Program and People News
What We Look For in a Project
“We’re trying to encourage projects that bridge the gap between scientific results and actual use in society.”
Wisconsin Sea Grant is in the midst of reviewing 49 full research proposals for the 2016-18 funding cycle. Writer Aaron Conklin sat down with Jennifer Hauxwell, assistant research director, to talk about the review process.
What kind of criteria do you and the panel use to sift and winnow through this sizable stack of proposals?
JH: The first key ingredient for a good project is that the science is of the highest quality. Ultimately, we’re funding research projects and we never want to doubt the quality of the work that results from Sea Grant funding. Beyond that, what we really want to see is whether there’s an effort to get that high-quality science into the hands of people who can use it, whether it’s our public or key decision makers. Bridging that gap is really difficult. As we move forward, we’re trying to encourage projects that bridge the gap between scientific results and actual use in society. There are all kinds of challenges that lead to that gap. To begin with, it’s difficult to communicate science, to communicate technical information. Some scientists are really good at conveying technical information and may use techniques like telling stories and using analogies very well already, but for many researchers, this is really difficult. As we provide support to principal investigators doing research — we want to help them tell their stories. Linking up with our outreach and communications staff can really help researchers share their findings with a broader audience than may have been typical for them.
One other challenge in bridging the gap between science and informing decision makers is that often scientists and decision makers aren’t necessarily in the same room together. Projects where we see collaborations between researchers, decision makers and stakeholders have a definite advantage. That to me is a sign that scientists are trying to bridge that gap. That’s an area where if we focus, we’ll result in what I’d call actionable science, science that will actually be used in society. Ideally, researchers are working with end-users before, during and after a project is underway.
What about the challenge of trying to achieve a balance between projects that focus on more traditional basic science and science that has a more immediate impact?
JH: We’ve always had a good element of basic research in our portfolio. Those are some of the building blocks of what the big picture looks like. And until you have that big picture, you can’t really engage people in a conversation. As we build those pieces and get a picture to work from, let’s bridge the gap. There are some key stories to tell here, too, about the value of basic research and some of the major breakthroughs that have occurred through basic research questions and projects.
One of the key pieces of your job is forging and maintaining relationships with our PI community, whether they’re encouraged to submit a full proposal and eventually funded or not. That has to be a challenging role.
JH: Principal Investigators face steep challenges in finding funding for their research. Last year, the National Science Foundation, for example, funded only about one in five submitted proposals. This year, Wisconsin Sea Grant received 83 preproposals for what will likely result in only about a dozen funded projects. So, the competition is fierce. These funding ratios indicate that Wisconsin Sea Grant as the funding agency has the privilege of selecting the very best science on the highest priority issues. It also requires that we provide the most rigorous and fair process for the dozens of investigators who take the time to put their best ideas forward for us to consider. Given the quality of the projects we receive, I think researchers know they can’t get too down about not being encouraged or selected in a given cycle. They know to do the best they can, to learn from experience, to keep pushing forward and to look for that next good opportunity. A key aspect of my position is to make sure every proposal is considered fairly and that everything we decide to fund is justified. At the core of any review process is a fairness aspect that I’m very committed to. One other key aspect of my position is to support researchers at each stage of the process, even those researchers that may not be funded in a given year. For instance, as I am in the room as a technical panel vets projects, in addition to providing feedback to researchers on their project’s strengths and weaknesses, if there are themes I can pull out for researchers on what makes a successful proposal, that’s something I’m committed to doing as well.
Outreach is going to continue to be a major point of emphasis for successfully funded proposals. What does that outreach element look like?
JH: It very much depends on the project, and outreach can take on many different forms. It can be community workshops, it can be linking up with a local school, it might mean sitting down weekly or monthly for a year with policy-makers to make sure a complex natural resources issue is informed by science, it may be a YouTube video that reaches thousands of Wisconsin citizens. Showing PIs examples and ideas of what outreach looks like is important—a lot of them may not really know what that is. I encourage all PIs to work with Sea Grant’s outreach and communications staff to develop ideas. Working up front with end-users of the research is also a way toward effective outreach. I put a lot of emphasis on the concepts of relationships and conversations. Often science outreach is viewed as a one-way street—researchers informing end-users. But I think the only way to be effective is to think of it more as a relationship and dialogue. See our website go.wisc.edu/ab172s for more tools for researchers interested in pushing their boundaries in engaging stakeholders.
Ultimately, the point of our partnership between Wisconsin’s research community and stakeholders is to have the option to select the best possible projects for the people of Wisconsin. We’re funding work that’s going to help shed light on some of the most difficult science questions that, if we had answers to, inform how we make decisions about how we use our natural and aquatic resources. That’s the ultimate goal.