an idea, you know. If I had this idea . . . that could be used in a variety of places, I just list them all [the sources of funding]. I can't . . . I don't write down every hour that I'm here, you know, the three great ideas I had, and this hour was brought to you by ABC funding agency and the makers of Stouffer's frozen food.Researchers differed on the ethics of receiving multiple sources of funding for their research. One researcher, for example, felt that how much or little projects overlapped in terms of the research results that his team produced was an issue that researchers needed to pay special attention to:
What we would not do is enter into a relationship with a different funding agency that focuses on the same kind of problem. We would tend not to do that. Not that itUs illegal or anything like that, it's just that . . . sort of two things. One is it wouldn't make ABC company very happy--it's not proprietary, we're publishing this stuff--but also it wouldn't, it's not clear what the benefit to us would be. It's sort of easier to work with one motivated partner than to sort of work with competitors, each as partners. On the other hand, there are other funding agencies that we do talk to and get funding from on very different things. Right now we're talking with some other companies about potential funding for some other work. Quite different. The practical effect of that would be very different from the practical effect of this, and so it's not really in any sense a conflict.Along with expressing concerns about the audiences for different proposals and different sorts of research, almost all of the 15 researchers emphasized the proposal-writing process as a process where achieving group consensus, effectively managing large documents with multiple authors, and resolving conflicts between the proposal writers and the intended audience for the proposal played key roles. Perhaps this explains why the above researcher preferred working with "one motivated partner" rather than with "competitors, each as partners;" that is, the single relationship allowed him to channel his communication efforts with a single party and to focus on the research being carried out. Another researcher characterized his experience writing a large proposal as follows:
Actually what happened, in this case, and this is fairly common, is that one person will write a draft of the proposal. That is, we all sit around in a room and talk about what ought to go in this proposal. Then we make sort of a one-page outline--what are the key ideas, sections, and so forth. And then one guy goes off and writes a draft of it. And it's online. And then somebody else will take a turn at going through that draft, and just change anything they don't like. Or, if they think that there's a serious conflict, then they'll sort of go and argue it out or whatever. And then it sort of cycles to the next person. And so it sort of gets iteratively refined. And then, usually the person who wrote the first draft is the first author on the proposal and really has the strongest statement of how the proposal really turns out. Because the rest of the people just sort of push it one way or another. But that's really standard. The other mode is that you say, you write this section, I'll write this section, he'll write this section, then we'll glue them together. That happens, but it's less common.Although he does not indicate why one collaborative strategy is more common than the other, the key is that the proposal-writing process described by the above researcher is one where multiple writers negotiate with each other through a single document. And, interestingly, this conception of proposal writing--as highly collaborative in nature--has been generally ignored by most contemporary research on proposal writing , -.
