An introduction to the US research funding landscape

The US research funding landscape is diverse, somewhat difficult to navigate for individual researchers, but nonetheless full of opportunities. Typically, there are three sources of external funding to support research in the US; government (i.e., federal, state, and local), private business and industry, and charitable giving through non-profit organizations/ foundations.

Some of the largest and most influential research institutes in the world are situated in the US. There are federal organizations with significant operating budgets that can support and facilitate the work of researchers and scientists. There are also a large number of private foundations and nonprofit organizations, as well as for-profit businesses, that provide grants or other types of funding assistance.

There are two main funding mechanisms that one needs to be aware of: Grants and Cooperative arrangements. The main difference between these two is that the funder more strictly maintains an oversight and monitoring role in a grant. In a cooperative agreement, in turn, the funder employees participate more closely in performing the program.

When a federal agency makes known its intentions to award discretionary grants or cooperative agreements, usually as a result of competition for funds, they publish a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA). Other unsolicited announcements are Program Announcements (PA) or a Requests for Application (RFA).

Currently, there are 26 federal funding agencies in the US and their budgets are regulated through the federal budget, which is approved by the Congress.

The 26 federal funding agencies in the US.

Most federal organizations only provide grants and cooperative arrangements to researchers at US institutions (e.g., colleges, universities, corporations) or require US citizenship for the Principal Investigator as well as for the project staff. This makes the opportunities for EU researchers to obtain US funding for their projects rather limited.

However, organizations have also started to realize the value in global collaboration to help further meet national priorities, which has made them more open to granting subawards and other funding mechanisms to international researchers. Here we would like to present two of the most well-known federal agencies, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (under the Department of Health and Human Services, DHHS) and the conditions for European researchers to receive support from them.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a budget of 8,3 billion dollar (2019) and is divided into seven directorates: Biological Sciences, Computer Science, Education, Engineering, Mathematics, Physics, Social Sciences. The foundation accounts for about 24 % of federal support to institutions for research and education within those academic disciplines.

NSF rarely provides support to foreign organizations but is open for proposals for cooperative projects involving U.S. and foreign organizations, given that the support is requested only for the U.S. part of the collaborative effort. These kinds of opportunities are announced in individual funding program solicitations. The Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE) serves as a focal point for international science and engineering activities both inside and outside NSF.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) is one the largest divisions within the DHHS and the leading supporter of biomedical research in the world, with a budget of 39 billion dollar (2019). NIH is made up of 27 Institutes and Centers (ICs), each with its own specific research agenda, often focusing on particular diseases or body systems. The mission and priorities of each IC are stated on their individual websites.

Unlike the NSF, the NIH do allow international researchers to serve as Principal Investigators and the foundation even have specific programs that require an international collaborator. Nevertheless, there are still some NIH programs that have a citizenship requirement.

There are several non-federal funding opportunities for researchers. Throughout states, cities and counties, grants are awarded to help address local priorities within research. Private foundations are also a major source of funding, especially in biomedical, public health, and social improvement programs. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. This number includes public charities, private foundations, and other types of nonprofit organizations. The organizations are financially supported in a variety of ways, such as with private contributions, government grants, fees for services, tax revenue, and interest from investments.

One of the most well-known foundations is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation’s total yearly Direct Grantee Support is around 5 billion dollar (2018) and it funds projects primarily through its Global Grand Challenges, which is a family of initiatives fostering innovation to solve key global health and development problems. Twice each year, Grand Challenges Explorations invites high-risk, high-reward proposals on a range of challenges. Applications are open to anyone from any discipline, students as well as professors, from any type of organization both within and outside the US. The foundation executes programs through four main divisions: Global development, Global health, Global policy and advocacy and lastly U.S. high school and postsecondary education.

What can generally be said about the application process is that there are major regulatory, ethical and policy requirements for all funding agencies from the U.S. as well as the E.U. Most private foundations have the same kind of requirements. There are certain expectations, for instance that the grantee has the administrative infrastructure to manage the funds. There are also expectations on the role of the grant administrator, for instance that the person serves as liaison between the University institution’s interests and the sponsor’s needs, as well as ensures compliance with potential Federal and nonFederal rules, regulations and institutional policies.

Ethics, openness and transparency within research programs and funding is a very timely topic that several funding agencies recently have addressed. NIH has for instance investigated and identified more than 100 cases of troubling foreign influence on extramural research such as withholding information in applications or even stealing research results. NSF has formulated a policy that clarifies that their personnel cannot participate in foreign government talent recruitment programs. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has also started to discuss the issue of ensuring integrity of the American research enterprise.  

In sum, the US research funding landscape is highly complex and diverse, and it is important to encourage and establish the infrastructure needed for researchers to be able to find the right support. The creation of cross-collaborative partnerships and the ability to leverage the resources, i.e. the financial support as well as the academic talent, of both the EU and US is something that the research community as well as society in general can benefit from.

If you want to know more about U.S. research funding opportunities for European researchers, read the BILAT USA 4.0 report. Grant seekers can also turn to for centralized information about federal funding opportunities. CFDA is another excellent resource for funding opportunities, as it contains detailed program descriptions for nearly all federal grant programs.

Agnes Wiberg, intern at the Office of Science and Innovation in Washington D.C.