Early-career funding sources: you will not find what you do not seek
Colin Evans adopted four principles to secure funding after his first postdoctoral fellowship application was unsuccessful.
During my postdoctoral training at the University of Cambridge, UK, I reached the final round of applications for a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship, offered by the research charity Wellcome in London — but my research proposal was ultimately rejected. After getting over my initial disappointment, I chose to seek out less obvious funding sources. I realized that the major sources of financial support for early-career researchers are hugely competitive: success rates usually range from 10–40%, and failure is deflating and time-consuming.
So, I looked elsewhere. Over the next few years while still at Cambridge, I managed to secure funding from a wide variety of sources, including smaller charitable bodies, pharmaceutical companies, life-science publishers, university departments and research societies. I received travel grants from several organizations — Thrombosis UK, a charity based in Llanwrda, west Wales; the University of Cambridge School of Biological Sciences; The Company of Biologists, a charity in Cambridge; and Cayman Chemical, a biotechnology company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I also won early-investigator awards — including the Thrombosis & Haemostasis society of Australia and New Zealand in Darling, Australia; the Frontiers in Cancer Science conference; Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge; and the British Society for Haematology in London. These individually modest awards generated a cumulative body of evidence of my ability to find and secure funding — eventually just more than £50,000 (US$66,000) over 6 years — to support my progression from unfunded, newly qualified scientist to funded research-faculty member.
There are several reasons to apply for money from unusual sources. Perhaps you don’t have enough time to complete a full proposal for a major funding scheme. Or maybe you are attempting to bolster your CV before applying for a promotion. There doesn’t have to be a specific rationale; your choice might just be a good place to apply. But this is not to say that established funding sources should be ignored, or that it is easier to gain funding through less obvious sources. In fact, by no means were all of my attempts successful.
Applications to alternative funding sources can provide valuable training in grant writing; in my case, my improved grant-writing skills contributed to the receipt of a career development award from the American Heart Association, based in Dallas, Texas. It is difficult to say whether early-stage research awards from less apparent sources will change the course of a career. Regardless, in my experience, these four principles could improve your chances of a successful career:
1. Be transparent.
Talk to your supervisor(s) and give them with details about the application. Perhaps offer to provide the information that you would like to be included in a letter of recommendation. If necessary, politely remind them of the reasons you want to apply, and that your success would reflect favourably on their laboratory. Fortunately for me, my supervisors have been supportive of my applications — but many group leaders might not have enough time to go through all your applications in detail, and could even question the value of applying for such awards on a regular basis. Hopefully, they will at least be willing to provide you with permission to apply.
2. Cast a wide net.
Funding schemes can be identified using online search engines, such as Research Professional and Funding Institutional. Researchgate also offers a search engine for funding competitions for US-based members. Other useful resources for identifying non-standard funding schemes include the acknowledgements sections of academic papers and presentations, as well as your colleagues and peers. Universities and their departments often provide schemes for seed funding, research exchange placements or other internal funding. Pharmaceutical companies might advertise collaborative grant opportunities aimed at researchers in translational sciences (such as the opnMe schemes from Boehringer Ingelheim in Ingelheim am Rhein, Germany) or travel awards that can be used when presenting work at academic conferences (the Cayman Chemical travel grants, for example). Financial support to attend international meetings is commonly available through competitions from the organizing body of the meeting (such as the travel scholarships from the Keystone Symposia in Silverthorne, Colorado), and even from publishers or individual journals (for instance, the Disease Models & Mechanisms travel grant).
3. Pay attention to details.
Identify the funding opportunities that are appropriate for your career stage. Funders’ eligibility guidelines for their schemes will help with this. It is usually possible to find a published list of award recipients, whose positions you can compare with your current career stage. And note that, the layout and presentation of your application is almost as important its scientific content. An audience will be impressed by a tidy, well-organized and well-presented piece of writing, as well as by what the words themselves say.
4. Learn from your mistakes.
Peer-reviewed funding schemes are competitive; researchers will probably experience rejections more often than successes. Although these rejections can be disheartening, don’t let them demolish your confidence. The peer-review process is subjective, and the opinions of one reviewer do not necessarily represent those of the scientific community. At the same time, do not ignore your reviewers. In fact, carefully read the reviewer comments and incorporate their suggestions into your next submission — which should improve your proposal. Finally, remember that the same, or a slightly tweaked, proposal can sometimes be used to apply for more than one award.
In the end, most investigators are likely to obtain the majority of their funding from the larger national funding bodies. However, the lesser-known funding sources can be useful when attempting to accumulate evidence of scholarly performance and productivity, even for those who will eventually leave academia.
There are many places to check for funding sources apart from major national agencies.