. . . with ABC corporation we're really working very directly, that is, [our contact] is here every two weeks. . . . I mean, he is a participant in this research project, so that's very good. The higher bandwidth the communication, the better off you are. There's no doubt about that. Both in terms of the company being aware of what's going on, and getting something out of it, and in terms of us understanding . . . the thing is that we get something very important out of this relationship that we wouldn't get if we were funded by NSF or some government agency. And that is, we get ABC company's insight into what are the practical problems that they face which, if we could come up with some breakthrough, would really have an impact. . . . This way, since we're so tightly coupled, we really get something important out of that."Having an impact" and solving practical problems was very important to all 15 researchers, and this may be more a function of their disciplines (largely engineering and computer science) or of the particular university environment that they were working in. As one researcher pointed out, ABC University is largely a "federation of entrepreneurs." In this respect, working with corporate funding groups was described in a much more positive light than might have been expected. Unfortunately, one researcher lamented, academic scientists are being forced to turn increasingly to federal and other government agencies for funding:
It turns out that, even though maybe ten years ago there was a big push to get money from industry, a just sort of movement within the country to try to have. In fact, that hasn't come about, anywhere near as much as . . . some people were hoping it would--including me.Finally, some of the researchers (four out of the 15) expressed strong concerns that our North American funding situation is problematic when compared to the habits of foreign funding arrangements. They stressed the need for a process that strengthened the interaction between them (as academic researchers) and other academic and nonacademic researchers. One researcher told the following, troubling story:
. . . this year, in my research group, we have visiting researchers . . . [from Japanese, British, and French corporations and government agencies] come here as visiting researchers. They come at the expense of the company and spend a year or a year and a half here working on some kind of research project that's of interest to them, and us, and so what they get out of it is some exposure to a lot of work going on here; what we get out of it is some very bright people who will become full-time researchers for a year or more, and who provide very important manpower and brain-power for getting our work done. And it's a great arrangement. U.S. companies seem to never do this . . . and it just strikes me as a real big mistake. And I've talked about this with people from various U.S. companies, but it's a very strange situation, because when I tell them that people are coming here from DEF, and last year we had people from JKL and various Japanese companies--especially like to do this--then the U.S. company people tend to get upset about that. They tend to say, well, you know this is crazy, here's the federal government and people supporting U.S. universities, and people are coming in from other countries and getting all the good ideas and then next year there'll be some product thatcomes out that markets this idea. Now, at the same that they're upset, for some reason, it doesn't occur to them that they could do the same thing, the fact that we would welcome them doing the same thing.The goal of this study was not to learn about the entire funding process but, rather, to find out how academics interact and communicate with funding organizations. All 15 researchers tended to see the actual research proposal as a very small part of a much more important and on-going process (e.g., establishing what types of political and social factors are influencing a funding agency's interest in funding one branch of research instead of another, etc.). This was not entirely surprising since the actual written proposal is a integral part of an extended process designed to support meaningful research in academic and nonacademic organizations. In the next section, therefore, I will share some of the researchers' discussions of the long-term implications of accomplishing funding arrangements--particularly as it relates to transferring ideas, technology, and processes into federal and corporate organizations.
It worries me, because I would actually like more of an interaction, because I would feel more comfortable about the fact that they are benefiting from [our research] and, therefore, will continue to support it. And that's the thing that concerns me. They don't exercise their options to interact with us as much as I'd like to see.And, surprisingly, the researchers felt such failed attempts to move ideas and products out of the academic context occurred both with federal and corporate relationships. As one researcher observed about his interaction in one funding situation:
He [his contract monitor] drops by, it seems to me, two or three times a year and asks how the research is going. He hasn't explicitly asked me about deliverables. This has been a fairly loose arrangement. I think he's come by with a bunch of people from the group, and they've asked me what we were doing, and I gave them an oral report. And they can see what we're doing is approximately what we proposed to do.Another researcher, describing what she felt had been a very successful funding relationship, described problems that she had had with other corporations with which she had worked:
What you quite often find at other companies is you'll do a project which the company sponsors but there's nobody in the company really interested in picking up the ideas. So what you do is you do a project which is your own project and it's financed by the National Science Foundation or something like that, and the company loses the benefit.The consensus among the researchers, therefore, seemed to be that--while working with "real" (i.e., nonacademic) problems was very important to them--the difficulty with interacting with corporate versus government funding groups was that corporate groups tended not to "think long-term." One researcher stated this explicitly and described how some corporations are seeking federal support to overcome this shortcoming:
The only difficulty is that, dealing only with industry, . . . you have a difficult time putting together one, coherent program that has a long-term focus to it, because all the companies have different views of what they'd like to see done and, therefore, you can't put together one nice, coherent program, without reasonably trying to get . . . support from the NSF for a long-term push, and then we would have a more long-term push of both the support from ABC company as well as the National Science Foundation.Short-term thinking is not caused simply by the general structure of corporate organizations. Another researcher identified what he felt was an even more major reason for the problem:
. . . it always boils down to, there's no one who has on his schedule anything related to getting ideas from someone else. Nowhere in their design and their development process is there a mechanism for transferring technology. . . . And I don't know why that's true.Referring to the same corporation, he added
ABC corporation has probably been the poorest at translating what we do back into the company. And I think that's because, again, there's no established conduit, there's no way to get stuff back to them. If, by accident, someone at ABC corporation happened to discover you're doing work and, by accident, they happened to discover it's relevant to them and, by accident, they happened to get it, that's fine. And that occasionally happened. It never happened to me personally, but I'm sure it will happen to someone. . . . They don't have in place the mechanisms for tracking what gets done in the universities, and trying to--you know, I never had a guy from ABC corporation, never in my entire life, come into my office and say, we would really like to get some of your ideas into our system. It never happened, never ever happened.Rather than dwelling on the long-term ramifications of what the 15 academic researchers revealed about the strengths and weaknesses of their current research funding relationships, let me turn in the concluding section, to what we have learned about funding relationships in general. This, in addition, will lead to a brief overview of strategies funding agencies might begin to incorporate in order to solidify the relationships they hope offer them promising research findings and profitable technological developments.
