Time for More Grant-Seeking in Business Schools?

Article Icon Article
Tuesday, April 11, 2023
By Rich Klimoski, Benjamin Kessler
Illustration by iStock/Muqamba
Why it’s so important that business schools make grant-funded research the norm in their faculty’s scholarly activities, not the exception.
  • Business scholars are far less likely to pursue external grant funding than their counterparts in the hard sciences, even though their research often addresses societal problems of great interest to funding agencies.
  • Grant funding not only can generate additional revenue for a business school, but also support its larger research mission.
  • To reap these advantages, business schools must build strong grant-seeking research cultures that help faculty navigate the complex proposal process.


It is relatively rare for business scholars to seek external funding for their research. This sets them apart from their counterparts in the hard sciences, for whom grant-seeking is commonplace, if not a requirement for promotion and tenure. This disparity is particularly true for those of us employed at universities that enjoy “R1” status.

However, there is no good reason why business faculty should be reluctant to pursue extramural funding for their research. After all, business problems often overlap with the societal problems in which funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) are most interested. In fact, the world cannot solve “wicked problems” such as poverty and climate change without the expertise that scholars in business disciplines bring to the table.

We recently interviewed three colleagues whose roles include promoting and supporting grant-seeking on the part of their business school faculty. Gilad Chen is the Robert H. Smith Chair in Organizational Behavior and Associate Dean for Research (ADR), at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business in College Park. John Hollenbeck is the Eli Broad University Professor and ADR at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business in East Lansing. And Mo Wang is the University Distinguished Professor, Lanzillotti-McKethan Eminent Scholar Chair, and ADR at the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Below, we share the lessons these three ADRs have learned, including their suggestions for ways that schools can surmount barriers that could prevent faculty from pursuing grant funding. They also offer ideas for creating institutional ecosystems where grant-seeking activities are more easily initiated and sustained.

Why Pursue Grants Now?

Grant-seeking offers three significant advantages to business schools. First and foremost, extramural grants augment revenue generated by traditional sources such as tuition, state subsidies, and development. Second, research underwritten by grant support has an increased potential for achieving societal impact, which is a growing priority for business schools. Finally, grant awards often serve as a metric to support an academic unit’s claim of being a center of research excellence.

Even so, pursuing grants does not come easily to business faculty, as Todd J. Maurer of Georgia State University in Atlanta details in his 2016 white paper (itself funded as part of an NSF grant), which he also summarizes in a 2019 AACSB Insights article. Based on findings from a workshop attended by representatives of 24 research-oriented business schools, his white paper offers a useful framework for understanding the scope of the problem, as well as possible solutions.

Maurer defines four categories of overlapping challenges that prevent grant-seeking cultures from taking root at business schools. These include lack of awareness and skill among faculty, lack of infrastructure and support, lack of perceived alignment with funding agency priorities, and lack of suitable rewards and incentives.

We used Maurer’s framework to structure our discussions with our interviewees. As past recipients of significant research grants, Chen, Hollenbeck, and Wang are working to guide their colleagues to similar success. All three acknowledge that their institutions’ grant-seeking strategies and approaches are very much a work in progress, but their perspectives serve as an informative update to Maurer’s work.

Lack of Awareness and Skill

The most commonly cited reason that American business researchers don’t apply for more grants is that they don’t know how. That isn’t surprising, given that few were mentored in the process in their graduate programs. Moreover, many view grant-seeking as a high-risk endeavor, given that most proposals require a great deal of effort to prepare and the likelihood of acceptance can be low. As Maurer notes, business faculty often believe that these factors render them hopelessly uncompetitive—hence, they don’t even try.

As a former NSF program director himself, Wang notes that a large part of his role as ADR at the Warrington College consists of “hand-holding, to show faculty the ropes and that things can work out.” He works to ensure that every proposal is extensively vetted by more experienced colleagues before it goes to the potential sponsor, and he focuses on racking up small, early wins. “If you can elevate the success rate,” he says, “it’s going to be more motivating.”

Even experienced researchers can be stymied by the differences between the requirements for producing academic manuscripts and those for writing grant proposals. “A manuscript follows this tight narrative flow where you don’t say the same thing twice,” Hollenbeck says. “But because funding agencies are looking for specific information in different places, you have to repeat yourself.”

There are many ways to guide faculty in the right direction, such as providing faculty with examples of previously successful proposals and advising them to use boilerplate text for replicable sections of a proposal.

There are many ways to guide faculty in the right direction. For instance, Wang and Hollenbeck provide faculty with examples of previously successful proposals, to show how the intimidating project can be broken into manageable chunks. They also advise faculty to reduce the workload by having boilerplate text on hand for the replicable sections of a proposal.

These steps can turn an impossible-seeming time commitment into, as Hollenbeck describes, “three paragraphs here, four paragraphs there. When you look at this, it’s like ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

At our institution, the School of Business at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, we try to connect faculty with experienced grant-based researchers from other disciplines. In this way, we benefit from our partners’ grant-seeking experience and add multidisciplinary value to project teams.

Lack of Infrastructure and Support

The interviewees identified a lack of support staff and resources as perhaps the toughest challenge of the four. Our interviewees pointed out that trying to build an in-house support system for pursuing grants can often create a Catch-22: It’s difficult for schools to justify hiring support staff until faculty win big grants, but it’s equally difficult to win grants without having staff already in place.

But investing in the right support staff up front can lead to greater success, which is why the GMU School of Business recently hired a full-time specialist to help our faculty prepare grant proposals. Business schools in the position to hire should also assign staff to support the time-consuming post-award process, when faculty must juggle the complex rules and regulations of their schools and navigate budget stipulations from funding agencies. Having a dedicated resource can be especially valuable when multiple institutions are involved on a single grant or when faculty must meet tight submission guidelines.

