Many psychological scientists turn first to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) when searching for research funding. After all, with an annual extramural research budget of around $15 billion, NIH is psychology's biggest financer. However, as NIH's budget tightens, researchers may want to consider alternative sources of funding, including other government agencies and even private foundations. Though comparatively their budgets are small, unconventional funding sources sometimes fill gaps left by NIH's slowed budget growth and changing priorities. Private foundations combined spend about $22.1 million each year on psychology-related research, according to The Foundation Center. And such funding sources can have hidden benefits, including commitments to long-term or risky projects and access to unique populations, researchers say.
A case in point is Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute psychologist Wayne Gray, PhD, who found funding and a unique group of experts--submarine commanders--as part of a research grant he received from the Office of Naval Research (ONR). With his grant, Gray fulfilled twin goals--furthering the Navy's understanding of how submarine commanders make decisions and expanding his theories of problem-solving.
While another source of research funding--private foundations--tend to have humanitarian goals rather than military ones, some also seek to foster psychological research, says Laurie Garduque, PhD, a research director at the MacArthur Foundation, which funds studies in aging, development, health and other areas. Often private foundations are interested in actually setting up programs rather than developing undergirding theories. However, a handful of foundations do support basic research, including some projects federal agencies wouldn't fund, she says.
"The government, as a rule, plays it safe," says Charles Nelson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota and MacArthur Foundation grantee. "Private foundations are more willing to take on riskier, unconventional research."
Last year, Nelson and his colleagues received $900,000 from the MacArthur Foundation for such a project--to start an Institute of Child Development in Romania. Government agencies might have shied away from providing startup money to found the center--a long-term undertaking in a politically unstable country, notes former project director Sebastian Koga. Researchers at the institute will study Romania's large population of abandoned children, with the goal of better understanding how early deprivation affects children's development. Additionally, the institute will conduct research that could inform the Romanian government's attempts to transfer the country's roughly 40,000 orphanage-bound children to modern foster care programs.
Private foundations also fund smaller-scale research projects. For example, developmental psychologist Andrew Elliot, PhD, found support from the William T. Grant Foundation to investigate how children learn to fear failure, and how that affects their performance in school. Because of the project's interest in normal child development, it may not have been attractive to disease-focused organizations such as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), notes Grant Foundation President Robert Granger, PhD.
"Our budget is a fraction of that of NIH, of NIMH," Granger says. "But we do support important, groundbreaking research."
A lengthy commitment
In fact, the William T. Grant Foundation earmarks 80 percent of its grants for research projects that contribute to the foundation's goal of enabling young people to reach their full potential. The foundation funds research on such topics as effective after-school programs and pathways to academic achievement. Elliot's ongoing research into fear of failure falls into the latter category.
Since 1998, Elliot has followed the academic achievement of 132 children as they progress through elementary school. In addition to their grades, Elliot uses a fear of failure inventory to measure their failure-related anxiety as well as that of their parents. The inventory directs respondents to note how closely statements such as, "If I do poorly at something, I prefer not to let anyone know," fit their personality.
Additionally, the children report their parents' disciplinary tactics, including whether they use a strategy Elliot terms "love withdrawal." A parent using love withdrawal would respond to a bad report card by turning away from the child or acting coldly, he says, rather than by expressing disapproval of the grade or behavior, but not of the entire child.
So far, Elliot is finding that children with a high fear of failure tend to have parents with similar fears, and the children begin to falter in school starting as early as first grade. Additionally, fear of failure appears to be transmitted--at least in part--through mothers' use of love withdrawal.
"If children learn that mistakes and failures lead to the parent withdrawing from them, the children will select themselves out of optimal learning experiences...which ironically leads to less development and more failure over time," Elliot notes.
How fathers transmit fear of failure remains a mystery Elliot hopes to explore as the students begin middle school--a project he is undertaking with another grant from the Grant Foundation. In fact, private foundations like the Grant Foundation tend to make longer-term commitments than government agencies, Elliot says, and he is grateful to the foundation for allowing his project to grow.
For their part, foundation officials hope that Elliot's research might eventually lead to interventions such as parent training programs.
