Categories: News, Newsletter Issue 2023:2

Establishing an Externally Funded Research Program: The “Why, When, and How” for New and Early-Stage Health Economists.  

By Sumedha Gupta

Traditionally academic economists were not expected, incentivized, or rewarded for seeking large grants to support their research (teams). But grant activity among economists has grown rapidly in recent years with the advent of health economics as a prominent subfield of economics, and relatedly with economists working in more diverse settings (public health, policy, and medical schools) with larger research teams and more established externally funded research cultures.

But with many of us still trained in programs with little-to-no exposure to building externally funded research programs, grant writing may just not be on our radar. Even for those who may be starting their careers in soft-money positions with clear external funding expectations, meeting grant-seeking expectations, in addition to building a publishing pipeline, early-career grant writing may feel overwhelming. So, why are some economists pursuing grant funded research programs while on the tenure clock, particularly in the absence of departmental expectations of external funding? What may we learn from their journey?

I reached out to ten economists, in different department settings – Business, Economics, Policy, Public Health, Medical and Pharmacy schools – and at different stages of their careers, to share why they chose to actively pursue external grant funding while building their research pipelines – right from the start of their academic careers, and the implications of a well-funded research program on their professional advancement.


1.      Marianne P. Bitler, Professor, Department of Economics, University of California-Davis, and NBER [MB]

  1. W. David Bradford, George D. Busbee Chair and Professor in Public Policy, Department of Public Administration and Policy, University of Georgia [DB]
  2. Elaine L. Hill, Associate Professor, Department of Public Health Sciences, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and NBER. [EH]
  3. Jing Li, Assistant Professor in Health Economics, Department of Pharmacy, School of Pharmacy, University of Washington [JL]
  4. Catherine Maclean, Associate Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, and NBER [CM]
  5. Sarah Miller, Associate Professor, Stephen M. Ross School of Business
    University of Michigan, and NBER [SM]
  6. David Molitor, Associate Professor, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and NBER [DM]
  7. Michael F. Pesko, Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University [MP]
  8. Maya Rossin-Slater, Associate Professor, Department of Health Policy Stanford University School of Medicine, and NBER [MR-S]
  9. Laura Wherry, Assistant Professor, NYU Wagner Graduate School and NBER [LW]

Thanks to all of them for generously contributing their time for the benefit of the ASHEcon readership! Below is the culmination of their valuable insights (sometimes with direct cites from our conversations):

Grant writing expectations, and culture

Grant expectations and culture can facilitate early pursuit of grants. Increasingly raising part or all your salary is becoming an explicit department expectation in many types of departments, not just medicine. In fact, “there just isn’t as big of a dichotomy anymore between departments like Econ where you don’t have to worry about grants at all and schools of medicine where you have to raise a big chunk of your salary through external funding. Even in hard money departments, you are likely to need grant funding to hire research assistants or buy out teaching time” [MR-S]. “Being in a department that doesn’t expect you to get grants is a luxury” [DM].

Explicit department expectations to raise one’s salary (i.e., being in a “soft-money position”) is perhaps the most compelling reason to seek grant funding. In fact, in the absence of such an expectation, many may not immediately pursue grant writing early in their career [JL]. Also, as MP notes, serving as a co-Investigator on funded research led by non-economists may cover one’s salary but limits “… research independence, and so external funding is an opportunity to pursue more economics-focused research projects and carry out the study in the way you want to”.  

But other factors may enable early grant writing as well. For instance, some junior faculty may have been funded during their dissertations on their advisor’s grants, thereby having experienced firsthand the processes of grant writing and the benefits of external funding to support research teams [CM]. Or early exposure to informal mentors with grant-funded research programs, potentially in other departments or even universities, may lead to the pursuit of external research funding [DB].

The obvious and not-so-obvious benefits of grant writing

Grants can fund other valuable resources that may help catalyze research as well. For instance, grant funding is commonly sought for purchasing secondary data; buying out teaching in order to focus on research; and funding research assistance, conference travel, publication fees, and summer salary support [MB-LW]. So, grants may be a way to generate research resources and provide the researcher with a little more bandwidth to “… get more done faster. The capital infusion a grant provides is ideal when the project is something you already wanted to invest in” [DM].  And, in light of recent strikes on many campuses surrounding graduate student funding, “… regardless of how you were funding your graduate students, they’ve become a little bit more expensive and so, having more grant money for PhD students, you may be better able to protect the students in your area from budgetary constraints” [MB].

