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I just graduated with BS from undergrad and am employed as a research associate staff by a research team at the university.

I would like to ask for suggestions about how to obtain research funding for my independent project. Most of the funding opportunities are only available for registered students. I am not a U.S. citizen eligible for national grants.

I am working in the field of social science and human-robot interaction and have 2-3 advisors from undergrad research and courses who encourage me to carry on my undergraduate projects and are willing to provide advising. However, they did not specifically offer me guidance of how to resolve the need for funding. It seems like I need to take the initiative to present this research opportunity to them.

  • Do you mean research independent of the research job you have? – Bryan Krause Feb 14 '19 at 21:40
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    Why not go to grad school? – cag51 Feb 14 '19 at 22:13
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I'll make three suggestions, but these are a bit difficult to obtain.

First, if you intend to return to the country of which you are a citizen, then you might explore funding from there, since your skills would eventually benefit them. This is actually available in some places.

Second, you might be able to obtain funding indirectly. Suppose you can convince one of your professors to apply for a grant that will fund your research and permit him/her to support you under the grant, even though you are not a citizen. If you don't need personal support, but only research support, this would be much easier, of course. But you would probably have to do the actual grant writing so that your advisor(s) can submit it with little effort on their own. This, in itself, can be a valuable skill, though obtained with a bit of pain.

Third, you might explore private funding from some interested corporation. These have no real limitations, though the money might be relatively small. But if you have skills that the company might find valuable, perhaps you could work with them, without pay, but obtain a grant for research. I've done this sort of thing, but was in a different (more advanced) situation. In my case the grant didn't support me directly, but paid for such things as travel and equipment. But there might be legal issues that you would need to resolve through the university if you were directly supported.

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I am working in the field of social science and human-robot interaction and have 2-3 advisors from undergrad research and courses who encourage me to carry on my undergraduate projects and are willing to provide advising.

Why won't the advisers help? Promising advising without working to provide an environment that facilitates the work seems more exploitative or inconsiderate than helpful, although perhaps there is more to the story.

I would like to ask for suggestions about how to obtain research funding for my independent project

It depends on the scope of your project. Is returning to school as a graduate student under these advisers an option? Will one (usually small) foundation grant be enough?

I would not ghost write a grant. Unless the adviser were very ethical, with no conflicts of interest, there is the possibility that your contributions would not yield anything (denied grant, or approved grant under someone else's name).

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I assume this is not US-based? There are no a priori restrictions on foreign nationals being Principal Investigators on federal grants in the United States. You actually have other administrative roadblocks to consider as well. There isn't really such a thing as an "independent researcher" unless you are working out of your house, in which case, your odds of getting funding drop precipitously. Awards are made to institutions, not researchers. So the National Science Foundation (NSF) does not give money to your advisers per se. They are simply the technical contact for the project. They do not have the rights to the project that many imagine.

Every university will have a policy on who can receive funding. This is typically called "PI rights", and should be published online in some capacity. Here's an example from Columbia University. On this page, they specifically state appointment types that allow for PI rights. If you are not in one of these appointments, you do not have the authority to seek funding. Universities typically have "exceptions", which involve filing paperwork. You typically need a PI who will sponsor you. Columbia explains their policy on this on this page as well.

The idea here is that you are not in a position that is typically entitled to facility and administrative (F&A or "overhead") benefits, such as having a research administrator assigned to you. The school then has to make that resource available to you at some cost. You also would not fit into the typical mentoring circles that most PIs have access to, where they receive mentoring on technical aspects such as project management. A research administrator can't tell you how to fill out your progress report, only that it is due. Without a dedicated PI mentor, the university would be loathe to approve PI rights.

There are other concerns too:

  • What does your budget look like? Are you going to need help procuring items? Someone to process reimbursements? Are you going to hire people?
  • Is your appointment going to last the full length of the grant? Are you guaranteeing your entire salary? If not, does the university need to commit to the remainder of your salary for many future FY's? If so, who is that guarantee--the PI or a department budget?
  • What happens if you leave the university? They don't have to let you take the money. They may take over your project and reappoint a new PI.
  • What facilities do you need? Do you need a desk or access to specialized resources?

I will say that in the 8 years that I have submitted proposals, only once have I seen a postdoc get PI rights approved for a specific project. It took over a month to be approved by the dean's office, and it was because there was enthusiastic support from tenured faculty. I cannot fathom that anyone without a PhD could get approved for PI rights. It's not that there is always an explicit requirement, but there is a question of what category of researcher would be capable of being a PI and managing a scientific project but also does not have a PhD. Even if such a person existed, if their research and work was so compelling, a PI would surely vouch for them and enthusiastically mentor them. If not, they aren't worth the risk to the institution.

Being a PI is rough. It's really hard to learn how to procure and manage a grant even when you have access to the best resources. You need to work on getting the support from your advisers (and they turn your idea into a grant, but they are the PIs and you could be named specifically in the grant instead of employing generic personnel) or return to a formal path to PhD if you are interested in doing this type of work and having your name as the PI.

Regardless of your academic interests, at the end of the day, your institution has rules in place in order to protect it from individuals who may be unable to fulfill their commitments. Your current academic appointment suggests that you cannot continue this work unsupervised, so you need to remedy that first.

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