Innovations in Granting: Expert Networking

Matching Experts to Opportunities

This is the third of four posts in a series focusing on innovations in the grantmaking process. In addition to this series, others in this publication focus on innovations before and after the selection process. Head back to the table of contents for an at-a-glance look at the whole publication including our introduction on the importance of open and effective grantmaking innovations for improving the legitimacy and effectiveness of grant-based public investments.

Summary: Recent advances in information retrieval technology and the large-scale availability of relevant data about people’s skills have made it possible to develop platforms that can automate the process of expressing, locating, and matching expertise within and across organizations. Such systems could help grantmaking bodies target both potential judges (e.g. for peer review panels) or applicants based on their knowledge, experience, and expertise.

Due to recent advances in information retrieval technology and the large-scale availability of digital traces of knowledge-related activities, it is possible to develop platforms that can fully automate the process of expressing, locating, and matching expertise within and across organizations. Expert networking platforms such as LinkedIn — also called people search, expert discovery, expertise retrieval, expert finding, expert profiling, and e-expertise tools — entail software and associated algorithms that help to answer the question: who is an expert on a topic?

Generally speaking, these tools incorporate profiles showcasing what people know. Using a combination of data scraped from social and professional networking sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn, from public sources such as website profiles and publication records, and from profiles provided by users themselves or from referrals, these tools rely on rich schema for organizing data from myriad sources into easily searchable directories.

Where a MacArthur Research Network tends to rely on networks of those they already know (the rolodex approach) and prize-backed challenges throw open the invitation to participate and hope people come (the open call approach), expert networking tools target specific people with the right expertise and match them to opportunities to participate. LinkedIn itself gives nonprofits tools they can use to search its membership for board members with relevant knowledge and experience. Early adopters within government are also making use of such tools. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, is experimenting with the use of an expert network called Harvard Profiles to algorithmically match government employees to opportunities to serve on medical device regulatory review panels. The hope is that matching technology can accelerate the process of finding the right people to assess ever more complicated and cutting-edge inventions.

Although not yet widely used in the grantmaking context, it is a small leap to imagine the application of such tools to connect people with the appropriate know-how and expertise to opportunities to serve on peer review panels for grants, or even to target particular people to ensure they are aware of the opportunity to apply for particularly relevant grants. Tools and approaches for expert networking are still evolving but the world is on the cusp of an expertise revolution, not just an information revolution.

We recognize that — particularly when compared to the other, better-documented innovations in this series — expert networking is on the more speculative end of the spectrum. But while part of our motivation for creating this series is certainly to document and study past innovations, we also hope to sketch out some of the possible terrain yet to be explored.

Why Do It:

  • Stronger applicants: Automation technology can make it easier and more efficient for government agencies to connect with the strongest potential applicants, many of whom might not otherwise learn about the grant at all.
  • Stronger judges: Peer review panels work best when they draw from a strong and diverse group of relevant experts. Expert networking technology can augment human recruiting efforts to improve the quality of judging.

Why Not Do It:

  • Leaving room for serendipity: When attracting an especially broad or diverse body input into the judging process is a particular priority, grantmaking entities may not wish to use overly-specific criteria in targeting invitations to participate.

Click here for the next post in our series on innovations in judging and awarding grants, or head back to the table of contents for an at-a-glance look at the whole publication.