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Finding Collaborators for Grant Proposals

Securing funding, such as grants, and publishing papers, are probably a researcher’s two biggest challenges, but they become more manageable when you find and work with collaborators. Here we show you how to make these collaborations happen.

Securing funding, such as grants, and publishing papers, are probably a researcher’s two biggest ongoing challenges. They both become more manageable when you join up and work with others. Grant collaborators and research collaborators are (in)valuable for research quality and impact. A collaborative project is when researchers from different fields work together to explore a complex question from different perspectives, or solve problems that venture into their respective areas. Collaborations can accelerate and expand your research career. We’ll take a deeper dive here into how you can make these happen.

Why collaboration is important in grant proposals

Scientific research these days involves increased collaboration across research specializations and national borders. This is especially true as remote communication is mainstreamed. Choosing the right grant collaborators can boost the robustness of your research project and increase your chances of getting funded.

To get funded

Research “multidisciplinarity” and “interdisciplinarity” have become central in granting agencies’ interests. Grant evaluators are likely to look for these characteristics in your proposal. Grant assessment criteria often include the research project’s:

  • Practical applications
  • Social distribution
  • Ability to incorporate theories and methodologies from varied disciplines Your proposal needs to meet these indicators in the context of increasing competition for funding and shrinking research budgets. So, proposing an interdisciplinary research project will give you greater appeal in credibility and interdisciplinarity and, thus, get funded.

    To increase the impact of your research

    Especially if you’re an early career researcher, collaborating with industry, international or community partners can:

  • Boost your research profile
  • Help you translate your research into practice
  • Maintain existing relationships and/or grow your scientific network These all apply to more accomplished researchers, as well. But they’re a lower priority. It’s more common that you’ll be scouted out and approached.

    How to find collaborators

    Finding collaborators is both a challenging and rewarding experience. It involves stepping out of your comfort zone, yet this often brings new ways of thinking and new connections. A useful and less-intimidating start for finding collaborators is your peers and direct contacts. These are people with whom you’ve worked successfully in the past. These can also be contacts your research team, colleagues, and mentors can introduce you to. Collaborating with others becomes easier as you expand your research network. This can happen at almost any time, such as:

  • Networking events at your institution
  • Scientific seminars and conferences
  • Scientific associations and societies When you meet other researchers, introduce yourself, chat, and see whom you get along with, who shares your energy, and who brings something to the table that you don’t. These people are all great collaborator candidates.

two people collaborating on grant proposals

Check if your institution has a research support office. People there can help you with your partner search and guide you in your next steps. Take a look at Duke University’s extensive Office of Research Support services to get an idea of what’s on offer at top schools. They have guides, checklists, mentoring, and many other tools to make your research a reality. You can also identify potential collaborators by reading through previously funded projects in your field (see resources at the end). Then contact them in academic and professional social research networks, like:

  • Humanities Commons
  • Mendeley
  • ResearchGate Or on general social networks like LinkedIn (connect with a short message) and Twitter (DM them or comment on their posts).

    How to not be ignored by potential collaborators

    Some of your target collaborators may be very busy people. They may not have collaboration at the front of their mind. You have to refine your approach to appeal to them.

    Be specific

    To involve external collaborators, have a one- or two-page description of the proposed project idea. Share a concrete summary of what you have in mind and what the collaborator’s expected to do. Being organized and upfront will save time and show you’re serious about what you’re doing. You don’t have to go into detail in the very first direct message, email, or Zoom. But it’s good to share your initial thoughts about:

  • The products of the collaboration (articles, a book, book chapters)
  • How the writing will be done and credited.
  • When and how (or if) they’ll be paid.
  • How long the collaboration will last.

    Do your homework, learn about your target collaborators

    Are you about to send a cold-call email to a researcher you’ve never met before? Strive to be qualified, knowledgeable, and courteous. Speak their language. Don’t try to be cool or overly confident.

  • (1) Read the program description thoroughly.
  • (2) Identify the areas in which you need a collaborator’s expertise to complement your knowledge.
  • (3) Research the potential collaborator’s CV and publication record (and name drop a few in the email body). You can do this on any of the above social networks or by Googling them.
  • (4) Link their research agenda to the funding opportunity.
  • (5) Make a compelling case about why it is in their best interests to partner with you/your team.

    Be persistent (but polite)

    Researchers (especially senior ones) are usually busy people who often travel. Start with an email or direct message with a summary of your research project idea and ask to arrange a phone call. Give them at least a week to respond.If you don’t hear back, try again. Don’t be pushy, but do be persistent. Make it about them, not you.

Good: Hi Dr. Wong. I didn’t hear back about the proposal I sent you. I’m sure you’re busy. This project aims to address x and y. These are areas your research has covered, so this seems like an excellent fit for your skills. Hope to hear from you. What if they still don’t reply? Senior researchers get many emails and messages each day. Yours may have gotten lost in the inbox. They may prefer to communicate through another platform. If they’re on a social network, follow their activity, give it a like, share, and comment. Get on their radar. Don’t lose hope. Try different communication routes.

Who are the best grant proposal collaborators?

There’s no single formula for successful collaboration in grant proposals. The best collaborators in your case will depend on a range of factors.