Examples of search engines for funding sources:
Examples of fellowships and research grants:
Examples of travel grants:
Originally posted on nature.com on 20th December 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03873-x
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Working Scientist podcast: How to beat research funding's boom and bust cycle
Julie Gould and Michael Teitelbaum discuss the highs and lows of funding cycles and how to survive them as an early career researcher. Your browser does not support the audio element. In the penultimate episode of this six-part series on grants and funding, Julie Gould asks how early career researchers can develop their careers in the face of funding's "boom and bust" cycle and the short-termism it engenders. Governments are swayed by political uncertainty and technological developments, argues Michael Teitelbaum, author of Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent. In the US, for example, space research funding dramatically increased after Soviet Russia launched the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, ending after the 1969 moon landing. Similar booms followed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, says Teitelbaum, a Wertheim Fellow in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and senior advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. But he argues that they are unsustainable and can have a negative impact on the careers of junior scientists and their research. Will Brexit trigger a funding downturn, and if so, for how long? Watch this space, says Teitelbaum. Sponsored content: European Research Council (ERC) Retired Portuguese Navy Captain Joaquim Alves, a principal investigator at the Centre for the History of Science and Technology, University of Lisbon, leads the European Research Council project MEDEA-CHART, dedicated to the study of medieval and early modern nautical charts. He describes his career and the support he has received from the ERC. TRANSCRIPT Julie Gould and Michael Teitelbaum discuss the highs and lows of funding cycles and how to survive them as an early career researcher. Julie Gould Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the fifth and penultimate episode of our series on funding. In the previous episode, we looked at a recent major upheaval in the UK science funding environment, with the creation of UK Research and Innovation. This time, we’re looking at some of the processes that determine how funding decisions are and have been made in the past, and what impact that these decisions can have on careers in scientific research. But before we go on, don’t forget that at the end of this Working Scientist podcast, we’ve got a ten-minute sponsored slot from the European Research Council. Right, so funding – how do governments decide where to put their money? Professor Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, has studied how funding has been allocated in the US since the world wars, and he’s found that funding comes in cycles, and he calls them "alarm/boom/bust" cycles, and I asked Michael to give us a quick, simple introduction into what these cycles are. Michael Teitelbaum Government funding for basic research often runs in cycles. Politicians and governments decide that there needs to be more funding for basic research and they often will raise the funding quite rapidly to show a significant effect, but then are unable to sustain that rate of increase. Sometimes the funding even declines subsequently. So, you get a cycle of boom followed by bust, over a period of perhaps a decade. My conclusion is that this is quite unhealthy for basic research, which is a quintessentially long-term kind of activity involving long study periods to become fully professional, followed by long careers in basic research. If the funding increases sharply and then doesn’t continue to increase or declines, that is very destabilising for both basic research itself and for career prospects in basic research. Julie Gould And why do you think the governments react in such a way by actually putting quite considerable sums of money towards whatever basic research they’re aiming to fund? Michael Teitelbaum It’s not universal, but it’s common that governments are convinced by industry or by academic institutions that they have been funding basic research insufficiently, and they tend to over-respond to that kind of representation by increasing funding at levels that cannot be sustained over the longer term. Julie Gould Why would you say that these cycles are destructive towards the careers of researchers? Michael Teitelbaum Well, the problem is that basic research and careers in basic research are fundamentally long-term propositions, and this kind of funding which is for a period of years and then disappears is destabilising to a system that requires many years of graduate and advanced study and research to become a professional in basic research. And research projects that take many years to develop, you can’t really achieve a great deal in basic research in only a few years, and if you study for 8-10 years or more to become a research scientist, you might find yourself, with these short cycles of funding, you might find yourself finishing your studies just in time to face a very poor career situation in those fields. Julie Gould In his book called Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Michael explored some of these "alarm/boom/bust" cycles in the US from the past century. Now one of the examples he uses in the book is the shock of the successful 1957 Soviet Union launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1. Michael Teitelbaum This led to what I would consider to be a near political panic among leaders of the US government, especially people such as Lyndon Johnson who was then majority leader in the US Senate, and led to an enormous increase in funding for space and rocketry and controls for catching up with the Soviet Union in space. That cycle ended with the success of John F Kennedy’s promise to successfully land humans on the Moon and return them to Earth safely by the end of the 1960s. When that spectacular achievement was achieved, the political system tended to lose interest in the massive funding for the space programme and there was a bust. The third cycle in the 1980s was stimulated by then President Reagan’s so-called Strategic Defense Initiative - critics called it the Star Wars Initiative - which led to massive funding, but only short-term for that initiative. And then the final two cycles that I identify in the book were different in the sense that they weren’t military, they weren’t strategic in that sense. The first was the internet, the boom resulting from the internet becoming a commercial activity rather than a research or academic activity and the expansion therefore of the internet and other kinds of booms in the 1990s. Again, that was in the private sector not in the government sector. And finally, overlapping that was a decision by the US Congress and the presidential leadership of both parties to double funding over a five-year period for the National Institutes of Health. A massive increase for five years, averaging about 14% per year that then was followed by flat funding for subsequent years. Julie Gould So, what cycle are we in at the moment? Michael Teitelbaum One of the characteristics of a cycle like this is you don’t know it’s a cycle until it finishes, so we can’t be sure at this point that we’re in an ‘alarm/boost/bust’ cycle. We could just be in an alarm and boom cycle without a bust to follow – we will have to come back and talk in five years to see if there is a bust that ensues at the end. But the current boom situation is in information technology, in social media, in fields that are largely created by industry and particularly by firms in Silicon Valley and in the Seattle area, led by Intel and Microsoft in particular. In terms of their lobbying, they argue they cannot find the skilled personnel they need to remain competitive internationally, that there’s a shortage of skilled personnel in these fields. It’s not a new claim. It’s been a claim that was common in all of these other booms and busts over the previous half-century. But their goal is not to encourage a funding boom from the federal government for their fields because they are in the commercial sector and they’re profit-seeking firms. What they’re looking for – and they’ve been successful in their lobbying efforts – is large-scale access to temporary workers coming from low-wage countries, largely via visas with hot names like H1B and L1 and so on. They’ve been quite successful with getting these short-term, temporary workers – large numbers of them in the hundreds of thousands – claiming that otherwise they would not be able to continue to be competitive internationally. And then there’s also parallel lobbying from higher education