‘Divergent’ Funding Opportunities as Tools for Reflective Research

By Katya MacDonald
Library Research Facilitator, University of Saskatchewan

A few years ago, as a grad student feeling the financial pinch of multiple extended research trips, I stumbled across an informal, seemingly one-off blog post listing funding opportunities across diverse disciplines and regions. I read the whole list, but nothing seemed like a plausible fit. I clicked on one link anyway; it had the word “history” in it. I was working on a history PhD. Close enough?

Not really; the granting agency funded research that dealt with a very specific theme in a very different region that seemed to have little to no bearing on my work. But the society was offering money and it just so happened that I needed money. So, after some hours with coffee shop treats and pieces of paper with a lot of arrows and question marks drawn on them as I tried to articulate a connection to my work, I submitted an application.

To my surprise, I got the grant. But by explaining my work to a non-specialist audience, and by reframing it to suit the (oddly specific) requirements of the granting agency, I also got a revelation about my dissertation that allowed me to be more precise about my process and motivations. Being explicit about these components of my work led me to clearer, more accessible arguments and away from my own initial assumptions. The process of reframing was exactly what my research needed, and in the end I based my entire dissertation on the explanations I developed for the grant application.

I open with this anecdote not because I think anyone really hopes to replicate the experience of being an impoverished grad student! Instead, I want to expand on what this story suggests about serendipity and the broadening of perspective to see the grant as a potential fit. In the remainder of this post, I consider potential ways to “stack the deck” to take advantage of similar opportunities that, because they aren’t readily predictable, probably can’t form the core of a research project, but that can help to clarify or expand it in transformative ways.

To help focus my discussion, I informally canvassed grant announcements in the areas I list below, with librarian research networks in mind and an eye towards funding opportunities that seemed to sit outside of the most common or apparent funding channels. I wanted to think more about to what extent it’s possible and practical to cast a wider net for unexpected opportunities as part of the research process. Here, I’m calling these “divergent” opportunities to reflect the fact finding them often requires taking a different path than usual.

Where to look for divergent opportunities?

– Research and grant communications in adjacent/cognate disciplines, or in disciplines asking similar methodological/ethical/theoretical/practical questions
– Grants and agencies based in other countries that may offer awards with broader eligibility
– Research listservs (e.g. university-specific, H-Net groups, multidisciplinary and discipline-specific)
– Prizes (e.g. for articles, professional activities, conference papers) – these are sometimes structured around broad themes or questions, rather than specific, discipline-defined topics
– Smaller-scale grants or other opportunities may have more flexible requirements and require less investment of time if they feel like a long shot

How do we know a grant opportunity when we see it? (Or, how to think about research to encompass a broad scope of grant opportunities?)

– Research as a story: main plot points probably support the larger/most relevant funding opportunities, but side plots or incidental moments can branch out to additional, supplemental funding
– Identifying themes, questions, or concerns in common is sometimes easier than identifying a topic in common
– Conceptualizing research in terms of its relevance or novelty to a new or unexplored audience
– Describing projects to new audiences often creates new ways of depicting the importance of the research

Why invest time and effort into applications that might seem random or unlikely?

– Doesn’t have to involve a large investment of time: reframing is a way of gaining access to expanded opportunities – not changing the project, just emphasizing different aspects of it to suit broader or more diverse audiences
– Kickstarting a project that lacks direction or momentum
– Building innovative research connections and conversations
– Impetus and support for engaging ideas that might not otherwise comprise an entire research project
– Can serve as catalysts for expanding awareness/impact/scope of existing research
– Small, divergent grant applications can also become conference papers and/or articles

But is it just too out there?

– Applying for divergent grant opportunities is an exercise in determining the difference between non-negotiable ineligibility vs. finding ways to fit within requirements using novel or unexpected framing
– Innovative thinking and strong, well-justified ideas are nearly always welcome even if they don’t end up being fundable in the context of a specific grant

The question above that especially stands out to me is whether or how to justify the time spent on these kinds of divergent opportunities. In my opening anecdote, the eventual benefits were well worth the investment. But particularly given the unpredictable nature of when these opportunities crop up, that may not always be the case. Is it best to consider them as single-dose antidotes to burnout (certainly also the case in my opening anecdote), rather than as regular features of the research process? Or is there room to keep an eye out for a broader swath of seemingly unrelated opportunities as a matter of habit and as a tool for thoughtful research, just in case they lead to new insights and activities?

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.