"Andy is showing how fear of failure is transmitted and how it hurts school performance," says Granger. "Now we can look into how to stop it."
Psychologists involved with the Institute of Child Development in Romania have also found their private sponsor--the MacArthur Foundation--to be flexible and willing to take advantage of newly arising opportunities. The institute grew out of an earlier MacArthur grant, which the researchers used to compare the early brain development of Romanian children in foster care with those in orphanages. The psychologists found that the abandoned children who moved in with foster families quickly began to show fewer behavioral problems than the ones who remained in orphanages.
With such intriguing findings, Nelson and his colleagues sought to take a second look at the Romanian orphanage population using functional magnetic resonance imaging. However, instead of applying for a one-time grant, Nelson and Koga founded a permanent center that would also benefit Romanian scientists.
Once the MacArthur Foundation pledged $900,000 in support of the institute, the Romanian government signed on, donating space in a Bucharest building that formerly housed Romania's largest orphanage. There, Romanian and American scientists will run ongoing research on Romania's abandoned child population. With around 86,000 abandoned children in a country of 22 million, the Romanian government supports far more abandoned children than any of its neighboring countries. Many trace the culture of abandoning children back to the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, who required women to have four children before being eligible for birth control. Because many were unable to feed their children, the orphanage population swelled.
Further study of the children could help the Romanian government better care for them and also add to psychology's general store of knowledge about how early deprivation affects brain development, researchers say.
"They are a good population to study because they are more homogeneous--they have all experienced a similar adverse environment in the orphanage," says Nelson. "The U.S. abused and neglected kids have all had different experiences."
Research at the institute also may serve the practical purpose of informing the Romanian government on how to successfully move children from orphanages into foster care, says Koga.
"Had we not established this institute, the effect of our research project might have lasted a year or a few years," says Koga. "By setting this up we are leaving a real legacy behind."
Psychologist Wayne Gray, PhD, also seeks to solve practical problems while furthering psychological science. In search of such a question, Gray phoned Susan S. Kirschenbaum, PhD, an engineering psychologist at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division in Rhode Island, and learned that the Navy is designing a new fleet of submarines. The new submarines may include a computer workstation for the commander, which means the Navy needs to know how commanders seek out and process information, Gray says. So the psychologist proposed to find out by running Navy officers through a submarine simulation and analyzing their decision-making processes.
"As an effort to do cognitive modeling in a complex, Navy-relevant task domain, the proposal was obviously attractive," says Susan Chipman, PhD, manager of the cognitive science program at ONR.
The task? How submarine commanders solve the common, but thorny problem of locating enemy submarines.
"What they are doing is like playing hide-and-seek in a dark warehouse," Gray says. "You don't turn on your flashlight to find the other players because then they will see where you are."
Instead, says Gray, commanders work with their crew to "listen" quietly to the ocean's sounds through passive radar, attempting to distinguish vibrations of an enemy ship's engine from that of passing merchant vessels.
Gray and his collaborators sought to create a cognitive model for submarine commanders' problem- solving by putting experienced commanders through a simulation and asking them to think out loud. The researchers found that the commanders develop a mental map of what information they are missing--for example, they might know an enemy ship's position but not speed or direction of movement. The commanders then attempt to fill in that information using small strategies, such as turning their own submarine to better hear enemy-ship noise.
"It sounds simple, but they approached the problem unlike any experts I have ever studied," says Gray. Chess players--a common subject for such research--make decisions in a world of perfect knowledge, he says. This allows them to think several steps ahead and develop long-term plans. In contrast, submarine commanders spend most of their time trying to find basic information, Gray notes. And they frequently discard strategies and start over if they sense that the state of the world has changed--that the enemy submarine has moved, for example.
Navy officials won't comment on how, specifically, they used the findings of the research. However, Gray notes that in addition to developing a new cognitive model, he also gained insight into how to study an unusual group of experts. Like the commanders, Gray found that he had to drop old theories of decision-making as data accumulated that didn't fit his schema.
And perhaps similarly, if researchers find their projects no longer fit the priorities of their usual funding sources, it may be time to look for novel solutions as well.
The research dollar overhaul
This article is the last of a series focusing on the changing funding climate for behavioral science research.