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Sustaining the Scholarly Enterprise

Two faculty members compare notes on funding their work
Brian Chaboyer
Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Brian Chaboyer, on the roof of Wilder with a radio telescope that was purchased with a grant he obtained from the National Science Foundation's Division of Undergraduate Education. The telescope is used in undergraduate labs for tasks including mapping hydrogen gas in the Milky Way. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Flowing quietly through the veins of academic work and research is grant money, funding without which the business of creating and passing on knowledge would slow to a crawl, or in some cases stop altogether. External grants (that is, grants given by public and private agencies separate from Dartmouth College) may be the lifeblood of academic research, but they don't come easily.

"Research costs money," says Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Brian Chaboyer, and that simple, inescapable truth is at the heart of a funding system that relies largely on the time and effort of individual faculty members. Chaboyer, who enjoys a successful track record in grant seeking, estimates that he receives roughly one out of three grants he applies for, and that, on average, grant-seekers in the sciences have a success rate somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.

For Chaboyer, a successful grant application hinges on the worth of the research idea being proposed and on the grant writer's ability to present it in a way that is accessible to a scholarly audience, though not necessarily an audience with the same technical background as the researcher. "You have to place your work in context and show how it will impact the wider field," he says.

Barbara Will, associate professor of English, agrees. "I think the success rate has to do, obviously, with the project you're working on: how interesting, timely, and significant it is. It also has a lot to do with how the proposal is written and who supports it. I get as much feedback from my colleagues as I can. The way the proposal is framed, the way it is written, is of paramount importance in whether it is successful or not."

Applying for a grant can involve months of work, from writing a detailed budget and proposal to seeking all the appropriate approvals, including approval from the department chair, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Office of Sponsored Projects. Moreover, for every dollar needed, researchers must ask for additional funding to account for necessary overhead charges that support lab space, shared resources, and staffing needs. The application is reviewed by a body of peer researchers, and once a grant application is submitted, the applicant may have to wait as long as nine months for an answer.

In the sciences, says Chaboyer, the bulk of available funding comes from federal sources. He relies primarily on NASA and the National Science Foundation. For the humanities, the dollar amounts are typically smaller (in part because the research calls for less expensive capital equipment), but the funding sources are more varied. "There are a number of grants available for humanities professors from, for example, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim," explains Will, adding that "there are other private foundations and many interesting residential centers that fund humanities scholars."

For students, the external grant system has consequences both direct and indirect. Humanities fellowships sometimes contain a teaching component, while science grants frequently include funding to hire undergraduate and graduate students as research assistants. "Funding agencies often require that the proposed research produces some wider benefit," explains Chaboyer. "It could be having an educational component or training for students." Beyond the benefit to individual students who are salaried by the grants, the research and prestige that result from successful grant applications enrich the classroom experience and raise the College's profile as well.

Though Chaboyer says he feels that application success rates are getting too low throughout the sciences nationally, meaning that good programs sometimes go unfunded, he believes that external grants work well to promote research. "A grant is a validation of you as a researcher—it's a good system."

By GENEVIEVE HAAS

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Last Updated: 5/30/08