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4 Top Research Fields for Funding

Looking to kick off the new year with a nice influx of cash for your research? You can buy a scratch ticket and hope for the best, but you may not have to if you’re in one of these four research fields known to attract the attention of the deepest pockets.

Dec 21, 2016
  • Student Tips
4 Top Research Fields for Funding

Looking to kick off the new year with a nice influx of cash for your research? You can buy a scratch ticket and hope for the best, but you may not have to if you’re in one of these four research fields known to attract the attention of the deepest pockets.

Angel Glacier at Mount Edith Cavell. Jasper National Park. Canadian Rockies. Alberta. Canada.

1. Climate change

Despite the insistence of some very public figures (ahem, President-elect Trump) to the contrary, we’re sticking with the scientists on the issue of climate change. And plenty of government funders are, too, which is why it’s one of the hottest -- no pun intended -- recipients of research funding.

In fact, climate change researchers are reportedly so well-positioned for research funding that they’ve been accused of exaggerating the state of global warning in order to pad their own pockets. Aside from the fact that this makes absolutely no sense, it would ultimately be a self-defeating endeavor: In actually fixing the climate change problem, they’d essentially be fixing themselves out of jobs.

Also falling under the broad heading of “climate change” and coming out on top, based on a legislative report on federal climate change expenditures? Clean energy.

Scuba diving on coral reef underwater with fish

2. Ocean acidification and marine ecosystems

On a related note to climate change and clean energy comes the field of ocean health -- specifically pertaining to the detrimental impact of fossil fuels on the ocean and its marine life. This area of study received especially strong attention from the White House under President Obama. Last year, the budget added $15 million for ocean acidification research -- a $9 million increase!

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is also a big investor in ocean acidification research as part of its Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) initiative. Said NSF Division of Environmental Biology Program Director George Gilchrist in a press release, “Ocean acidification is an under-appreciated aspect of climate change, affecting the ecology of organisms and creating novel evolutionary pressures.”

Echoed Irwin Forseth of the NSF Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, “This research on the physiological and metabolic responses of organisms to ocean acidification is essential to our understanding of how these environmental changes will affect the structure and function of sensitive ecosystems worldwide."

3d rendering highrise office building

3. Urban development and mobility issues

As people flock from the world’s rural regions to its cities -- to the tune of more than one million every week! -- the planet is facing a huge change. According to, “This massive shift – a relocation unlike anything in human history – represents a complete reconfiguration of how people interact with the planet. How governments respond, though security, infrastructure, or economic instruments, may well determine if the global urban future will more closely resemble dystopian shanty towns or gleaming metropolises that foster collaboration and increase societal efficiency.”

We strongly prefer the latter scenario, as do governments all over the world willing to invest in supporting this infinitely preferable outcome. (For more on this fascinating topic, check out the work of SPUR.)

woman assistant in laboratory with multi pipette in the clinic, the research of cancer stem cells

4. Cancer research

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the planet’s biggest funder of biomedical research. To what field does it devote the lion’s share of its funding? Cancer. And with good reason: nearly 600,000 people in the US die from cancer every year.

Cancer is also one of the world’s leading causes of death with 8.2 million cancer-related deaths occurring across the globe in a single year alone, and the number of new cancer cases expected to skyrocket to 22 million over the next 20 years, according to the National Cancer Institute.

It follows that government and private entities alike are invested in finding better treatments -- not to mention a cure.

While these four finish big, they’re hardly alone in receiving funding. Wondering about the bigger picture when it comes to government and spending on research and development? According to the NSF’s 2015 Science and Engineering Indicators report, the life sciences claim the largest share of the US’s research budget allocations by a margin of more than twice as much compared to the second-place finisher, engineering. The physical sciences took the third place spot, trailed by math/computer sciences, environmental sciences, psychology, social sciences, and “other sciences,” respectively.

Certainly, going into a particular field just because it’s more likely than others to attract funding is an ill-advised path. But if one of these areas just so happen to be where your passion and skills lie -- then you just might be in luck when it comes to hitting the funding jackpot.

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Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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