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By Nicholas J. Altiero

Getting federal grant money depends on knowing where to look.

Those of us who are grizzled veterans of the research grant game may have forgotten how daunting the maze of federal agencies can be for professors in the early stages of their academic careers. It's a labyrinth well worth learning to navigate, however, because the federal government is the single largest source of research dollars for universities. The primary funding sources for academic engineering research are the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Defense (DOD). Between them, they provide nearly 80 percent of all federal support. DOD funding is provided through a variety of agencies, the most notable of which are the Army Research Office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Office of Naval Research, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Before you approach any of these agencies, be sure to visit their Web sites to determine what their current funding priorities are, which program manager is responsible for the area most closely aligned with your research interests, and what the process is for submitting a proposal. Once you have a research idea, you might want to give the program manager a call to introduce yourself and to get her or his reaction. In the case of most of the defense agencies, this initial contact is required and should be followed with a brief "white paper" proposal before a full proposal is prepared.

Of course, NSF and DOD are not the only sources of federal research dollars. The next largest federal sources of funding for academic engineering research in descending order are: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Department of Agriculture. The NIH, by far the largest federal research agency, has been increasing its funding of academic engineering research in recent years and is projected to increase it substantially in the future. Pending legislation to establish a National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at NIH is indicative of the strong direction of that agency toward engineering-related research. As with NSF and the DOD agencies, each of these agencies has its own system for soliciting and evaluating proposals. Check their Web pages and seek the counsel of your associate dean for research or other senior colleagues who are familiar with these agencies before blindly submitting proposals.

The funding priorities of the federal agencies are changing continuously, and knowing what those priorities are today may not be of much value if your proposal is a year or so down the road. That's another good reason to contact program managers who fund projects in your area. Most are very happy to discuss how they see research priorities evolving, how those priorities might affect their agencies and their programs, and what initiatives they are planning for next year and beyond.

An excellent opportunity to hear what all of the agencies have to say about new directions in engineering research is the annual ASEE Engineering Research Council Forum, which will take place near Washington, D.C., on February 26-27, 2001. For more information, and for links to many federal and other agencies see www.asee.org/erc . One final point: proposals are rarely approved the first time they are submitted, and many aren't funded until the third or fourth submission. Should your proposal be denied, don't be discouraged. Request copies of the reviews, discuss the results with the program manager, make revisions, and re-submit.

Nicholas J. Altiero is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council and dean of engineering at Tulane University.

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