Google: Grants for Science Research

OVERVIEW: Google runs the occasional high-dollar research prize, but it also makes hundreds of academic research grants totaling millions every year. The company awards funding for computer science and related fields, with a focus on subjects of interest to the tech giant like machine learning and human-computer interaction. It supports both faculty and Ph.D. students.

IP TAKE: Clearly, cutting-edge computer science is Google’s top priority. For faculty members, it helps if you know a Googler who can vouch for you and champion your work. So much the better if your research relates directly to Google’s portfolio of products and services, and you take a “hybrid approach” that integrates both research and engineering.

PROFILE: A common image of Google is a bustling campus of geniuses, riding around on segways and cooking up with the next big tech phenomena. But the company actually has its roots in academia, with Page and Brin working as Ph.D. students when they formed the search engine. They continue to build strong connections to outside researchers at universities. In fact, when not dwarfed by news of million-dollar-plus prizes and self-driving cars, Google is a pretty significant funder of academic research.  

First, the big prizes. Google runs the occasional high-profile competition for technological breakthroughs. The largest of these is the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a $30 million competition to send a privately funded robot to the moon. If you want to know more, click here.

Then there’s the Little Box Challenge, a more down-to-earth, but still bold competition to shrink a high-volume power inverter more than 10 times, down to the size of a laptop bag. This $1 million competition is Google’s latest foray into the world of decentralized energy production, which you can read more about in a post we wrote here. See more details on the contest here.

From there, the opportunities become less glamorous perhaps, but far more plentiful and accessible for a wider variety of researchers. There are a few avenues for funding, but the most active and open one is the Google Faculty Research Awards program, which runs on an annual proposal cycle, with a single funding round deadline in October of each year. Awards have gone to universities both in the U.S. and internationally. American winners were scattered across several of the country’s top universities. It’s important to note that Faculty Research Awards are given only to degree-granting universities. Faculty may apply for awards for themselves as well as for financial support for Ph.D. students, which Google describes as a focus of this program. Past winners can be seen here.

Awards max out at $150,000 and Google says the median amount is $50,000 to $60,000. The model is to give enough to support a Ph.D. student for one year. While Google is not making grants as a 501(c)3, and doesn’t report funding activities as such, its giving in this area likely reaches several million dollars annually.

The grants are for work in computer science, engineering and related fields. Not surprisingly, most fields in which Google conducts research are related to the products and services the company wants to offer is users, such as systems, human-computer interaction, mobile, and machine perception.

Another note on Google’s research strategy: It takes what it calls a “hybrid approach,” meaning it blurs the lines between research and engineering. This means research is focused on rapidly bringing products to its users’ benefit, in a span of a few years at most. While they aren’t opposed to long-term research, they usually try to break it into short-term chunks that can be rolled out and measured. Accordingly, they recommend proposals that have credible and specific outcomes, with clearly described goals and directions. Read the full approach in this pdf and advice for applicants here.  

While the Faculty Research Awards program is the most accessible, there are a few other channels of research funding. For example, Google runs Focused Research Awards (FRA), which are larger, multi-year grants in fields that are key to Google. This program is by invitation only, so applicants need a Google research staffer to push the work on the inside. More information on the FRA and past awardees is available here.

The company also runs a Visiting Faculty Program in which 25 academics a year are invited to work with Google R&D teams, also only by invitation from a sponsor.  

Other awards include the Google Earth Engine Research Awards, which give up to $150,000 to academics “pursuing cutting-edge research in the area of geospatial data analysis” (see past awardees here) and Latin America Research Awards, which “support the work of world-class permanent faculty members and their students at top universities in Latin America” through a one-year award, dispersed through a monthly stipend for one faculty member and one of his/her students.

Also offered are a variety of undergraduate scholarships designed to support students with disabilities, female students, and students from racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in the field.

Having a Googler on your side likely helps with proposals in the Faculty program, as the company assigns sponsors within the company to act as liaison. Having one lined up from the start, pulling for your work, could be a big plus. Be sure to check each program for specifics regarding eligibility and application deadlines.

PEOPLE:

  • Maggie Johnson, Director of Education and University Relations
  • Peter Norvig, Director of Research

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