groups. Their goals are indeed to increase research grant funding because it’s a very substantial source of revenue for them, but also to continue to have easy access to large numbers of international graduate students who pay full tuition. Julie Gould How can early career researchers keep track of these cycles and see and feel what’s happening and learn to navigate them? Michael Teitelbaum I think the key words would be pay attention and be flexible. If you’re an early career researcher or aspiring to be a researcher in one of these fields, you need to keep track of what we are discussing here in terms of increased funding from government sources or decreased funding, increased numbers of temporary visas or decreased numbers of temporary visas. All of these things will have some impact over time on your personal experience. So, you need to pay attention, for example, to the trajectories of key science funding agencies. I would say a way to do that is to pay attention to reports from credible publications that do report in an objective way on what is happening in the politics, if you will, of funding and of temporary visas. You would have to pay attention to the budget requests of key agencies and assess whether those requests are likely, if they are responded to positively, are they likely to be sustainable over the longer term, or are they likely to be short-term pulses of funding, which would be destabilising. And then those who are already doing research and are funded by government agencies need to be cautious in responding to requests for proposals that seem to be short-term pulses of funding or boom-type funding. They need to build a portfolio, I would say, of different funding sources, rather than depend on a particular source that seems to be flush with money at the moment but may not be in the future. In other words, the same kind of advice that any investment advisor would give to a client – that they should diversify their commitments and thereby reduce their exposure to risk in the future. Julie Gould Speaking of the future, the impact that political systems have on scientific funding and thinking back on the previous episode with James Wilsdon on the UK scientific funding environment, I asked Michael what he thought might happen - or not - with Brexit - or not. Michael Teitelbaum If that were to happen – I know there’s a great deal of concern in the UK among academic institutions in terms of whether they would be able to apply what has become quite a large amount of basic research funding from the European Union – I think that’s all up in the air now so I don’t think we can make any forecasts or projections about what will happen, but it’s an issue that I think should be watched. If I were a young scientist engaged in pursuing a career in basic research in the UK, I would be paying a lot of attention to this. Julie Gould Okay, well let’s chat again in five years’ time. Michael Teitelbaum Laughs. I don’t think we need five years for that one, that’s probably two years, but it’s not now – we can’t do it now. Julie Gould So, what does this all mean? Well, the long and short of it is we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but what I think we can say is that the funding environment at the moment is a difficult one to navigate, so the more skills and tools amassed for writing grant proposals will be vital for survival in the scientific workforce. In the final episode of this series, we’ll hear more about some alternative ways of distributing scientific funding that may alleviate some of the pressures that researchers face in the current, very competitive climate. Now, that’s all for this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now have a slot sponsored by and featuring the work of the European Research Council. Joaquim Alves Gaspar tells of his work in cartography and with the European Research Council project MEDEA-CHART. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould. Joaquim Alves Gaspar My name is Joaquim Alves Gaspar. I was born in Lisbon, Portugal 69 years ago. I joined the Portuguese Navy when I was 19, and I served for about 40 years. In 2006, that is 12 years ago, I started a PhD programme on the geometric analysis and numerical modelling of old nautical charts, which I completed in 2010. In my thesis, I have proposed and tested a series of cartometric methods, that means geometrical methods of analysis and numerical modelling, aimed at a better understanding of how old charts were constructed and used at sea. As soon as I got the degree, I was invited to become a member of a research centre in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Lisbon, where I am now and where I have been working for eight years, first as a postdoctoral researcher and now, after winning the grant, as a principal investigator. Most of what I know about the technical and the scientific methods related to the history of nautical cartography, I learned it from the Navy. I am not only referring to the theoretical background which people can study from the books, but also to the actual experience of contacting a ship at sea, and using nautical charts for the planning and the execution of navigation. It was this knowledge and this experience that gave me the capacity to fully understand old charts, not only as historical artefacts, but images of the world, which is a traditional approach, but also and mostly as instruments to navigate. This is something that a traditional historian of cartography is not prepared to do. By looking into those charts with the eyes of a cartographer and of a navigator and with the assistance of the analytical and modelling tools that I have developed, I could establish a meaningful connection between the methods of chart construction in all kinds, of course, as described in the historical sources and the practice of navigation. This development has opened new and promising lands of research. That is what my ERC project is about. I applied to and I won a starting grant in the section S6 – that is the history of the human past. It was at that time the first ever Portuguese proposal to be accepted in that particular section. It was the first ever grant that was considered to a project on the history of cartography and also, as far as I know, no one is using these kinds of techniques to study old maps. The total amount of the grant is about €1.2 million, to be applied during five years. The funding will be mostly used to pay the six grantees now working with us to cover travel expenses and to buy some equipment. We have a team of eight members: the PI (myself), a retired Navy officer, a senior researcher who is a physicist who converted to the history of science and he is now the head of the department of history and philosophy science, a postdoctoral researcher who is also a physicist by education, three PhD students, a junior computer expert who is developing our information systems and a project manager and she is a neuroscientist by education. Of these, only one of the PhD students is an historian by education. This tells us something about what I have called the multidisciplinary nature of my project. The general objective of the project, as stated in my proposal, is to solve a series of questions which have, should I say, eluded historians of cartography for a very long time, pertaining to the birth, the technical evolution and the use of nautical charts during the Middle Ages and also the early modern period. For example, we want to clarify when, how, why and where the first nautical charts were constructed. This is a very popular subject among the international community of historians of cartography. Not only we have been very successful in bringing many of them to the discussion, but also significant progress has been made in the last year. For example, it is now consensual among us that the oldest nautical charts were constructed using navigational information collected by the pilot at sea. Certain distortions affecting the old charts were caused by the use of magnetic compasses to navigate, which as you know, don’t point exactly to the geographical north. The difference is the so-called declination, magnetic declination. The novelty in my project is that we intend to provide good answers to those questions by using what we call a multidisciplinary approach including a novelty of techniques of geometrical analysis, numerical modelling, carbon-14 dating and multispectral analysis of the old parchments, which will complement, of course, the traditional methods of historical research. So far, one and a half years after the project started, the results are promising. Aim the highest possible and don’t just give it a try – do it using everything you’ve got. Don’t be humble. ERC grants are intended to be given to the very best researchers proposing the best projects. If you are confident that you have an excellent idea, one that will make