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Blog: Public funding moves research enterprise from pause to fast-forward

By Anthony Boccanfuso

The pandemic ramped up new research in vaccines, therapeutics, personal protective gear, and other R&D to mitigate its effects. But for nearly two years, a wide swath of non-COVID research were impacted—because of changes in resource allocation, pandemic-imposed isolation, lack of access to facilities, and a gap in support systems researchers and their teams rely on (see this research on the pandemic’s effect on productivity and mental health).

Continuing its tradition as the United States’ leading research test lab for piloting new approaches, the National Science Foundation is at it again with the creation of a new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), which has a mission to advance use-inspired and translational research and strengthen partnership-centric research engagement.

One example is the  Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) program’s new offering, the aptly-named SPRINT (shorthand for the Supplemental Funding Opportunity for Supporting Research in Nascent Translation). If you’re not familiar with the PFI program, it offers those investigators with active NSF funding the chance to accelerate translation of research and technology from lab to market by introducing tangible support for commercialization and partnership development. All researchers with a PFI award are eligible for supplemental funding to reignite and boost translational research activities. Awardees can request up to 20% of the original PFI award through this funding. See the details and share with your colleagues.

Why this, and why now? The pandemic stalled the forward progress needed to address gaps in research and technology solutions that solve or mitigate a range of societal problems, and there is considerable appetite to gain lost ground. The impact on publication and professional development are measurable; less mentioned are the effects on unstructured mentoring and research catalysis that occurs serendipitously when professionals gather for meetings, see each other in the hallways, and work side by side in the lab. The pandemic sidelined research that may have since restarted but is still lagging. The TIP Directorate and PFI program leadership recognize these factors and are offering an opportunity to close the pandemic research gap.

Of course, there’s a larger context for SPRINT and for other recently announced funding opportunities (like the PFI program’s supplemental funding for Allowable Patent Expenses [APEX]). The TIP Directorate is keenly focused on accelerating development and deployment of breakthrough technology and use-inspired, translational research to address societal challenges. SPRINT and APEX are a natural way to support those who have current funding move in-process projects forward. There is significant support—both in the United States and among other nations—to recharge and reenergize the research enterprise, jump-start entrepreneurial activity, and catalyze economic vitality.

The recent announcement of the TIP initiative Regional Innovation Engines is a much larger-scale example of this drive. It’s specifically designed to expand capacity for innovation and ingenuity in geographic areas that are not currently home to big tech companies.

All these initiatives have at their core the need to foster fruitful partnerships in pursuit of the societal greater good—engaging universities and industry in research and commercialization collaboration so technology discoveries can scale and benefit more people.  From my perspective, this is the time for UIDP member organizations to hit the accelerator on collaboration and partnership development, to take advantage of these funding opportunities when they align with their research goals and be ready to take advantage of opportunities here and on the horizon.