Despite the data collection concerns mentioned earlier, the data are illuminating for several important reasons. First, the 15 researchers point to the importance of oral communication in the overall funding process, and they highlight the need for management and organizational skills to an academic interested in getting research funding. Second, they establish the importance of viewing proposal writing and research funding as a long-term endeavor, and not as something that can be studied effectively in isolated writing incidents.
In describing their funding relationships, for example, the academic researchers rarely limited their remarks to descriptions of the particular proposal documents that had resulted in their being funded; rather, proposal writing and funding were one part of a greater interaction that involved internal concerns (e.g., departmental- and college-level as well as research-related) and external concerns (e.g., the number of funding relationships available to them as well as the need to foster and maintain on-going relationships). This emphasizes the difficult challenge that we, as writing researchers, constantly face--the impossible goal of judging a given document's effectiveness in the light of external constraints which may make a well-written document fail or a poorly-written one succeed (if obtaining funding defines success).
In short, the 15 interviews revealed that
. . . at their core [technology transfer] processes involve individuals and groups negotiating their visions of technologies and applications, markets and users in what they all hope is a common enterprise. This means that the reality of a transfer does not exist apart from the perceptions of the participants. Instead, the reality--what the transfer means to the participants--is the result of continual conceptualizing, negotiating, and reconceptualizing. Thus, technology transfer is a rhetorical dynamic. . . . [15, p. 4].And as a rhetorical dynamic, it is critical that technical communicators increase their role in the process. But, should funding agencies wish to increase the dividends they receive from entering research funding relationships, the following five, interrelated strategies might be worth considering aggressively:
Half way through the project, my contract monitor was promoted, retired, or relocated and suddenly my project updates began to go unanswered. The corporation which had funded me to write a history of a successful funding relationship had, apparently, lost me in the complexity that represents contemporary collaborations. Over one year later, I received a phone-call from a local sales representative who worked for the company and, nervously, I collected the twenty to thirty pages of writing and rough notes I had produced and met him for lunch. Much to my surprise, the sales representative proceeded to apologize for the inconvenience and asked whether all my needs had been met. In return, I thanked him for the much appreciated support and handed him the one thousand dollar per page document. And we parted company amicably.
What the relationship taught me then, and what it still works to show me now, is that funding relationships (like personal relationships) are fostered by constant attention to themselves, to their mutual needs, and to the dynamics that they set up in the beginning to gauge success or failure. Corporations and agencies that fund research need to take special care to follow through on each and every research relationship, least they produce the equivalent of the very expensive document that I created some years back.
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2 The term "political," in this case, is used to describe the affect that a hidden criterion (i.e., the geographical location deemed appropriate for new centers) had on the research scientists' ability to obtain funding from a particular funding agency.