7 strategies for funding med ed research

AMA Wire
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Studies show that medical education research suffers from a serious paucity of funding. As fewer institutions allocate dollars specifically for medical education projects, how can academic physicians ensure their innovative ideas find the financial support they deserve? Here are seven key strategies and resources to help.  

Before writing a research proposal, physicians can take certain measures to make their search for funding more successful, according to a recent perspective article on medical education research in Academic Medicine. Some preliminary research steps the authors recommend include:

Look for the right research funding

Authors of the perspective liken the search for medical education funding to looking for a needle in a very messy haystack. Although daunting, finding the right funding “needle” requires researchers to “first identify a haystack that may contain such needles,” the authors recommend.

“The diversity of medical education research topics means that there are many sources for potential funding, although few are directed specifically at medical education research,” the authors wrote. Instead of searching for grants that are specific to med ed, researchers should explore funding opportunities within a variety of organizations, ranging from large public grant agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to small private foundations.

Occasionally, funding outliers will emerge, according to the article. For instance, the AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education initiative in 2013 offered $11 million in competitive grants to help 11 medical schools transform future physician training, the authors wrote. This initiative has now expanded to offer 21 additional schools $1.5 million in grants to fund related medical education projects.

However, “such large amounts of money for medical education research are rare,” the authors noted. “Much more common are small grant programs that may be available through professional associations and societies or through the medical school or university.”

Research the type of projects potential funder supports

Certain agencies, “such as the NIH and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, have very broad and comprehensive research portfolios” and larger budgets, the authors wrote. In addition, private foundations “tend to focus their resources on specifics problems or issues and may accept proposals throughout the year.”

Other funders may specifically focus on international health issues, local community health or research that supports a specific type of learner, such as residents or physicians in practice. Take time to determine how your research aligns with project themes that your funder typically supports, the article suggests.

Search online databases for opportunities

“A growing number of online databases and clearinghouses can facilitate the search among these disparate organizations,” the authors wrote. They also advise exploring institutions that often offer “a health sciences library and informationists” who can help researchers find online databases that contain funding opportunities and learn best practices for effectively using these databases.

“Many databases allow saved searches and weekly email alerts based on these searches to facilitate monitoring of new funding opportunities. However, many of these excellent resources require subscription fees and are accessible only to members of institutions that pay for subscriptions,” the authors noted.

Four databases they encourage educators to search for funding opportunities include: 

  • Grants.gov "provides a centralized location for federal funding opportunities. [It] contains information on over 1,000 grant
    programs. This resource centralizes funding announcements that are difficult to find in individual agencies."
  • Pivot (formerly known as Community of Science) requires an institutional or individual subscription, but it also "provides access to funding opportunities globally. It is not limited to educational research."
  • SPIN (Sponsored Programs Information Network) "targets institutions of higher education and currently contains information from more than 2,500 different sponsors."
  • Foundation Directory Online "provides a comprehensive database for finding foundation support. [It] includes records for 100,000 grantmakers and over 500,000 grants." 

Crafting an adaptable proposal

Authors of the perspective said physicians can use two logical strategies to search for medical education funding: “One is to develop a clearly stated research program around a specific idea and search for a funder who will support that research. The converse strategy is to first search for a funder who is willing to invest in a general area of interest and then develop a research program that addresses the funder’s goals and priorities,” they wrote.

To propose an adaptable project, the article suggests academic physicians pursue a combination of the two strategies by crafting a proposal that reflects both the “researcher’s specific interests” and “the funders’ priorities.” This will help researchers secure funding that can advance their project “while also providing useful and valued research results to the funder,” according to the article.

When using this “middle strategy” for your research proposal, the authors advise physicians “maintain a broad perspective” of their research “domain” and not become overly attached to a specific method of studying it. Instead, focus on how to “translate the goals of the funder” into questions that also fit your individual research topic and interests.

Bundling medical education research with other related research proposals

Because medical education encompasses diverse topics, it may be easier and more beneficial for physicians to integrate their med ed research ideas into larger projects that will help them secure funding.

“Even when a grant proposal is for a biomedical or clinical study, it may be feasible to include medical education research as a component or ancillary study,” the article authors wrote. “For example, a large NIH center (P) grant in diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease may provide opportunities for the study of educational questions related to patient empowerment, provider decision making or team training.”

Developing strong research skills

It’s great to have an interesting project idea but creative concepts alone are not enough to secure competitive research funding. Innovative research “requires sophistication in research design, methodologies, data gathering quality and analytic procedures,” according to the article.

Physicians looking to secure scarce med ed dollars can strengthen their research skills through “local institutional workshops or courses” and “programs such as the Association of American Medical Colleges Medical Education Research Certificate program, or, optimally, through master’s and PhD degree programs in health professions education,” the article authors suggest.

Staying prepared for new funding opportunities

Keep additional research ideas—or even an extra proposal that covers a topic outside your main project—on file in case you learn of last-minute funding opportunities you’d like to pursue on deadline.

“Opportunities for funding appear from surprising directions and at unpredictable times and provide only the briefest of lead time for a proposal,” the article authors wrote. “Starting a research proposal from nothing is seldom feasible in such situations, so it is necessary for medical education researchers to be ready to take advantage of these serendipitous opportunities.”

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