The recent expansion of high-risk, high-reward (HR-HR) funding opportunities largely stems from the scientific community's general consensus that America's R&D portfolio lacks investment in potentially paradigm-shifting research. The resulting call to increase support for HR-HR projects has led to the creation of new funding mechanisms, an increase in funding pools, and an increase in the potential for revolutionary advances in the scientific community. How is "high-risk, high-reward" defined in the world of grants?
Also referred to as "high risk, high payoff," the concept vary among funding agencies but is essentially transformative and innovative research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) defines it as "research driven by ideas that have the potential to radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or leading to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science or engineering." The W.M. Keck Foundation notes, "'High-risk' comprises a number of factors, including questions that push the edge of the field, present unconventional approaches to intractable problems, or challenge the prevailing paradigm." In general, HR-HR funding mechanisms aim to embolden creative thinking by encouraging investigators to pursue large scientific leaps.
Interested in submitting a high-risk, high-reward proposal? We've compiled some tips and facts for your reference:
- The HR-HR review process diverges from more traditional peer-review based models: Typical review processes often make use of established rubrics and scoring systems. In HR-HR, the research models are inherently different from the incremental-based projects, therefore, agencies are making adjustments to their internal processes to encourage the inclusion of riskier research. For instance, the NSF recently modified its Intellectual Merit review criteria to include potentially transformative concepts, placing a premium on innovation. They have also introduced additional training for program officers centered on the importance of supporting potentially catalytic research.
- Speaking with the agency program officer is particularly valuable: It is common for the program officer to make a final judgment in determining which proposals receive funding, and since HR-HR projects tend to be more innovative or risky than customary peer-reviewed projects, the opportunity to communicate directly about your ideas is one not to miss. Establishing this relationship can make the difference between award and rejection. Here are some strategies for developing this important connection.
- Seek support on campus: You are not alone in your quests for external funding. There are offices on the IU Bloomington campus that provide supportive consulting services. Proposal Development Services (PDS) offers grantsmanship support and management for complex proposals to IU Bloomington faculty applying for external research funding. The Office of Foundation Relations helps coordinate institutional relationships with Indiana University and private philanthropic foundations. For all funding coordinated through the University, the Office of Research Administration (ORA) provides administrative and compliance support and performs the final institutional review and approval, then for most grant proposals, submits to the funding agency.
- Become familiar with current federal and foundation opportunities to determine which best aligns with your research interests: Following is a noncomprehensive list of prominent HR-HR funding opportunities and links to learn more.
Federal Agency Programs:
- NSF Transformative Research Opportunities: programs include ongoing mechanisms, EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER), Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID), and ad hoc initiatives such as the Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI).
- The NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program: created to accelerate the pace of biomedical discoveries by supporting exceptionally creative scientists with highly innovative research. Opportunities include: Pioneer Award, New Innovator Award, Transformative Research Award, Early Independence Award
- Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP): CDMRP programs strive to support the next generation of researchers and established scientists by investing in paradigm shifting medical research.
- Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA): the agency reaches for outsized impact by taking risks in pursuit of high payoffs; current strategic areas of investment include rethinking complex military systems, mastering the information explosion, harnessing biology as technology, and expanding the technological frontier.
Private Foundation Opportunities:
- W. M. Keck Foundation - Research Program: supports projects in medical, science and engineering.
- Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigators: aims to catalyze discovery science by investing in outstanding biomedical researchers; funding is generous for significant periods of time.
- Frontiers in Research Excellence and Discovery (FRED) Award: this Research Corporation for Science Advancement program rewards tenured Cottrell Scholars with funding to initiate high-risk/high-reward projects.
- Brain Research Foundation - Scientific Innovations Award: supports innovative, cutting edge research in well-established research laboratories, in both basic and clinical neuroscience.
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation - Pioneering Ideas Brief Proposal: supports work that goes beyond incremental changes, exploring the ideas and trends that can potentially influence the trajectory and future of health in America.
- John Templeton Foundation - Science and the Big Questions: supports innovative proposals from individuals and institutions who are inspired by relentless curiosity, willing to challenge common assumptions, and eager to advance the frontiers of human knowledge.