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Halfway through a one-year study exploring ways to decrease driver distraction, researchers at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute fear they won't have enough money to see the study through. The project is funded by a domestic automaker, one of many industries where useful research projects have been put on the back burner due to the economic downturn, says psychologist Paul Green, PhD, a research professor at the institute.

"We're located in the heart of the auto industry, and right now there's concern not as to whether these companies will support research, but whether these companies will even exist a few years from now," Green says.

To deal with the drop-off in industry funding, the researchers are working hard to ramp up their contracts from the federal government—another one of their major funding sources—and have cut their number of paid research assistants in half.

"Even though students are not that expensive, the cash is just not there," he notes.

They've also made better use of the university's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which links first- and second-year undergraduates with faculty and scientists in need of research assistants.

Green's struggles to find funding have become all too familiar for many psychology researchers. Some scientists, particularly those highly dependent on private funding from struggling industries or private foundations with endowments closely tied to the stock market, have recently had to cut back on nonessential equipment or extra staff.

For some researchers, cutting back isn't a hardship since they have already scrimped for years due to stagnant funding levels and increasing competition for federal grants. Researchers who have become adept at doing more with less recommend that you:

  • Look for other funders. Funding may be down at many federal agencies—at the National Institutes of Health, for instance, the budget increases they've received from the federal government haven't kept pace with inflation since 2003, when the NIH grant doubling period ended—but there's still money available for those who can offer a path for translating their research into practice, says APA Executive Director for Science Steven Breckler, PhD.

"There's a perception that money for psychological research is declining when, I think, the truth really is that what the government is funding in the area of psychological research has just changed," Breckler says. "The key is in understanding the direction in which it's changed."

At NIH, that means every proposal must be clear in how the research will improve physical or mental health or cure disease, ideally drawing from neuroscience or human genomics, Breckler says. At the National Science Foundation, where Congress has pressed to double the budget, funders are pushing for technology-oriented, interdisciplinary and collaborative projects with ambitious goals, rather than individual investigators solving problems incrementally. However, such changes may not be easy for all psychologists to incorporate, he notes.

"Researchers need to figure out a way to define the problems that they're interested in working on in a way that will appeal to other researchers who share similar interests and put the work in to develop a team," Breckler says. "It's a much bigger investment than just submitting your own proposal."

  • Form alliances. Your agency, college or university is not alone in its efforts to slim down and become more efficient, says psychologist Lily McNair, PhD, associate provost for research at Spelman College in Atlanta.

"Funds aren't as plentiful as they used to be, and we can't keep doing things the same way anymore," McNair says. "We've got to be more competitive and more innovative."

One way is to collaborate with other universities around common research and educational interests. In October, Spelman was one of nine colleges and universities to join the Interlink Alliance, an educational partnership dedicated to addressing issues facing higher education institutions. The group plans to conduct research around the best practices for increasing the number of black males earning undergraduate and graduate degrees, and it will also focus on student leadership and faculty development, McNair says.

"As a consortium, we can do more with less, and that's important in these pressing economic times," McNair says.

  • Learn to share. When funding is tight, consider teaming up with other labs to share equipment, space or research assistants, says Sheri Mizumori, PhD, chair of the University of Washington's psychology department. While fMRI imaging plays a key role in neuroscience and cognitive psychology research, the machines can cost upwards of $2 million, and "no one needs an fMRI machine for himself," points out Emanuel Donchin, PhD, a University of South Florida psychology professor.

The University of Washington's psychology and radiology departments share in the administration of a scanner whose user base extends across many departments. To make research more cost-effective for her department, Mizumori pooled the psychology department's funds with the school's College of Arts and Sciences and provost office to invest in a neurophysiology research facility that faculty from all areas of the department can share. "We believe it will pay off in terms of an increase in interdisciplinary and collaborative research," she notes.

  • Consider a different method. Scientists might also consider whether there's another way to get the information they're seeking, says University of Michigan cognitive psychology graduate student Marc Berman. This might mean skipping, if possible, an expensive fMRI study in favor of pursuing the answer to your research question through behavioral experiments or with event-related potential (ERP) data. ERPs—a record of the response of brain structures to specific events, which have a wide use in cognitive neuroscience—are measured using electroencephalograph recording scanners, which are much less expensive and more accessible than fMRI machines. Researchers can also explore opportunities for gathering data or conducting surveys over the Internet.

  • Reassess your data. Downsizing your research program might also include simply making the most of the data you already have, says University of Western Ontario clinical cognitive psychologist Richard W.J. Neufeld, PhD. Researchers can apply existing mathematical models of cognitive functioning to use previously gathered data to glean new information. Neufeld says he's used a variety of probability estimation models to analyze performance changes in patients with schizophrenia. A graduate student then used the information to mimic brain circuitry via computer simulation to better understand the disorder.

"What makes data-gathering so expensive is that you have to have instrumentation, research assistants and space, and you have to pay subjects in many cases," Neufeld says. "There's a great deal of information in one's own archived data and in data that's published that, when analyzed from a different perspective, can yield productive information." Researchers looking for help understanding these mathematical models might also consider reaching out to their quantitative psychology colleagues for advice, Neufeld adds.