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Funding Research Projects

Jeff Gunderson

Jeff Gunderson

Every two years we put out a call for research proposals, thus beginning a long process of review and selection. About this time last year our selection process for 2014-16 projects began. Tight federal budget conditions make it impossible for us to fund as many projects as we did a decade ago. Consequently, selecting MNSG research projects has taken on even more gravity. We work to identify the most promising, relevant research that fits Sea Grant's mission. This isn't as easy as it might sound. For one thing, we receive proposals from a variety of disciplines including oceanography, microbiology, analytical chemistry, physics, and population dynamics. This year we are also reviewing social science proposals that explore social and economic aspects of sustainable coastal ecosystems.

How do we decide which projects to fund? First, we seek three reviews from researchers around the country and, in some cases, around the world who are familiar with the type of study proposed. These "peer reviewers" provide us with a professional opinion regarding the rationale, relevance, scientific merit, appropriateness of the methods, and innovativeness of the proposal.

The peer reviewers provide feedback to us as a professional courtesy, free of charge. Reviewing proposals and manuscripts is part of the research system; reviewers know that other scientists will review their proposals and manuscripts in turn. Like you, reviewers juggle other commitments in their personal and professional lives.

Sometimes they say "no" or their replies are delayed. Lining up proposal reviewers is arduous. Scientists are no different than other people, there are tough graders, easy graders, and there are occasionally disagreements. To deal with some of these discrepancies, we enlist a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC).

The TAC members are selected for their expertise and are asked to be the primary reviewer on 2-3 proposals and a secondary reviewer on 2-3 other proposals. We provide a small honorarium for this time consuming work. We meet by conference call to go over each proposal. The TAC provides us with a written summary of the scientific merit of each proposal. But we're not done. Though the research may have technical merit, it might not be relevant to our mission.

Our Advisory Committee reviews the proposals deemed scientifically sound by the TAC for their relevance to Minnesota Sea Grant. The proposal summary, the peer reviews and the TAC summary generally provides our advisors with enough information for them to ascertain whether the research is relevant locally and regionally. It is incumbent upon the scientist to make the relevance of their work obvious.

As director, I look at the input from all of these sources along with reviews from the MNSG staff. Usually the projects to fund stand out. I then submit a letter of intent to our national program officer (who participated in the TAC meeting) and wait for his "OK."

The multiple reviews and filters helps solidify our funding decisions. MNSG support is important to science and scientists. Especially when scientists are starting out, our grant can serve as "seed money" allowing the scientist to win further funding for a unique line of work that could have big payoffs. Our funding supports graduate students needing a professional and financial boost to become the scientists of the future. Our grants pay the wages of technicians and our grants help support the economies and ecology of Lake Superior and Minnesota's coastal communities. Selecting research projects to fund is not glamorous; it's not quick; and, it's not easy. However, it is so very worthwhile.

By Jeff Gunderson
September 2013

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