the panel members raise out of their chairs, and that you are the right person to make it work, then don’t be shy. Go for it. However, having made the decision of proceeding to the next stage, you will now need a great deal of humbleness to be able to create the best possible proposal. The reason is that you will have to engage into an extremely competitive process with highly competent and motivated people. In other words, you will have to work hard and be professional. It took me a full year to write the proposal, despite my experience and background. Let me elaborate a bit on this. You know you have a wonderful idea, otherwise you wouldn’t have engaged in the process. The job now will be to organise each idea into a meaningful and visible project, and of course, to convince the evaluation panel that you are the best possible person to make it work. Don’t leave anything to fortune or chance, so that you won’t blame yourself for not taking into account all the variables. That’s all I have to advise. One of the unwritten goals of the project is to pass the message. I won’t live forever and I want my methods and my techniques to be passed and to be used again by other people, and Portugal is the best place because I also want to give a push to the research on the subject of Portugal. Originally posted on Nature Careers - 01 February 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00403-7
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Working Scientist podcast: The grant funding lottery and how to fix it
Julie Gould discusses some radical alternatives to the current grant funding system to help address bias and better support early career researchers Your browser does not support the audio element. In the final episode of our six-part series on funding, Feric Fang, a professor in the departments of laboratory medicine and microbiology at the University of Washington, Seattle, describes how a two-tier "modified lottery" could be a fairer process, with grants randomly prioritised to applications that had some merit but did not attract funding first time round. New Zealand's Health Research Council already operates a similar system, says Vernon Choy, the council's director of research investments and contracts. Its Explorer Grants panel does not discuss rankings but instead judges if an application's proposals are viable and if they meet an agreed definition of "transformative." These applications then go into a pool and a random number generator is applied to allocate funding based on the budget available. Because applications are anonymised, Choy says there is no bias against a particular institution or research team, allowing young and inexperienced researchers to compete more fairly against senior colleagues. Johan Bollen, a professor at Indiana University's school of informatics, computing and engineering, describes how a Self Organising Funding Allocation system (SOFA) would work, removing the burden of writing grant applications. "What if we just give everybody a pot of money at the beginning of the year and then redistribute a certain percentage to others?" he asks. Paid content: European Research Council "We are open to the world" says European Research Council president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. Its grantees straddle 80 nationalities and the organisation has signed collaboration agreements with 11 countries, including China, India, Brazil, Australia and Japan. Helen Tremlett, who leads the pharmacoepidemiology in multiple sclerosis research group at the University of British Columbia, Canada, spent time in the lab of an ERC grantee at the Max Planck Institute in Munich, Germany. This experience, along with the publication of a 2011 paper in Nature looking at how the gut microbiome may be influential in triggering the animal model of MS, had career-changing consequences, leading her down a new research path. TRANSCRIPT Julie Gould discusses some radical alternatives to the current grant funding system to help address bias and better support early career researchers Julie Gould: Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This is the final episode of our series on funding, but just a quick note, don’t forget that there’s also a final ten-minute sponsored slot at the end of this Working Scientist podcast from the European Research Council. Now, throughout this series, we’ve heard a lot about funding – what’s the best way to prepare for writing a grant, how to write that grant, how to make sure it gets read, how to prepare for an interview should you have one, and then we looked a little bit broader at the funding environment. Now, one of the things that I found really interesting, if we look back at the very first episode, is something that Elizabeth Pier said about what her research suggested.... Elizabeth Pier: Given that top 50% of proposals, after you’ve already excluded the ones that really have no chance of being funded initially, there really is a lot of randomness, but even more so, there’s already randomness, such that the applications that have been weeded out, so to speak, and don’t get the opportunity to be discussed in the meeting, might actually have a lot of merits. Had it been assigned to a different panel with different reviewers, it very well could have gone on to be discussed. Julie Gould: So, what you’re saying really is that luck plays a very large role in whether or not your research gets funded. Elizabeth Pier: Yes, that is what our results suggest. Julie Gould: And then add to that what Michael Teitelbaum mentioned in our fifth episode, that the NIH has experienced a period of flat funding for the last couple of decades, which has added stress to the system. Michael Teitelbaum: In the 1990s, was a decision by the US Congress and the presidential leadership of both parties to double funding over a five-year period for the National Institutes of Health, a massive increase for five years, averaging about 14% per year, that then was followed by flat funding for subsequent years. Julie Gould: As Michael mentioned, it’s difficult to tell whether or not you’re going to be in a boom/bust cycle when you’re actually in it, but this prolonged period of flat funding might not be part of a cycle at all. It might be a new norm. Ferric Fang: And I think for a long time, people thought this is going to be cyclical, and things are good and then they’re bad and then they’re good again, and we just have to wait. But I think it’s gradually dawned on people that it’s not cyclical in any kind of an orderly way, and that it may be the new normal for scientific funding, where there’s a shortage of funding for the size of the workforce and there’s a problem with job opportunities for new trainees, and this is something that I think is belatedly being addressed. Julie Gould: So, that was Ferric Fang and he’s a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and he, like many others, is concerned that the current funding system in the United States isn’t working. So, in a time when there’s inadequate funding for the size of the scientific workforce and the researchers are spending increasing amounts of time applying for this funding, what is the best way of allocating not-enough money to more researchers than the system can support? So, Ferric and a colleague of his, Arturo Casadevall, suggest that a modified lottery system, like the one Libby Pier suggested in the first episode of this series, could be the answer. Ferric Fang: And we came up with the idea of a two-tiered lottery system where initially there could be a review to divide grants into these two hypothetical stacks of high-quality grants and then the others, and the other grants could be sent back to be revised and hopefully improved and many of them could come back and eventually enter the lottery. And then you would have the other grants which are all judged to be of high enough quality to be supported, and then you would see how much funding was available, and you would randomly then prioritise the grants and you would fund accordingly. And you could introduce lots of nuances into the system, in terms of the number of grants that any given investigator could have in the lottery. Julie Gould: Now, as well as the benefits of reducing the amount of money and time spent on peer review, Ferric and Arturo argue that it could have wider implications for the entire funding environment. Ferric Fang: And a school that had a large number of researchers could be reasonably certain, based on laws of probability, that they would get a fairly predictable amount of funding based on the meritorious work that their researcher were doing, even though there would be little fluctuations. I think because of the large numbers it would even out. Another thing you could do is go to policymakers and say this is the amount of meritorious proposals that our scientific enterprise is producing and yet we’re only