Proposals to fund national facilities are more successful, new data shows

Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.

Figure source: Canada Foundation for Innovation. “2020 Innovation Fund: By the Numbers.” https://www.innovation.ca/awards/2020-innovation-fund

Consolidating research infrastructure into national facilities that support large user communities can be an effective use of resources and can enable scientific progress that is often not possible using smaller local facilities (generally referred to as “core” facilities). National facilities play a major role in facilitating cooperation among their user communities, leading to greater coherence as they present opportunities for research investment to funding agencies.

Research communities, such as subatomic physics or astronomy, that collectively prioritize their projects in a strategic or long-range plan are more successful in funding competitions. Projects that have already been evaluated by their communities for importance and feasibility are likely to have high merit—and are likely to appear to have high merit to a reviewer.

Strategic plans can also help secure funding opportunities beyond calls for funding proposals. If a government decision-maker is considering a direct investment in project A, she doesn’t want to be surprised later by a request to fund competing project B, which she didn’t know about. When government decision-makers know that an entire scientific community has agreed on the request, they don’t have to worry about juggling competing requests.

National facilities often play a critical role in enabling the strategic or long-range planning initiatives of a research community. National facilities bring professional perspectives that are complementary to those of their users. Furthermore, they often supply financial and logistical resources for these planning processes. In fact, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) expects all national facilities it funds to have strategic plans already in place because strategic planning for major research facilities is an important part of good governance. Costs associated with hosting planning sessions and meetings to consult stakeholders, hiring consultants for strategic planning purposes, and conducting related communications and outreach activities are all eligible expenses under the CFI Major Science Initiatives Fund.

The support that national facilities provide to the strategic work of the community continues into the development of project ideas and corresponding funding applications. For large applications—proposals to the CFI Innovation Fund, for example—such assistance to develop an application can be invaluable. And the CFI funding data shows this value: In the CFI 2020 Innovation Fund, funding proposals in support of a national facility had a success rate of 47%, compared to the average of 35%. Only 28% of proposals from core facilities were successful.

Proposals for research infrastructure that are “in support of” a national facility are typically for infrastructure that the national facility has agreed to host or operate. These proposals in turn will naturally be supported by the facility. For instance, the facility may employ the time of professionals to support communications and outreach to project stakeholders. It may draw on its network of users and partners to help build a strong and diverse project team. It may bring expertise in management and operations to demonstrate the sustainability of a project and a track record of delivering benefits from similar projects. It may also offer support to the applicant team in terms of proposal writing and project management expertise to ease their administrative burden.

In short, proposals in support of national facilities are more successful at securing funding, in part because national facilities help maintain coherence among a broad user community via strategic planning processes, and because these larger facilities provide specialized professional resources to complement the scientific expertise of the applicants.

If you, as a research administrator, are evaluating proposals to support with CFI institutional envelope, consider putting some of your support behind proposals that are part of a coherent national strategy for a research field, and that are being developed with professional support from national facilities. The data shows that this is an effective strategy and will allow you to leverage the substantial investments in these national facilities.

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