Process and Values

What is the process and how are funding decisions made in our Small Grants Program?

Proposals are numbered in the order of their arrival. Shortly after our December deadline for receipt of proposals, they are printed, sorted into piles, and then mailed to each of our scientific advisors. Reviewing dozens of proposals requires hard copies, tangible items that can be picked up and set down again and again in the sorting and winnowing process. Each scientific advisor reviews all of the proposals, winnows out the best 25 and ranks those 1-25. The other proposals not ranked by that reviewer are given the rank of 26. The individual rankings of our scientific advisors are then summed, yielding a composite ranking that drives the board's funding decisions, tempered only by the restrictions (usually geographic, rarely taxonomic) some donors place on their gifts. Low score wins in this arrangement.

Unlike many granting agencies, we do not provide our reviewers with a list of weighted criteria for their consideration. Instead, we urge them simply to use their best judgment, independently of each other. Each has different knowledge and experience to bring to this task, and we expect their rankings to differ as a result. By then combining their individual rankings into a composite ranking, we believe the best proposals become apparent. So, the scientific advisors do the underlying work, but our board is ultimately responsible for funding decisions. This system is imperfect, of course. I liken it to democracy; it doesn't work very well but it's clearly better than any alternative sort of government. Every year, some proposals I thought should be funded are not, and every year some I would not choose to fund do win funding. And that is the point. Our system is designed to prevent the accretion of power in the hands of any one individual or any one body of ideas as a way to open up the process to novel ideas.

This process is opaque. There is no way to tell anyone why their proposal did not win funding. If your proposal does not win funding, please do not take offense or feel too much disappointment, but try to take it stride. Ours is a value-laden process and is unusual. Don't let such a setback slow you down! Every year, we wish we could fund more proposals than we have money to support.

So, what are our values?

We support basic field biological research on all taxa in U.S. prairies and savannas, but we are especially eager to support research on taxa for which funding is scarce, such as insects, fungi, reptiles, spiders, etc. We don't fund many bird projects, in part because there are generally more funds available for the study of birds.

We are most likely to support researchers who do not already have significant funding. We're more likely to provide your first bit of funding than to throw more money on the heap already at your disposal. This makes us exceptional.

We are most likely to support low-tech methods that leave the researcher sweaty. We want the researcher to get out into the field to look at the real world there, and so we value laboratory work a little less, though that is a component of many of the projects we have funded. This makes us unusual.

Though we fund experimental research, we also fund natural history, which is almost impossible to find money for, today. This makes us unique.

We like to fund proposals that anticipate publications and presentations, as this public sharing of information is an essential part of scientific research. We also favor collection of informative museum specimens for future researchers' use.

We favor researchers who are clearly doing their own thing, rather than doing someone else's thing. Our emphasis is on empowering individuals, independent researchers. This makes us innovative.

Is the researcher proposing to look at something in a new way, or is this simply the next iteration of the same old process?

All of our board members and scientific advisors practice this sort of basic biotic research themselves and we are all keen on biodiversity and its conservation, including ecological management and restoration. Is the proposed research likely to provide information that is useful in conservation? This is not a requirement, but it is one value our scientific advisors consider.

Is the researcher operating alone, or is there some teaching aspect to what they propose? Are there research assistants who will also learn through this process?

Is the proposal simple and clearly presented? Some funding agencies prefer to be dazzled by jargon but we value simple clarity. This is why we require you to fit your proposal into the same space that everyone else must use. You must distill your thoughts and your language to fit the space provided on the form. It is also a huge help to the reviewers to have the dozens of proposals all be in exactly the same format.

Some of our scientific advisors want to know why you are proposing to do this research, but others of us want simply to perceive your pressing need to pursue your own interest, for whatever reason. In fact, the proposals most likely to win funding are often those where it is plain that the researcher intends to do this work and our funding, crucial though it may be, is not the driving factor; rather, the curiosity of the researcher is the driving factor.

"We foster curiosity!"

Process and Values

We support basic field biological research on all taxa in U.S. prairies and savannas, but we are especially eager to support research on taxa for which funding is scarce, such as insects, fungi, reptiles, spiders, etc. We don't fund many bird projects, in part because there are generally more funds available for the study of birds.

How Can I Help?

Prairie Biotic Research, Inc. has benefitted from generous gifts of various foundations, and both non-profit and for-profit businesses. These are augmented by gifts from individuals concerned with our prairies. Indeed, we can only offer small grants with continued financial support. Please consider joining these enterprises as a donor to Prairie Biotic Research.