In addition to supporting your ongoing research agenda, grants may be the means to research questions that would not even be feasible without the funding. For instance, grants may fund large-scale interventions/experiments, providing data that you wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise [DM, CM]. In other instances, if you are pivoting to a new field of research as junior faculty, you may benefit from applying for a K-Award (training grant) with a senior faculty mentor, with experience with such training grant mechanisms [JL]. The mentor, an expert in the research area you are trying to enter, not only helps you refine your research ideas, but also provides valuable guidance throughout the grant writing and submission process. Additionally, “I started collaborating with them [mentor] on the K itself and related projects, and the mentors also introduced more collaborators to me which really broadened my network. So, you get to know more senior people who could work with you” [JL]. A K-mechanism may be less applicable to junior faculty continuing research in the same area as their dissertation (thus, not requiring new training) [JL]. But “economists can always learn things. Other people don’t recognize our theories as much, and it’s true that we have good skills when it comes to econometrics, but we’re often woefully ignorant about many important aspects of clinically oriented health that NIH cares about” [DB].

Another challenge to winning training grants is the information asymmetry surrounding the evaluation criteria. For instance, reviewers may base their evaluations on the proposed science, but also on their impressions of the feasibility of the mentorship plan, or they may even deem the applicant overqualified, making success less certain. In that sense, applying for an R21 or even an R01 may be a better option by virtue of having clearer evaluation criteria [MP]. And if you are worried that you lack the experience and may not get funded as a PI, “you can go and find people to add to your team who would provide expertise you are otherwise missing, and who you would learn from and would be excited to work with. That’s something that might not have occurred to me to do in the beginning” [MB]. In fact, “grant activity may be a way to approach potential collaborators who may be more willing to participate on a grant application with you than simply working together on a paper” [MP]. “But establishing a publication record that shows reviewers that you are productive and trustworthy to lead a project is uncommon for early-stage assistant professors in economics. But NIH reviewers are not economists most of the time. And that can be a key challenge. I diversified my publication plan to include clinical and health policy journals to enhance my productivity and increase the likelihood I would be funded” [EH]. But even for relatively junior economists, “if you’ve got a decent track record, particularly if you’ve been a co-investigator on a couple of grants, don’t be afraid to submit a smaller R01. You’ll get benefits for being a new investigator, you get discussed in sections separately” [DB].

Overall, “… it is crucial to know in advance what a grant will or will not support. For instance, “relative to NSF [National Science Foundation], which is another place a lot of people in Econ departments go to for money, I think NIH [National Institute for Health] has the advantage of letting you buyout your time” [MB]. This is important to know.

Another example is foundation grants, as “oftentimes foundations are more flexible in their timing as their deadlines could be more rolling … and their applications could be less involved. So, it’s maybe a bit less of a big hurdle” [MR-S] and may seem easier to apply to. One tradeoff is that “foundation grants often allow data purchases but may not cover investigator salaries” [SM]. Moreover, “foundations sometimes have a set agenda and “… may have a lot more to say about what they want you to do, which can be challenging depending on what their goals are” [MB]. Finally, foundation grants often provide a lower “indirects” payment rate (overhead payments, beyond those directly related to the project, provided by the sponsor to the investigators’ institution to broadly cover all administrative expenses incurred to support the funded research), which may be less desirable for universities/centers. “So, identifying the right grant for your resource needs [and research plans] is critical” [SM].

Other synergies between grant writing and research

Committing time to grant writing may be challenging on a tenure clock, particularly in the absence of clear department incentives. But there are likely to be synergies between writing grants and writing manuscripts for peer-reviewed publications. For one, “The grant writing process and research have a symbiotic relationship. Writing a grant proposal involves defining your research goals, emphasizing their significance, outlining innovative aspects, and describing the methodology—similar to sections in a research paper. Potentially 80% or more of the grant research statement can be repurposed for the eventual research publication. Thus, the act of crafting a compelling grant proposal becomes an advantageous exercise in preparing a concise and impactful research manuscript” [DM].

And, “if you’re thinking about the scientific method, there is something kind of clean about laying down what you’re going to do. Being forced to think about why it matters? Like the big picture? Thinking about a team that would allow you to do an appropriate job of the analysis, overall, not just in the sort of way that we [economists] tend to focus on. But also thinking about what a clinician or policymaker might think about it” [CM].

Second, the grant review process can provide (early) feedback on the viability of the project and policy interest or impact. “There is something about doing research funded by the government. It kind of says that the government cares about what you’re doing … this is something that the nation finds interesting” [CM].

Third, and perhaps more broadly, a grant-funded research program may force you to establish your expertise in a specific research area. “Most health economists don’t automatically have a disease area of research, like a medical school. But I think that always helps. An area where you have some content knowledge, to identify appropriate policies, appropriate questions that are especially relevant to that patient population. So retrospectively, I think [grant writing] was a good thing because it really forced me to think hard about a research portfolio and a topic area that is both of interest to me, intellectually, and policy relevant, that’s fundable. It really forced me to think about how to sell a topic” [JL]. Being a nationally or internationally recognized expert in a research area provides credibility on your subsequent grant applications, improving chances of success, and is also a criterion for promotion and tenure.