funding a small percentage of them, and this could be the basis for making more rational assessments of how much research funding should really be allocated in a budget. Julie Gould: I asked Ferric what he thought people might think of this modified lottery-style funding. Ferric Fang: I think a lot of people’s initial reaction to it would be that it would be leaving the future of the scientific enterprise to chance. But it’s no more irrational than trying to hedge your bets when you’re trying to invest economic resources for your future and trying to figure out how to make a diversified portfolio. We really want to make sure that our blind spots, in terms of our biases, aren’t preventing us from funding ideas that could really be transformative for society in the future. Julie Gould: Now actually, this modified lottery system does already exist. So, to fund any innovative and transformative research, the Health Research Council in New Zealand set up their explorer grant, which operates as a modified lottery system. Vernon Choy, who’s a director of Research Investments and Contracts at the Health Research Council, told me a little bit about their system and how it’s working for them. Vernon Choy: So, the way that it works is we do use a panel, but the panel does not discuss the ranking of the applications that come through to us. What they do is they provide us with an opinion on whether the application is transformative and we do have a particular definition of transformative. So, they must decide whether the application is transformative and they must also decide whether the application or the research proposed is viable. So, having reached the point where the panel agree that an application is fundable and meets the requirements of the explorer grant guidelines, then those applications go into a pool or thunderball and then we use a random number generator to allocate the funds to those applications using the random numbers that are then ranked, and then we fund according to that random rank to fit within the budget available for that particular round. Julie Gould: And how has this particular mode of allocating funding been received by the scientists and the health researchers in New Zealand? Vernon Choy: Well it’s surprising. At the time, we felt that this was going to be highly controversial, and in some respects, it was and still is, and obviously there has been a continued interest internationally in the explorer grant, but from our point of view, our researchers have accepted both the way that we allocate the funds and also the way that we determine eligibility or fundability. We did a survey back in 2017 of people that had applied for the fund to gauge their thoughts on both the format, the allocation method, the processes overall, and basically, we had quite good from everybody. One of the things – and I haven’t talked about this – but one of the things that we do is the applications are anonymised so that in determining whether an application is eligible, there’s no bias against any particular institution or against any particular team of researchers. When the process was first announced and we had a huge number of applications, and one of the reasons we were told was well this was a fund that allowed young, inexperienced researchers to compete against senior researchers and because there was no bias towards the experienced researchers. The other thing that we’ve investigated is the gender balance in the applications because of the anonymisation, and I would like to say that there was no gender bias in these applications, but from our initial look at numbers, there is still a slight bias towards men – not a huge one, only 3-4% – but it’s still slightly different between men and women. So, that’s difficult to say why that might be. Potentially it could be the style of text and the way that people write, but apart from that we’re quite happy with the explorer grant so far, and I’m expecting that the funds that we have available to allocate this way will increase. Julie Gould: So, time will only tell whether or not this is really a great system, and maybe expanding it further will give people a better idea of how it will work across a larger research system. But there are others who are taking different approaches, and one of these was by Johan Bollen who’s a professor at Indiana University. He and his colleague Marten Scheffer, out of sheer frustration with the time-consuming and expensive funding system that’s currently in place, thought well what if we just give everybody a pot of money at the beginning of the year, and then implement a rule where everybody has to redistribute a certain percentage of their money to another scientist. So, they’ve called it ‘self-organised funding allocation’ or SOFA for short. And here’s Johan describing how it works. Johan Bollen: Essentially, you’re a young researcher, you’ve just been hired as an assistant professor and at the end of the year you receive a fixed and unconditional amount of base funding in your research funding account at the university, and you know that the re-donation fraction is 50%, which means that you can keep 50% of that and then the other 50% you’d have to donate to other researchers of your choosing. You log into a website that could be run by the National Science Foundation and you enter the names. There could even be a pull-down list. There could even be, I wouldn’t call it a recommendations system, but an order completion system where you enter the names of the scientists that you would like to donate a fraction of that 50% to, and when the system has determined that you have completed the list of names and the relative fractions and it adds up the 50% of the money you have received, you hit submit and you’re done. The next year you receive the same base amount and perhaps funding from other scientists that saw you speak at a conference or that read your paper and really liked the work that you do and would like to support it. You add it all up, again you take 50% for your own research needs and the other 50% again, you log into the website and you enter the names of the individuals and how much money, or percentage of the money that you’re supposed to donate, that you wish to donate to them and then hit submit, and you’re done for another round. Julie Gould: But how would you then decide who to give your money to? I mean so you want to get rid of the time-consuming grant proposal writing – yes, I know it can be a painful process – but then how does a person decide who to give their money to if they don’t have all these grant proposals to read. Johan Bollen: This question is asked lots – how do you know who to give your money to – and the thing is that as scientists you’re supposed to know who does the most exciting work in your area. I mean that’s how we write our papers. If you look at the bibliographies in our papers, our references etc., they’re essentially a testament to the obligation that we have to stay abreast of the developments in our area. You’re not very good as a scientist if you don’t know about the work that’s happening in your research area. And so that same assumption is true if people would have to make decisions about who to pass their money on to, and so you can actually show mathematically that under the right conditions, this process of the money being passed from one person to the next could lead to convergence of funding across the entire community that reflects all of the knowledge in the system, not just of one particular individual, but of all individuals that participate in the system. Julie Gould: What would stop people from just funding their colleagues, their collaborators or even their friends? Johan Bollen: First of all, I don’t know whether that’s such a bad thing to begin with. People do collaborate and they don’t just collaborate within institutions, they collaborate externally, but if you’re really concerned about it, you could very easily enforce the exact same kind of conflict of interests rules that we have right now with respect to the submitting and review of proposals. For example, you could introduce a rule that you couldn’t donate to people within your same institution and, for example, that you couldn’t donate to the same people more than two years in a row. You could even mandate that a given fraction of your money goes to underrepresented groups. So, there’s a lot of social distortions that you could fix very easily by limiting on the basis of very reasonable arguments who to donate the money to. Julie Gould: And what about the early career researchers, those researchers that are just starting off in their career in science. How do they promote themselves in order to get some of the funding from other people? Johan Bollen: Well, first of all, everybody receives the same amount of funding regardless of your merit or how well-known you are, everybody receives the same base amount, so