Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Kickstarting innovation for fisheries science

A Technical Memorandum describes a low-cost scientific incubator at NWFSC Contributed by Al Brown October 2016

Imagine a low-cost way to fund innovative research, develop new tools and methods, and invigorate the careers of junior and senior scientists. This is the Internal Grants Program at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

The program is described in a Technical Memorandum published by NWFSC. Written by Robin Waples, the IGP’s director until 2015, Small Investments with Big Payoffs details the origins of the program, summarizes its challenges, achievements, and legacy, and envisions a future in which every NMFS Science Center can reap the rewards of similar programs.

“The investment was small potatoes,” said Waples, “but the benefits were enormous, both in terms of tangible products and management-relevant scientific advancement, and as a boost to staff morale.” In his view, every NOAA Fisheries Science Center should have its own Internal Grants Program. His report describes how this was achieved at NWFSC.

“For a little over a million dollars a year, we could see programs like this at every center in the country,” Waples said. “For about half a million, HQ could support $100K for each Center. With a $100K local match, that would be similar to the IGP.”

These numbers are telling. Over its first ten years, the IGP invested $2.4 million to fund 73 projects. To date, the scientists involved have brought back more than $21 million in new external funds based on research started under the IGP. They have produced over 100 peer-reviewed publications and shared their findings in more than 250 scientific presentations—and these numbers continue to grow more than five years later.

“I won a grant for a pilot study,” recalled Aimee Fullerton, a salmon ecologist at NWFSC and recipient of two internal grants. “We weren’t sure if it would even work or not, but we’ve been playing with spin-offs from that ever since.” Fullerton’s 2005 project, described in detail in the Tech Memo, led to three papers with direct management relevance to recovery planning and improved decision-making for Pacific salmon. Local governmental and tribal groups, among others, have benefitted from Fullerton’s innovative work.

In 2002, Don Larsen, a research fisheries biologist, was interested in studying hormones in salmon. Two salmon may look the same, but one might already be reproductively maturing while the other is not. "We'd always wanted to research it," said Larsen, "but we couldn't get funding for that outside." Larsen applied for, and won, an internal grant.

"It was a two-year grant for $12,000," he said, still seeming amused at the small number. And yet, with that amount, his team was able to develop a tool—a simple blood test—allowing them to accurately make predictions about the life histories of the salmon. This had wide-ranging impacts on fisheries management, especially because of the different rates at which wild and hatchery-grown salmon mature. "Since then," he said, "we've had over $1 million in use from that tool, and it's still growing. I don't know what the ceiling is."

“These are opportunities you wouldn’t get elsewhere,” Fullerton said. “Our stuff never fit into [the large-scale national] proposals. They just don’t fund landscape ecology work.” This is also discussed in the new Tech Memo. Consider some of the differences between the IGP and other NMFS programs:

Other NMFS Grants Programs Internal Grants Program
Award approximately $10M/yr Average total awarded per year, $220K
Focus on specific themes aligned with core NMFS objectives; usually consider only proposals that address these themes directly Encourages open-ended, novel proposals, as long as they are broadly relevant to the mission of the Center and NMFS
Award large sums ($100K–$200K/project), often to senior researchers, many of whom continue to win year after year Awards small sums ($3K–$95K/project; median, $29K) to both senior and junior researchers, up to a maximum project length of two years
Selection and evaluation of applications often not transparent Highly transparent process due to staff involvement at all levels of the program

This theme—that the IGP gave NWFSC scientists the chance to explore research projects and paths that they might not have been able to otherwise—was echoed repeatedly. “The IGP is an opportunity to officially mess around,” said Brian Beckman, a fish biologist who not only received a grant himself, but also served on the IGP’s Review Panel, the group responsible for recommending which proposals should be funded.

“The program allows for innovation from the bottom up,” he continued. “Generally, ‘innovation’ comes to us from D.C., and is often driven by a fire that needs to be put out. It’s useful, even necessary, but it may not always be interesting.”

Larsen has also served on the Review Panel. “Going through that in-house peer-review process, it’s a Center-building exercise,” he said. “You work with colleagues from diverse backgrounds. It’s healthy competition.”

As Waples writes in the new Tech Memo, this fits with the main objectives of the IGP. These include: “[A]dvance professional development of junior scientists; re-invigorate more senior scientists whose research careers had stagnated; promote effective grant-writing skills; promote a diverse array of research projects; and promote interdisciplinary and inter-divisional research collaborations.”

The program, of course, was not without its challenges. In the early years of the program, it was difficult for scientists with little experience or skills in grant-writing to compete with more senior, colleagues. This was perceived by some as unfair, particularly as one of the stated goals of the program was to encourage career development and improve junior scientists’ grant-writing skills. For these reasons, the program split into two tracks—Open and Junior—beginning in its fifth year.

Funding the program was also a challenge, enough so that in one year (2008) the winning proposals could not actually be funded until the following year. A relatively stable source of funding was eventually secured by tapping into the Center Director’s and all five Divisions’ training funds. Still, this did not keep the program from shutting down for three years beginning in 2012.

Fortunately, since 2015 the IGP is once again kickstarting new projects. Under the leadership of Penny Swanson, an accomplished program manager and now Director of the IGP, 2016 was another successful year. Like Waples, Swanson also hopes the idea will take root at other National Marine Fisheries Service locations. "It's been such a success here," she says. "Staff at other Centers deserve to have the same opportunities."