Finally, even if your department does not have explicit grant expectations or incentives, building a successful grant pipeline can be “a real strength for tenure or future promotions because university administrators are part of this process (not just your department) and they might not understand the value of different economics journals, but they probably do understand the value of a large research grant” [MP].

Maximizing your grant success – support staff, mentors, and all things administrative

Some school environments may be more conducive to grant success. Environments with established grant cultures also have administrative grant writing staff, who may provide valuable guidance and services to new and early-stage investigators both pre- and post- award (e.g., to fulfill administrative reporting requirements, getting subcontracts and consulting agreements executed etc.), if funded. In fact, “… if you’re interviewing, try to sit down with the administrative grant person that would be assigned to you and talk to them about their experiences to see if these are right for what you need. Don’t assume that because there is somebody at the department or college nominally in charge of grants, that this person has a lot of experience submitting NIH grants, for example. Also, find out how indirects are allocated across different units in the university. If you know how those indirects are allocated, that gives you a roadmap for knowing who to ask for different things you need to achieve your research goals, as those indirect benefits are supposed to be spent helping your research program. So, an informed PI is more likely to get those indirect benefits. Finally, try to get a commitment regarding what unit (department or college) provides grant management services, as these can be expensive” [MP]. Ask the administrative team, “how are you going to help? Are you going to edit our grants and help us improve the writing? Because that’s really important and that’s what our competitors are doing” [CM].

Seeking out mentors in your home department, with experience in successfully navigating the externally funded research landscape, can really help [CM]. For instance, if you’re in a medical school looking to apply for a K-award, seeking a mentor who may have received a K-award themselves as junior faculty, and have mentored others as well may be helpful [JL]. “You can also search through NIH e-Reporter to find economists with successful grant applications and cold email them” [LW]. “Hey, this is my first time applying. Would you mind sharing your proposal? I’m not going to circulate it or post it anywhere” [MR-S]. “You can just look and see what a successful proposal looks like” [CM]. More often than not, people are very generous. [CM, MR-S, LW].

Starting off as a co-investigator on grants and then as a “Multiple Principal Investigator” with someone more experienced with grant-funded research may be other ways to learn. “For folks in a traditional ECON department where people don’t have that much NIH experience, reaching out to your friends in sociology or in other places who may have more experience with getting money from that source may be a great option” [MB]. Once, in the, say NIH, system, participating in a review section may be very helpful as well. “Because it’s really useful for understanding how these things actually operate…like how you receive the scores you see. Pre-COVID, it used to be that you would have to fly to DC for a week, but now they do it by Zoom. So, the barrier to doing it is much lower, though of course you still have to review quite a few proposals and it is definitely a time commitment, but very valuable for learning how this process works and what is important in order to be successful” [MR-S].

Contrary to expectations, grants can be a “… mixed blessing for departments that may not have resources to cover your teaching buyouts or provide pre- and post- award administrative needs” [SM]. Instances where grant activity is “outside the mold is challenging and can be a real barrier to success” [LW]. Even if your department itself does not have an externally funded research culture, help may be available from the university-level grant office [LW], through your university’s medical school (if affiliated) or through research centers on or off campus, with experienced grant writers, support staff and mentors who will make the process much easier.

“Early on I benefited a lot from the NBER grants management team. NBER was pivotal in helping me develop my grant-writing sea legs, and I have continued to run grants through them while also aiming to run an appropriate distribution of grants through my university. The NBER uses the overhead generated by grants they manage to support and promote economics research, such as by organizing conferences and providing data resources and IT services. I have benefited from these activities and resources, and I’m happy to contribute to those public goods. My university also provides critical support for my research, and it’s valuable to bring in grants that support their mission and operations, too” [DM]. “… those funds are out there, and they’re going to go to somebody. I can bring those funds to my university. They can be used to support the institution. I can fund graduate students, which I personally find rewarding” [CM].

The process…

Grant-funded research is a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach to science. “In many instances, NIH or NSF reviewers may be clinicians or other scientists. So, they may not appreciate your very thorough thinking about your identification strategy, but they might ask questions like – how are you getting any community feedback on your research? Or is your team interdisciplinary enough? A team of only economists is usually not going to get funded by NIH. For example, if you’re looking to study mental health you want a psychiatrist on your team” [MR-S]. “Having in your team a very convincing, concise writer who can really sell what you’re doing also improves your chances of getting funded a lot” [MB]. “Ideally having some joint publications with the team you are writing the grant with, prior to your submission, is also very helpful to show a well-functioning team” [EH].