all of those young researchers have the base amount to begin with. Then of course there’s a challenge in getting your name out and convincing the community at large that you’re doing good work. That involves going to conferences, giving presentations, getting in touch with your colleagues. These are the kind of things that young researchers do anyway, but now of course it would be crucial to getting their name out. So, I think it would benefit the overwhelming majority of early career researchers. Julie Gould: Nobody really knows how this scientific funding system is going to organise itself over the coming years, but I would be really keen to hear your thoughts. What do you think of this concept of a self-organised funding system or even the modified lottery system which is already in place in New Zealand? Or have you got any experiments or paradigm-shifting ideas of how the funding system could be changed? If you have, get in touch – we would really like to hear from you. Something else we’d like to hear from you about is what series would you like to have on the Working Scientist podcast? So, we’ve now finished our series on funding, but what else do you want to know about? Each series will have five or six different episodes with a variety of experts on that particular topic, but we’d like to get your input into how to shape our future series. So, if you have any thoughts or burning desires about what you’d like to know more about then get in touch with the Nature Careers team. I want to give one final thank you to everybody who has contributed, so that would be Johan Bollen, Vernon Choy and Ferric Fang from this episode, as well as Michael Teitelbaum, James Wilsdon, Peter Gorsuch, Anne-Marie Coriat, Jernej Zupanc and Elizabeth Pier. Thank you again for contributing your thoughts and ideas to this series. And that is the end of this series on the Working Scientist podcast, but before you go, just a reminder that there is another last sponsored slot by and featuring the work of the European Research Council, and in this slot we hear from the President of the ERC, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, and then also from Professor Helen Tremlett from the University of British Columbia in Canada. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould. Jean-Pierre Bourguigno: My name is Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, and my function is to be the President of the European Research Council. I’ve been in this position for five years now and I still have one year to go in my mandate. The search for my successor has started. So, in the sense that when you have reached such a level of success, the first priority is of course making sure that you still are in a good position to continue with this success, and the main priority of 2019 will be to revisit basically every way we do the evaluation because we know we have some challenges. For example, for some of the panels we have reached a size which means that we have to think of organising slightly differently because to do a good job as evaluators, you cannot have too many applications because then you cannot dedicate enough attention to them. So, we are really going to go through a very, very thorough check of all our evaluation systems, of course, taking advantage of all the knowledge accumulated with the scientific people who are members of our panels for evaluation, but also really trying to get advantage over not being too frozen, too rigid or too persistent on the way we structure these… I’ve said we cover old domains of science, but science is changing all the time, so you want to be sure that you adapt to the new emerging fields quickly enough that you bring on board all the right competent people. So, this is really for the immediate future because that’s a priority for 2019, and we want also to announce the new way we want to do the evaluation early enough so that the scientific community will be ready for when it will be put in place in 2021, and the scientific community has absorbed these changes, understood them, and can really adopt them and in particular that we will be able to continue to convince the very best scientists in the world to participate in the evaluation. Well, first of all, I mean ‘open to the world’ is one of our mottos. It means, of course, already that we have on board scientists from I think about 80 nationalities, so it means it’s not just Europeans who are a part of it. But of course, another part is for the ERC to interact with agencies in other countries in the world. We have already 11 countries with which we have signed agreements. For the moment, these agreements are of the type that researchers from these countries funded by these agencies can visit and spend time in some of the ERC teams. Helen Tremlett: So, my name is Helen Tremlett. I’m a professor in the faculty of medicine and neurology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and I’m Canada Research Chair in Neuroepidemiology and Multiple Sclerosis, and I’m a British citizen and a Canadian citizen. I’ve been here since 2001. I was part of a programme between the Canadian government and the ERC, which enabled Canada Research Chair holders to spend time in the lab of someone who holds ERC funding. So, it was a great opportunity to bring together individuals who have complimentary skills and can learn from each other and develop collaboration over the long term. And it was a wonderful opportunity. I was based at the Max Planck Institute on the edge of Munich and they were focused on the gut microbiome in multiple sclerosis. It was so exciting. So, 2011, I can even remember that day. Nature published a paper and they were looking at the animal model of multiple sclerosis and how the gut microbiome may be influential in terms of triggering the animal model of multiple sclerosis. I had no idea that people were even thinking about this, and this led me down a whole new research path and now I’m actually coordinating principal investigator on a study where we’re collecting stool samples from children with multiple sclerosis and controls across Canada and across the US, and so it was thrilling for me to spend time in the lab whose work had really pushed me onto this path, so it was a lot of fun. So, there’s no additional funds attached to it, but it just meant that it was a formal opportunity and your salary was continued as such without a break. You didn’t have to take it as a sabbatical leave or anything like that. And I was just there for two months, but it was a really great two months. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon: During my time we have signed agreements with China, with India, with Brazil, with Australia, with Japan, so of course, these are countries which worldwide play a very critical role. I should also mention South Africa with which we have also developed a very interesting collaboration. Still, we want for the future to actually have more tools. For example, for the moment, the tools we have are only the ones I describe – namely visits by scientists from these places to visit ERC teams. We hope that in the next framework programmes, some more agility will be given to the scientific council, and having the possibility to also accompany researchers from our teams who want to visit abroad. One of the very simple principles of international collaboration is typically reciprocity – that is what you make possible in one direction should be possible in the other direction. For the moment, as you heard, the only possibility is people from these countries to come and visit Europe. We would like also to help and accompany researchers from Europe who have got the ERC contracts to also be helped when they want to visit researchers from other countries outside Europe. Something we reintroduced very recently are the so-called Synergy calls, so it’s a different call from the other ones. They are really for individual principal investigators, as we name them. In the case of Synergy, it’s really to encourage more ambitious, more global projects with two, three or four PIs (principal investigators). Of course, the idea is not to create a consortium. It’s really the idea that people come up with a truly challenging scientific problem they want to address, and we call it Synergy because we want them to really convince us that they are really the right group of people to tackle this. So in particular, we see this as a very specific place where interdisciplinary work can be developed. So, in a sense we wanted to create such a space where really people who need resources and skills and knowledge, expertise from different fields, can come together to tackle a very well-identified problem and to do that together. And so, this has been we have run only one such call so far for the year 2018. We just published the results. So, 27 projects have been supported. I didn’t mention globally the number of projects we have supported – we are typically at 9,000 projects overall supported – but the Synergy project is for very interesting new challenges. So, this is another dimension that ERC and the scientific council wants to tackle – that is to acknowledge the great importance for the future development of research of interdisciplinary work, that people need to learn how to work together but the way we do it is again under the very strict bottom-up philosophy. We just want people to come up to us, come forward with ambitious projects and very challenging problems they want to tackle and to try and convince the evaluators that they are the right people to do that and that they have assembled really the people who can do that in the best possible way. So, this dimension of Synergy is also that we want to be sure that Europe is the leader to tackle some of the most challenging scientific problems. Originally posted on Nature Careers - 08 February 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00525-y