When it comes to supporting faculty at Broad College, Hollenbeck lauds the contributions of its research manager Cindy Majeske. At Mason, post-award responsibilities are handled by professionals in the finance group housed in the dean’s office. This group works in collaboration with the university’s Office of Sponsored Programs.

But business schools without the funds to hire a full-time research manager still have options, says Hollenbeck. For instance, they can consider working with another academic unit to split the cost and share the resource.

Lack of Perceived Alignment

Many academic leaders believe that funding agencies and business scholars are not on the same page when it comes to interests and capabilities. But whether this is true can depend on the school.

At the Smith School, for example, “I think there’s actually quite strong alignment,” says Chen. “We have faculty who do research on climate finance or supply chain risk assessment. We have faculty who have been very successful at getting grants around healthcare, technology, and information systems.”

At Broad College, Hollenbeck encourages faculty whose research may appear “unfundable” to reframe their proposed intellectual contributions. Hollenbeck points to one Broad professor who was researching cybersecurity risks in defense-industry supply chains from the corporate point of view. Hollenbeck invited the professor to consider the impact of these risks on taxpayers. With this shift in perspective, the professor produced a promising grant proposal that Hollenbeck expects will interest funding agencies.

Faculty must realize that while research that results in incremental advancements often suffices for academic journals, funding agencies such as the NSF are sniffing for large-scale solutions to systemic problems that, absent a major grant, might never materialize. “Professors in business schools sometimes think that all they have to do is solve the problem,” Hollenbeck explains. “But no, it’s got to be a problem that taxpayer money can be used to solve. And that’s kind of the hardest thing in terms of faculty development.”

Hollenbeck tries to promote such thinking by asking newly tenured professors, “If I were to give you 600,000 USD for the next three years, what would you do differently?”

Lack of Suitable Rewards and Incentives

A case can be made that, unlike physicists, biologists, and psychologists, business academics do not need to pursue extramural sources of funding to advance their research careers. In promotion and tenure decisions, business schools place much more weight on publishing in top-tier journals and meeting teaching standards. Time-poor professors, therefore, will tend to allocate effort accordingly.

In his white paper, Maurer mentions that summer funding for research can be an effective motivator, and Hollenbeck agrees. “Most of our people would rather get grants for research than teach all summer,” says Hollenbeck. Additionally, many schools offer reduced teaching loads (course “buy-outs”).

While research that results in incremental advancements often suffices for academic journals, funding agencies are sniffing for large-scale solutions to systemic problems that, absent a major grant, might never materialize.

Offering seed funding can be another effective way schools can help professors over the initial hump of drafting a proposal. We adopted this method at the GMU School of Business. Similarly, the Broad College of Business encourages newly hired associate professors to apply for 50,000 USD to support career-transforming work such as writing major grant proposals. Broad faculty can also receive 25,000 USD in financial support in exchange for completing a viable NSF grant proposal.

Grant-seeking is becoming an increasingly important factor in hiring and promotion processes at the Smith School. And at George Mason, for example, we are still determining to what extent grant-related research can compensate for a publication record that may be lower than expected.  

At the same time, less tangible incentives can be compelling for some scholars. For example, Chen reports that as the ADR, he can give annual nonmonetary awards to first-time grant proposal writers and to senior faculty who help less experienced colleagues with grant applications.

What ADRs Can Do, and Are Doing

Interestingly, all three interviewees and Rich Klimoski, a co-author of this article, were recently appointed as the first-ever ADRs at their schools. Although each has a somewhat different vision for the role, they share two common perspectives.

First, these ADRs view themselves as connectors, or brokers, who match individual researchers with appropriate calls for proposals and who look for opportunities to place colleagues on interdisciplinary research teams. They also frequently liaise with their counterparts at other schools to promote the integration of business expertise into research questions being addressed by the larger academy.

Second, they all seek to foster cultures of grant-seeking through positive reinforcement and intrinsic motivation, not heavy metric-driven, top-down pressure. This “soft” method can take many forms, such as approaching tenured professors, who may have more free time and bandwidth. Or, it also could mean noticing and responding to subtle cues of reluctance or lack of interest from faculty.

As Wang summarizes, “I look at proposals, amount of proposed dollars, amount of funding, and number of proposals funded. But I pay more attention to the psychological experience. I would rather faculty be happy than drive them toward a certain number. I want them to do grant-seeking happily, not because I twist their arms.”

What Is the Return on Investment So Far?

The efforts we describe in this article are starting to pay off. “At Michigan State, when Cindy and I started, we were making less than half a million USD per year” in grant funding, Hollenbeck reports. “Last year, we did over 2.5 million USD, and next year we are going to do over three.”

At the Smith School and at the Warrington College, where processes are less advanced, it’s about the “building of a culture over time,” Chen says. Wang describes a success story at the University of Florida, in which business faculty recently won a conference grant in collaboration with colleagues from the medical school. “Not a lot of money, but it was a good, visible conference,” Wang says.

At Mason, efforts to promote grant-seeking began in earnest just six months ago. Even so, we have seen a substantial increase in the number of faculty attending grant-seeking workshops, as well as in the number of research proposals submitted to sponsors.

This should reassure others who are interested in creating grant-seeking ecosystems at their business schools. While the solutions mentioned above are important, the most necessary element to success is that ADRs or their equivalent communicate their visions clearly. In this way, they can ensure that internal and external stakeholders view grant-seeking activities as strong contributors to the research missions of their schools and universities.

Rich Klimoski
Professor of Psychology and Management and Associate Dean of Research, George Mason University School of Business
Benjamin Kessler
Research Communications and Outreach Officer, Costello College of Business, George Mason University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.