Benjamin Bleier, MD, was a resident when he received his first grant, an American Rhinologic Society (ARS) Resident Research Grant. That grant allowed him to investigate the use of laser tissue welding to repair spinal fluid leaks and laid the foundation for his future research into mucosal permeability, the pathophysiology of chronic rhinosinusitis, and endoscopic surgical techniques to bypass the blood-brain barrier.
Explore This IssueSeptember 2020
Dr. Bleier built a career atop his initial and subsequent grants: Today, he’s the Claire and John Bertucci Chair in Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery and director of otolaryngology translational research at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston. He’s also the chair of the ARS research and grants committee.
Like most serious researchers, Dr. Bleier has received significant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which invests more than $32 billion annually in research. Competition for NIH grants is intense, and most grant applications aren’t approved. However, there are many other options for research funding, including private foundations, professional organizations, and federal agencies and departments.
Would-be researchers should focus on building a solid foundation for what will eventually become a “cathedral of work,” Dr. Bleier said. “That’s why these alternative grant sources are so important: They build the foundation for you to get the bigger grants. No one will fund a bigger grant if you don’t already have lots of pilot data and publications to demonstrate the feasibility and importance of your work.”
Early career academics should consider their research goals and needs during contract negotiations, Dr. Bleier said. “You want to not only negotiate time and space—meaning time away from your clinical duties and a physical lab—but also a certain amount of funding for supplies and assistance,” he said. “That’s an important first step.”
Faculty members should also investigate funding options through their institution. The American Cancer Society (ACS), for instance, offers Institutional Research Grants, block grants averaging $120,000 per year for three years, as “seed money” for project initiation by promising junior investigators. If your university has received an ACS Institutional Research Grant, you may be able to apply for funding—assuming your proposed research project is related to cancer.
Local philanthropic support is another alternative. Clinicians frequently work with grateful patients and families. Some of these people may have the means and desire to support innovative research projects.
Asking for financial support may feel awkward. “I used to feel that it was an interruption of the therapeutic relationship,” Dr. Bleier said. “But over time, you realize that there are people who want to donate to research because it brings them satisfaction. You’re actually providing people who would be donating anyway an avenue to do just that. It’s a relationship-building process. The goal isn’t to ask for a blank check, but to engage the patient in what you’re doing.” (Physicians should never accept money directly from patients. Your institution’s development office has staff on hand to facilitate relationships with donors.)
Compared to other funding sources, philanthropy is relatively quick and easy. You don’t have to write a grant; you simply need to talk about your work. Additionally, local philanthropists may be willing to support outside-of-the-box research that’s unlikely to secure funding from other sources.