- Career Advice
What to do when your grant is rejected
The day after she submitted a grant proposal last November, Sarah McNaughton listed all the tactics she could think of to boost her chances of success next time. “I expect to be rejected,” says McNaughton. “It is the exception to get funded, not the rule.” Publishing key papers and forging new collaborations were on her list, as was collecting preliminary data. McNaughton, a nutrition researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, studies dietary patterns to find ways to improve public health. For the next phase of her work, she wants volunteers to use wearable cameras to capture what influences their food choices in real life, so she can determine how those vary depending on a person’s nutrition knowledge and cooking skills. After McNaughton had sent off her grant application to Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), top of her to-do list was launching a pilot study. “If we can show that people will wear the cameras, and they capture the data we need, that would really strengthen the application,” she says. A good idea is no guarantee of grant success. At the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2017 — the most recent year for which data are available — proposals worth a total of almost US$4 billion were rejected simply because they were beyond the organization’s budget, even though reviewers had rated them as very good or excellent. At the US National Institutes of Health, the aggregate success rate for research grants was 20.5% in 2017 (the most recent data available). At the biomedical-research funder Wellcome in London, roughly 50% of applications make it through the preliminary stage. Of those, around 20% were funded in 2017–18. And the NHMRC Investigator Grant category that McNaughton applied for had a success rate of just 7% in the previous round in 2019. “Given the low success rates of funding around the world, the odds are stacked against you in winning that one proposal,” says Drew Evans, an energy researcher at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, and former deputy chair of the Australian Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. “Work towards a portfolio of activities,” he says. Aiming for different strands of funding to cover various aspects of a researcher’s work is a safer bet than seeking one major grant, he adds. McNaughton applies the same strategy to any research for which she is seeking funding. “I think about how I can split it up and target it to other organizations,” she says. It’s the first step towards applying to different funders without having to start from scratch each time — and you can work on it while waiting for the outcome of one application. “Rather than writing eight different grants, you are building an area — calling on the same literature and on your same publications,” McNaughton says. Planning for rejection is a crucial part of the granting process, say those who have been through the wringer (see ‘More on rejection recovery’). The limited pot of research funds worldwide means that competition is fierce. “We receive many more proposals — many more very good proposals — than we can possibly fund,” says Dawn Tilbury, a mechanical engineer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who is head of the NSF Engineering Directorate, which funds basic research in science and engineering. MORE ON REJECTION RECOVERY It’s painful when your grant application is rejected, but here are some further thoughts on helping you to work productively after you’ve recovered from your disappointment. • You’re not alone. Average success rates are around 20% among large funders, so grant rejection is common. “Don’t lose heart,” says Shahid Jameel, chief executive of IndiaAlliance, a biomedical-research funder in New Delhi and Hyderabad. Rejection doesn’t mean that your work is flawed. • Give yourself time. Allow a week or so to recover, says Candace Hassall, head of researcher affairs at the biomedical funder Wellcome in London. “When people are turned down, they are angry and upset. Let that play out,” she says. Put the application to one side for a few days before you consider your next steps. • Share your setback. Discussing the grant rejection with colleagues, mentors and others can provide emotional support in the short term, and give you constructive feedback to help you to reapply for the grant when you are ready. “People whose grants have been rejected might not want to tell anybody, but getting advice and input can really help,” says Karen Noble, head of research careers at Cancer Research UK, which funds scientists and health-care professionals working on cancer treatments. • Look for ways to improve. Tackling the concerns of the reviewers who rejected your grant is important. “But don’t assume that just by addressing the issues outlined, you will necessarily be successful next time,” says Noble. It is unlikely that the same reviewers will see your application again, so look at it holistically and strengthen it for the next round. This might involve incorporating key new data, learning a crucial technique or forming a fresh collaboration. • Get feedback. Your revision needs review by a broad, diverse group of people, including colleagues, mentors and members of your network. You should also circulate the revision to scientists who don’t specialize in your field. Rejection hurts Rejection can be a bruising experience, say veteran grant-writers, and applicants need to give themselves at least a week to get through the initial pain. “Take a deep breath, close your computer, go home. Talk to your partner, or pet your cat,” says Tilbury. It’s a rollercoaster that Evans has ridden plenty of times. “You go through the various stages of emotions — anger, disappointment, despair, grieving almost,” he says. “Having time to digest, to get upset and angry — you need to go through that process, because you need a clear mind to come back to it constructively.” But grant-seekers can develop tricks to handle rejection better, says McNaughton. “Part of the reason I make a to-do list is to pull back my expectations,” she says. “Once it might have taken me a week or two to bounce back. Now, it’s 24 hours.” During the emotional recalibration process, researchers should share the setback with others, including colleagues and other professional contacts, says Evans. “It is your network that is going to give you the support and encouragement to keep going,” he says. Peers and mentors can help to put the rejection into context. They might also know of other funding opportunities that can help to bridge an immediate financial shortfall, or of potential collaborators who might be able to bring a researcher into a larger funding opportunity. Ask the funder After working through the emotional component, applicants should next seek feedback from the granting organization. The level of feedback sent out with rejection letters varies drastically, depending on the organization, the scheme applied for and the stage the application reached before rejection. For smaller funders, feedback might not be provided as a matter of course. “That takes a bit of effort to put together,” says Kristina Elvidge, research manager at the Sanfilippo Children’s Foundation in Australia. The charity, based near Sydney, funds up to Aus$700,000 (around US$472,000) annually on research into treatments for the rare genetic disorder Sanfilippo syndrome, which causes fatal brain damage. “I always give feedback to rejected applicants if they ask — but they very rarely do,” Elvidge says. For researchers whose work might align closely with the mission of a small foundation, seeking feedback can be the first step in starting a dialogue and building a relationship with a potential long-term funder. Megan Donnell, the foundation’s executive director and founder, says that the organization welcomes such