Identifying success factors in research fund competition: a case study involving three medical institutions in Texas

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Helmer, Angela Veronica

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Some research institutions are more successful competing for federal research funds. The purpose of this qualitative study was to identify the institutional factors that explain how two groups (more and less competitive institutions) differ in their competitiveness (i.e., their rank in the top 100 research universities as measured by federally financed research and development [R&D] dollars). Two annual National Science Foundation surveys that collect total institutional R&D expenditures and federal obligations data were examined. From these data, three Texas medical institutions were selected for in-depth case studies. Multiple data sources were used and allowed the researcher to explore each institution’s research development over time. Institutional factors identified in organizational development literature as key to an institution’s effectiveness were investigated. The extended research period (1971 to 2000) covered several institutional presidential terms and allowed the examination of leaders’ roles in vii the institution’s research enterprise. The case studies included interviews with key people with knowledge of the institution’s research activities. Four internal factors that facilitated the research enterprise (culture, people, research capacity, and processes) were found to differentiate the highly competitive medical institutions from the less competitive institution. The more competitive institutions acquired federal research funds because their cultures (i.e., core beliefs and values) placed cutting-edge research as a high priority and promoted a strong passion and commitment to an intellectually-rich research environment. These institutions aligned their human and physical resources (i.e., research capacity) to be more effective in innovative research. Concurrently, this research-supportive culture promoted streamlined processes (i.e., practices, procedures, and policies) that facilitated the research enterprise. The less competitive institution lacked such a culture and, consequently, could not successfully direct its people, capacity, or processes toward research; as a result, this institution was less competitive in acquiring federal research funds. Based on these findings, many institutions with research capacity who desire high national ranking will not achieve this goal as they lack the four identified critical factors. State and institutional resources should be directed to those institutions with higher probabilities of success whose cultures, people, capacities, and processes support research or are more likely to be developed.