When considering what request for proposal (RFP) to respond to, “in addition to standard NIH grant deadlines that occur three times a year, occasionally there are special calls for special topics. Since fewer people may know about them to apply, the competition could be less intense for the special calls. They also sometimes have different pay lines, with potentially a bigger pot of money allocated to them. So, if I have a project in mind and see this special call that’s really related, then that’s a really good opportunity. But even equipped with a research idea and a team, it typically takes up to 2 months to put an R01 type grant proposal together. You need a 12-page research proposal, but you also have to produce a lot of other documents and coordinate a lot of things, and university internal deadlines are usually a week or two before the sponsor deadline” [MR-S].

After identifying a potential RFP that may be appropriate for your research question, “the first thing I do is to write the very best “concept paper” that I can. Just a paragraph or two, with an introduction to the issue and specific aims, quite like the first page you would submit on an NIH Grant. I then tack on to it the next two pages of broad overview of the data, empirical methods, people I think I would have on the grant, the timeline, and a gross estimate of the budget” [DB]. At this point “you can talk to the program officers listed on the potential RFP page. I think people underuse that. Of course, they’re limited in what they can say, but I think they’re trying to help people to apply to places that are a good match for their proposal” [MB].

“Program officers’ job is to give away money and the way they do that is by talking to investigators and build up a network of investigators that they can rely on. So, they’re happy to talk to you. They’re not going to write your grant for you. They never say do this. Don’t do that. But they’ll say this fits in with our portfolio. Or you should go talk to this program officer. It’ll fit in with their portfolio better. They can also be an advocate for your proposal in the room at the funding meeting” [DB].

The study section you submit your proposal to can also have important implications for funding success, “if the grant mechanism allows you to submit to a specific study section, think carefully about which study section is likely to evaluate your proposal more favorably based on the membership of past study sections” [MP]. For instance, even though many NIH study sections consist primarily of clinical researchers, “there are these social science ones where I don’t think there is as much of clinical presence. So, if you can find the correctly tailored call for proposals and study sections, requiring significant clinical expertise in the research team may be less of an issue” [MB].

Perhaps even more important than putting together a team and a proposal that will get funded, is to deliver the proposed research post-award, as it has implications for future grant success. Grants oftentimes run over multiple years, requiring multidisciplinary collaborations across large and/or several teams, which can take a lot of effort. Therefore, it is also crucial that you enjoy the functioning of your team because a well-functioning research team can really set you up for success. But knowing what type of team structure works for you may take some learning. MB notes: “Groups with clinicians doing large grant-funded research, have the capacity to get access to data that I would never have. Entrepreneurial in nature, with a full-time person trying to get some source of data and dealing with all the IRB’s and all the paperwork and MOU’s. But at the same time, for me the style of research where the PI and Co-PIs spend only a little bit of time each week on the project and the statistician does most of the data analysis may not be my favorite way of working. So, I think that was a good thing for me to learn about myself. I think the model where you delegate a lot of the tasks, I’m just not as good at doing research in that way. So, for me, I want to be the PI myself and have the physicians be co-PIs to bring the expertise that only they have [and the funder may expect]. Rather than the reverse model. I value the interaction or the insights that they bring, but just not the production process used”.

Parting words…

Just another skill. Grant writing is just like any other learned skill. “You eventually learn how to do it. It has its nuances and there’s insider knowledge for sure. All these things that apply to the “hidden curriculum” behind publishing also apply to grant writing. In Econ, it seems like people are less afraid of writing papers because we’ve come to accept that it’s how it works. And I guess on some level, you have to do the same grant writing. This isn’t really that different. It is just another skill that’s important for research” [MR-S]. But there are resources students and junior faculty can access to make the learning process a little easier. For instance, “students who are interested in careers in positions where they may be required to compete for external funding, I encourage them to go the ASHEcon grant sessions” [CM] (one is on foundation grants and another is on federal grants).

A lot of failures, but then success. Despite all the grant writing success of our interviewees, they unanimously noted how important it is for junior faculty, who are seeking grants, not to get dejected by the high rate of rejections.  As MB notes, “There were probably a lot of rejections behind every successful CV, but not that many of us publish our failure CVs.” EH agreed, “Grant writing is not for the faint of heart and there are likely to be resubmissions after the first submission”. CM similarly noted, “this proposal that I finally got funded, I have submitted variants of that, probably three or four times, and I got terrible scores, or they didn’t even get discussed. I had terrible comments. But I just kept trying. I believed in it. A very successful person once told me, ‘You’re doing really well if you’re hitting 10% of the time, because the pay lines are so low.’ But it’s not like a manuscript you submitted and that got rejected, so you must keep going down the journal tiers until you eventually get accepted. You just keep going back to NIH, it’s like you just keep going back to QJE, QJE, QJE, every time. And eventually you can get a QJE level grant”.