A New Administration, New Funding Priorities

Feb. 3, 2021

As the new federal administration transitions in Washington, we invite you to think about what the change means for your discipline generally and, specifically, for graduate fellowships. Most importantly, we encourage you to keep current national and international trends in mind as you formulate your research. Here are a few tips for keeping the big picture in mind as you consider your research or work.


Tip #1 – Find out which organizations most influence the funding in your field


Make sure you know what federal agencies, state agencies, companies, and foundations fund your field of study and stay abreast of their priorities. You can sign up for updates from those organizations. See, for example, the National Science FoundationNational Endowment for the ArtsDepartment of Agriculture, or another area of the government that might fund your research. Ask your faculty about non-governmental support of your field’s research and how those sources influence funding in your discipline, and then keep informed about the organizations’ plans and priorities.


Tip #2 – Reflect on how your research relates to federal priorities and to the priorities of the organizations you identified as important


Many, but not all, fellowships are ultimately federal funds. Federal agencies that fund fellowships will need to demonstrate to Congress that their money is advancing the national agenda. However, we have noticed that federal priorities can also influence or relate to non-governmental organizations like foundations or nonprofits. Thinking about how your research relates to federal priorities can help you make the argument for funding your work. Our new president has outlined four main priorities with the following subpoints: *

  • COVID-19: Free testing for Americans, ramped-up personal protective equipment (PPE) production while ensuring future American manufacturing of PPE, and “equitable” vaccination
  • The economy: Aid to states, localities, and businesses; investing in education and healthcare; and making good on an infrastructure upgrade
  • Racial equity: Ensuring access for people of color to jobs, homeownership, higher education, retirement savings, and other necessities
  • Climate change: Spending on clean energy, building retrofits, and green infrastructure, while helping communities that bear the brunt of pollution


Spend a few minutes reflecting on presidential, congressional, and agency priorities, along with 5- or 10-year visions within your academic field. Even if your interests are not exactly congruent with these priorities, how might they intersect with them?


Tip #3 – Pay attention to how priorities translate into funding


Keep an eye on how stated priorities become funded programs through the legislative and budgeting processes. What types of funding emerge? How quickly? What do those funding opportunities usually cover? In times of crisis, note also how emergency funds may quickly become available. If you see new or one-time funding that fits your research, be sure to apply the first time around; the number of applicants almost always increases dramatically in subsequent calls for proposals. Ask your faculty to keep an eye out for research grants, or supplements to their current grants, that include funding for graduate student research assistants, postdoctoral fellows, and tech support.


Tip #4 – Do not be led exclusively by the funding


Funding is one important force that should shape your research, but it should not be the strongest one. We were reminded of this when reading the story of researcher Katalin Kariko who lost a tenure track position because of a lack of funding for her research interest of using mRNA to treat disease, work which would later become the basis of Pfizer and Moderna and other vaccines. Funding is essential to do research, but the best research is rarely guided by funding. So, keep an eye on funding priorities and how your work might relate to those priorities, but be guided by the research itself, your own instinct, and the wisdom of the people in your field whom you trust the most.


* Source: https://www.bu.edu/articles/2021/bidens-top-four-priorities-explained-by-leading-bu-experts/, 1/19/2021


By Shelley Hawthorne Smith and Georgia Ehlers, Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement