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Finding funds for a field experiment

A case study in securing new sponsors

October 18, 2013 | When ACD’s Gabi Pfister and Frank Flocke needed $2 million for a major air quality experiment, they worked for months to tap unconventional sources of funding.

Frank Flocke and Gabi Pfister
Frank Flocke and Gabi Pfister (NCAR Earth System Lab/Atmospheric Chemistry Division). (©UCAR, Photo by Carlye Calvin. This image is freely available for media & nonprofit use.)

At a brown bag lunch earlier this month, they talked about the low and high points of their unusual—and ultimately successful—odyssey to get backing for next summer’s Front Range Air Pollution and Photochemistry Experiment (FRAPPÉ). They also discussed the lessons they learned about seeking funding from sources other than NSF and other major science agencies.

“You put a lot of effort into it, and eventually you may make the right contact at the right time,” Gabi said.

FRAPPÉ will rely on specially equipped research aircraft, ground-based observing instruments, and sophisticated computer simulations to give scientists and policy makers an unprecedented picture of the sources of air pollution along the Front Range. The project can help policy makers take steps to improve air quality in the region, as well as provide scientists with new insights into atmospheric chemistry.

But for much of this year, FRAPPÉ was very much in doubt. NSF gave provisional approval for funds to fly the NSF/NCAR C-130, but did not provide $2 million needed for the actual research.

Making the situation more complex, FRAPPÉ was contingent on a partnership with NASA, which agreed to conduct an air quality project over the Front Range at the same time. NASA’s participation required the C-130 to take additional air quality observations simultaneously with NASA aircraft—and the C-130 could not fly unless there was funding for research.

That's how Gabi and Frank found themselves in a scramble for the missing $2 million to conduct FRAPPÉ.

They worked closely with UCAR president Tom Bogdan and with Scott Rayder, UCAR senior advisor for development and partnerships. Tom and Scott steered the scientists to Colorado air quality officials, as well as to officials in the oil and gas industry.

As Frank put it, “We had some contacts at those organizations, but Scott was able to send us to a higher level.”

During the spring and summer, the two scientists gave talks to state and industry groups and attended a number of meetings where they could connect with state regulators and others with an interest in air quality. The response to FRAPPÉ, Frank recalled, tended to be: “This is a great idea but we don’t have money to fund it.”

As word about the proposed field experiment spread, Gabi and Frank began getting advice from Pam Milmoe, the Air Quality and Business Sustainability Coordinator at Boulder County Public Health, as well as from Colorado Rep. Joann Ginal and Dennis Arfmann, an environmental lawyer with Hogan Lovells in Boulder who donated his time to help them. Their efforts were pivotal, leading the two scientists to a conversation with Rep. Claire Levy, vice-chair of the state’s Joint Budget Committee.

Levy was impressed with the proposed project and how it could help the state. She took the $2 million funding request to the Joint Budget Committee, which approved the full amount on August 19.

Frank and Gabi are still seeking additional funds to analyze the data that will be collected. But now that they have the state funding, combined with NSF funding for the C-130, they are reaching out to scientists around the community to build a research team for the four-week experiment next summer.

While the process was "exhausting," it was also instructive. The two scientists said they learned a number of lessons, such as adjusting the technical content in their presentations depending on the audience, and emphasizing particular issues that local officials may care about—such as the potential economic impacts of their proposed research.

They also stressed the need to persevere. “I was at the point where I was thinking, 'I can’t do this anymore,’ ” Frank recalled. “And then it happened.”