Funders pledge career support for UK researchers
Agreement between funding agencies, universities and other stakeholders builds on an earlier document to address new concerns and challenges in science.
An updated version of an 11-year-old treaty between researchers at UK universities and the institutions and government bodies that fund and employ them aims to improve the work–life balance and career development of scientists.
The Concordat Strategy Group, a collection of researchers from around the United Kingdom, created the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, which updates a previous treaty released in 2008. Participation in the agreement is voluntary, but its effects should be far-reaching, says Katie Wheat, head of higher education for Vitae, a scientist-advocacy group based in Cambridge, UK, that provided support for the project. “The principles outlined in the concordat are not just good for researchers, they are good for institutions, the quality of research, and for the supply of talent beyond academic research,” she says. “All organizations should want to sign up.”
The concordat targets staff members who are primarily employed to do research, including postdocs, contract researchers and technicians. The update addresses important trends that have affected scientists in the past 11 years, including the surge of fixed-term contracts for researchers and the growing awareness of mental-health issues in this group.
The new agreement reflects input from nearly 600 individuals and institutions who responded to a Vitae survey earlier this year. Respondents made a clear call for unity. As one wrote, “The new Concordat must have buy-in from all partners, be they Government, HEIs [higher-education institutions], funders, institutions, Royal Societies, organisations and perhaps most importantly — the postdocs themselves.”
Respondents almost unanimously agreed that scientists need more support for development of their research and career goals. To that end, the document suggests that researchers should be able to devote ten days every year to free professional-development training. Funders are expected to make this a requirement for all grants, and researchers are expected to take advantage of the opportunity, even if that means stepping away briefly from the laboratory.
As of 24 September, the Concordat had 15 signatories, including the London-based charity Wellcome, the largest non-governmental funder of research in the United Kingdom. Another notable signatory is UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a non-governmental agency established in 2018 to direct funding and boost cross-disciplinary research. Signatories are expected to uphold the tenets of the concordat and produce a publicly available annual report that shows the steps they’ve taken to uphold the treaty’s mission.
Signatories agree to promote an ‘equitable environment’ when it comes to grants and grant reporting — a goal that received attention at a conference held by UK postdocs on 13 September at Queen Mary University of London. David McAllister, associate director of research and innovation at UKRI, said at the conference that the concordat should help postdocs to get much-deserved recognition on grant applications. He said that it is “morally unacceptable” that postdocs are unnamed on most grant applications even though 60% of UKRI’s funding goes to their salaries.
Owing to reports of high levels of stress, anxiety and depression in researchers, the concordat also calls on institutions to “promote good mental health and wellbeing through, for example, the effective management of workloads and people, and effective policies and practice for tackling discrimination, bullying and harassment”.
A UKRI spokesperson says that, as part of its commitment to the concordat, the organization will provide funding to 17 UK universities in 2020 to support the mental health and well-being of postdoctoral researchers. UKRI says that it supports all of the principles of the document and is already working on plans to put them into action.
Additional reporting by David Payne, a managing editor at Nature Careers
- Career Advice
How to get a funded internship in industry
As part of a broad mission to prepare science students for careers outside academia, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has expanded a funding initiative to support master’s and PhD students for six-month internships in companies, government laboratories and non-profit organizations. The INTERN supplemental-funding opportunity, launched last year for select departments within the NSF, will now be open to almost every graduate student supported by an NSF grant, says Prakash Balan, programme director in the NSF’s Directorate for Engineering. At a time when available US industry positions far outnumber job openings in US academia, the internships can give students real-world training for their futures, he adds. “Opportunities like this give students exposure and experience at a time when it matters most,” he says. The programme also fits in with the agency’s overall agenda. “NSF has a long-term vision to foster the growth of a competitive and diverse workforce,” Balan says. “We want to advance the science and innovation skills of the nation at large.” The expanded programme provides up to US$55,000 to support a student for six months. The sum is meant to cover travel, tuition, stipends, materials and other expenses. The student’s supervisor can use up to $2,500 of the award to visit the site hosting the internship and co-mentor the student. The NSF has pledged to support up to 200 students in each of the fiscal years 2019 and 2020, although Balan says that more awards could be provided if the demand is great enough. To be eligible, students must have completed at least one year of their master’s or PhD programmes. Jennifer Weller, programme director of the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, says that she expects to receive many applications from biology students. “I’ve already had 20 phone calls asking for more details,” she says. Weller explains that she worked for five years in industry (at the biotechnology company PE/Applied Biosystems) before eventually returning to academia. Fostering the flow of talent and ideas between academia and industry should be a top priority for the agency, she says. Interest in the INTERN initiative goes both ways. The programme began after corporations contacted the NSF asking for help finding student interns, Balan says. Those requests encouraged the agency to think how best to connect graduate students with industry. To apply for an INTERN award, students must provide a letter from their supervisor and from the prospective company or other host organization, and must make a convincing case that the experience would help them to achieve their overall training and career goals. “It’s not something that can be pulled together with a casual contact,” Balan says. “The host organization and the university have to put their minds together to create something very powerful for the student.” In another outreach effort, the NSF is seeking submissions for its 2026 Idea Machine, a competition to elicit big ideas for future research projects. The agency is looking for ambitious visions within the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “We’re crowdsourcing the best and brightest ideas so we know what the community’s thinking,” Balan says. The agency plans to award two to four winners $26,000 each, with the possibility that the winning entries would trigger long-term NSF investments. The competition, which is open to members of the general public as well as to scientists, will accept suggestions up to 26 October. Originally published on Nature Careers on 11 September 2018 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06641-5
- 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
- Career Advice
Early-career funding sources: you will not find what you do not seek
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. FINDING FUNDING There are many places to check for funding sources apart from major national agencies. Examples of search engines for funding sources: Research Professional Funding Institutional ResearchGate Examples of fellowships and research grants: Boehringer Ingelheim opnMe collaboration proposals Cambridge British Heart Foundation Pump-Priming Grants Parke Davis Exchange Fellowship Wolfson College Cambridge Junior Research Fellowship Wolfson College Oxford fellowships British Society for Haematology grants Lurie Children’s Hospital internal funding opportunities Examples of travel grants: Thrombosis UK grant opportunities Disease Models & Mechanisms Conference Travel Grants Cayman Chemical Conference Travel Grants Thrombosis & Haemostasis society of Australia and New Zealand travel grants American Association for Cancer Research travel grants American Heart Association travel grants Keystone Symposia scholarships European Respiratory Society grants Originally posted on nature.com on 20th December 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03873-x