Funding opportunity requirements and collaborator’s eligibility

Eligibility is different for each funding opportunity. For example, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) requires the principal investigator to be based in the UK. But a researcher from a different country could be part of the bid as a co-investigator or another team member (e.g., consultant, collaborator). Other sponsors demand that grant applicants collaborate with organizations or universities from developing countries or with minority-serving institutions to be considered for funding.

Your institutional regulations

You’ll typically need to sign a written agreement to formalize your agreement. This will state the specific terms and conditions in line with your sponsors’ and institutions’ regulations. What is your institution’s current policy for assigning credit for jointly funded projects? What are the procedures for collaborating with researchers outside your department or institution? Universities, for instance, have regulations regarding the use of data, intellectual property, and financial issues (e.g., here’s Harvard’s Intellectual Property Policy). It helps to learn these regulations. They’re vital for budget calculations (e.g., how individuals and organizations share indirect costs). Contact your research supervisor or department chair for guidance.

Two individuals collaborating on grant proposals

Prioritize trusted colleagues

Have you worked well with someone in the past? This could include:

  • Writing a research paper with someone (the publication is proof of your success)
  • Conducting experiments together in the lab
  • Being invited for a residency at a research center This researcher or research institute is a strong candidate partner for your project. From the grant reviewers’ eyes, evidence of previous collaborations is a good sign that you can do the same thing again.

    Consider cultural, organizational, disciplinary, or geographic boundaries

    An article exploring the success of interdisciplinary scientific research teams showed that lasting collaborations reflect shared understandings of teamwork and disciplinary norms. Some collaborations may look good on paper but prove unworkable. This is because of the different personalities and professional or cultural attitudes of those involved. Imagine arranging a meeting during the daytime with an exceptional scientist who’s a night person. Although, if you’re on opposite sides of the world, this may be a blessing! Also, gender roles, religious holidays, and working customs in your country may differ vastly from those of other cultures. For example, it’s rare for many Europeans to work on the weekend, though it’s not rare among Japanese and hustle-oriented Americans. Before choosing your grant proposal collaborators, set mutual expectations. If you’re thinking of collaborating with industry, agree on how the data will be used and how the research will be disseminated. An academic may want to publish findings immediately for their publication record. But a researcher in industry may first want to register a patent on the idea. (Data can’t be patented if it’s already published).

    Examples of how collaborators can help a proposal

    There are all sorts of ways collaborators can help your cause, and you can help theirs. Here are a few.

    Collaboration example 1: Collaboration as a funding requirement

    The grant specifications may require that more than one type of institution takes part. For example, it might ask research institutions exploring lung cancer to team up with a business partner, like a lung cancer clinic, to create a proof-of-concept for a new type of treatment. Other programs might ask for collaborations between researchers and institutions of higher education that serve minority populations. This can be a great opportunity for someone looking into the educational outcomes of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic learners to recruit participants and get valuable qualitative data.

    Collaboration example 2: Young researchers

    It’s normal for early-career researchers to lack confidence if they’re competing for funding with more senior researchers with extensive lists of publications. How can you get funding without a track record? And how can you create a track record without funding? One way to get there is to team up with an established researcher as a co-principal investigator (PI) on a grant. Senior scientists tend to have more extensive networks and access to resources or even connections with funding bodies. Their knowledge, experience, and reputation might impact funding decisions.

    Collaboration example 3: Complementary skills

    A study using data from 6 years of publications across different fields at The University of Florida (a high-volume research institution) found that successful collaborations rest on a delicate balance between similarities and differences. On the one hand, too little similarity between individuals’ research agendas can complicate communication and agreement. On the other, too much overlap of research interests can increase competition. Depending on your field and team composition, look for collaborators whose expertise complements and offsets your own. They might:

  • Bring a different skill set or perspective to the table (e.g., chemists, biologists, and statisticians specializing in epidemiology working together to explore how chemical compounds affect human and animal tissues).
  • Know different technologies or software (e.g., a statistician or developer).
  • Have access to expensive and specialized equipment or the latest resources and facilities.
  • Provide sensitive or otherwise hard-to-find data or access to research participants. (e.g., an NGO can give access to vulnerable or remote populations)

    Resources for finding grant collaborators

  • Pivot is a searchable database providing global funding information across disciplines and tools for finding collaborators.
  • SciVal gives access to the research performance of 21,500+ research institutions and their associated researchers worldwide.
  • CORDIS – Projects is the main source for finding EU-funded projects. You can browse funded European projects and check the involved partners and organizations.
  • Konfer is a UK-focused database for finding experts in a specific research field or business and universities for partnering on funding opportunities.
  • RePorter is an electronic tool for searching a repository of NIH-funded research projects since 2000.
  • Researchmap is a Japanese researcher database launched by the National Institute of Informatics (NII) in 2009.
  • In this library, you can access projects funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand over the past 10 years.
  • This database provides details on the recipients of grants by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Note that some of these require you to subscribe (unless you have access via your institution).

About the author

Adam Goulston is a U.S.-born, Asia-based science marketer, writer, and editor. His company, Scize, helps globally minded scientific businesses and researchers communicate their value. He has edited more than 3,000 scientific manuscripts.

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