efforts. Discussing grant rejections with peers can help to put them into context, advises Drew Evans (left), shown talking to early-career researcher Nasim Amiralian.Credit: Drew Evans For applicants to a larger organization or agency, such as the NSF, a rejection typically comes with some feedback — but that doesn’t mean the researcher can’t seek more, Tilbury says. “The programme director might be able to fill in some of the blanks,” she says. The feedback can contain many comments, criticisms and suggestions, and often the grant reviewers do not agree with each other. The programme director can help the applicant to peel away superficial concerns and make sure that she or he understands the proposal’s underlying weaknesses so as to address them in a potential revision, Tilbury says. “It’s one of the things programme directors enjoy doing — mentoring junior faculty members and trying to help them in their grant writing.” Some funders will not have the resources to provide feedback. But researchers should not fear tainting their reputation if they ask, says Candace Hassall, head of researcher affairs at Wellcome. “A funding agency won’t think badly of anyone contacting them for advice, even if we can’t give it.” Get feedback on the feedback Once a researcher has gathered constructive criticism, he or she should candidly appraise the strengths and weaknesses of their application. It is important to avoid taking feedback personally, says Shahid Jameel, chief executive of IndiaAlliance, a large research funder in New Delhi and Hyderabad. It supports biomedical and health research in India, and is itself funded by Wellcome and the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology. “You have to get out of this mindset that there is either something wrong with you, or that people are against you,” Jameel says. “Reviewers really want you to do well — that is why they are spending their time reviewing your grant and providing feedback.” Reviewer feedback often seems less negative over time, McNaughton says. “I often colour code my reviewers’ comments — green for good and red for bad — and then realize that actually, there are a lot of good things in there as well,” she says. “These little things can make the process a bit easier.” And getting reviewer feedback is certainly preferable to not getting any, she adds. For her most recent rejection, she received only numerical scores on various components of her grant. “Then it is very difficult to know how to improve the application,” she says. Unsuccessful applicants should also seek input from colleagues and others whose opinions they value. “Talk to your peer group and your mentors — they will have been through the process and they can help you interpret the letter,” says Karen Noble, head of research careers at Cancer Research UK in London, which funds work on cancer treatments. Researchers can ask colleagues whether they agree with the feedback, whether they think that the reviewers missed an important point because it was not fully explained in the proposal, or whether they consider the proposal’s argument to be flawed. Researchers also need to determine whether they should reapply to the same funding scheme or seek alternatives (see ‘Rejection resources’). If an application fell at the first round of screening — in which reviewers assess the overall suitability of an applicant and proposal for that particular scheme — an alternative funder could be a better fit. For example, some government-supported agencies, such as the NSF, give grants for only basic research, whereas others, such as the US Department of Energy, are mission-focused and fund more-applied projects. “It is also important to consider funders that are not in one’s own nation,” says Jameel. REJECTION RESOURCES Every grant writer will experience rejections. Here are some resources to help you find alternative funding and boost your chances of success. • Seek help from your peers. Blogs run by academic researchers often contain useful career advice and information about the challenges of winning funding. Examples include The Research Whisperer in Australia and US-based blog The Professor Is In. Some are dedicated to research funding in specific regions, such as Research Fundermentals, which covers UK grant news. • Find another grant scheme. It might be that your chosen funder wasn’t the best fit for your proposal. Searching portals such as www.grants.gov in the United States and the funding-opportunities database SPIN (run by US firm InfoEd Global) could reveal schemes you hadn’t previously encountered. • Consider different funders. If your application for a government grant was unsuccessful, try obtaining funds from industry. Also look at small foundations — their remits vary widely (see, for example, http://fdnweb.org/eppley) but your work might align perfectly with one foundation’s mission. • Do some training. Look for short courses aimed at writing grant resubmissions so you can learn the most effective ways to reapply. • Network. Join a group of early- to mid-career researchers to gain advice and support. This might be a national organization or one at your institution. Grant-writers should keep industrial funders in mind, Evans says. He notes that applicants might be able to reshape a proposal to show its value to a particular business, adding that scientists who engage with businesses can diversify their grant portfolio and boost the resilience of their research income stream. Exploring potential applications of one’s work to industry could keep a researcher going until the next round of funding agency grants. “Industry partnerships are now one of the hot topics around the water cooler,” he says. Nailing the details Rejection also lurks after the preliminary screening stage when a grant application enters peer review. “If there’s a particular approach the reviewers don’t like, sometimes you may just need to explain it better — but sometimes there’s a mismatch,” Tilbury says. She adds that many early-career scientists seek to apply a technique or expertise they honed during a postdoc to a new area of research. If the reviewers weren’t sold on the idea, the grant-writer needs to think carefully about the proposal, Tilbury says. “Are the reviewers right? Am I using the wrong hammer to pound this nail?” If a grant-seeker is certain that their proposal — and their expertise — do fit the grant scheme, they need to make that clear to reviewers. “A common reason for rejection is that the applicant has made assumptions about what the reviewers know about them,” Hassall says. “If a technique or method is critical to what you are proposing, you have to include it. Make it easy for people to get the information that they need.” Similarly, if referees rejected a grant because the applicant had no experience in a particular technique, it pays to get it and include that information in the next round. Before reapplying, researchers should seek collaborators who are experts in that area or technique, or spend a week working in the collaborator’s lab to gain experience. It is the applications that just miss out on funding that can be the hardest to revise, Noble says. “Sometimes there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with somebody’s application. It just didn’t make it to the top of the list. Those can be the harder ones to try to repackage and put in again.” Yet perseverance is key, says Mariane Krause, a psychologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and president of the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT) in Chile, which funds research in the country. She encourages researchers to refine their applications and continue to apply. “I have many young researchers who get a grant the third time,” she says. Reapplying to the same organization for funding can work if the funder allows it. “The success rate of reapplications is significantly higher than for first-time applications,” says Alex Martin Hobdey, head of the unit at the European Research Council (ERC) that coordinates project calls and follow-ups. For example, new applicants to ERC grants have a 9–10% success rate. “For people reapplying, the success rate goes up to 14 to 15%. We have people who got their first grant on their seventh application,” he adds (see go.nature.com/2vrfugk). Some schemes impose a specific hiatus period before accepting applications, or have an annual or biannual application deadline. Others, including Cancer Research UK, don’t impose specific limits. But programme officers recommend resisting the temptation to rush in a revised application as quickly as possible. “Take time — don’t knee-jerk,” Noble says. “Will you really be in a better position to reapply in a month?” Nature 578, 477-479 (2020) doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00455-0 Originally posted on nature.com on 18th February 2020 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00455-0