How going green can raise cash for your lab
Recycling leftover chemicals and equipment slashes energy bills and boosts research budgets.
The freezers were stuffed and their racks encrusted in ice, with a thin blanket of snow covering all the sample boxes inside. Such was the state of the cold-storage system in Hopi Hoekstra’s laboratory a decade after the evolutionary biologist and her team started studying the genetics and behaviour of deer mice there.
Kyle Turner, manager of the lab at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was about to spend more than US$10,000 on a new ultra-low-temperature (ULT) freezer. Then he heard about a competition called the North American Laboratory Freezer Challenge, which had been launched in January 2017 by two US non-profit organizations — My Green Lab, in Los Gatos, California, and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL), in Annandale, Virginia.
The challenge, which is now international, urges labs to reduce energy consumption and improve equipment life through various measures. Some of those include defrosting freezers, to eliminate crusty ice and provide more space for samples, and raising the temperature set‑point on ULT freezers from −80 °C to −70 °C, to cut electricity demands.
The Hoekstra lab won first place in the individual-laboratory category for an academic institution. Lab members also freed so much space in their two existing ULT freezers that, despite accumulating new research materials, they haven’t yet needed to buy a third.
The energy savings helped to cut Harvard’s electricity bill by around $2,500 a year, according to My Green Lab, and slashed annual greenhouse-gas emissions by the equivalent of 4.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide — roughly what would be saved by taking three cars off the road. It also meant that Hoekstra’s lab could spend the funds earmarked for a new freezer on other science-related expenses instead.
Hoekstra likens it to “a free $10,000 grant” — and is using the money to send some trainees to this August’s Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Montpellier, France. The funds will also help to support a high-throughput gene-expression analysis of brain cells from two related species of deer mouse.
Campus sustainability initiatives are usually framed as ways for scientists to shrink their carbon footprints and bring down energy costs (see Nature 546, 565–567; 2017). But the Hoekstra lab’s experience shows that there are other reasons to pool surplus reagents, share equipment or keep better tabs on lab chemicals to avoid duplicate purchasing. “These exercises are about helping science as much as they are about helping the planet,” says Peter James, director of S-Lab, a UK initiative based in London that promotes sustainable lab practices. “They free up resources that can be applied for scientific purposes.”
One increasingly popular way to cut lab waste and operational costs is through exchange programmes for surplus resources. At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for example, more than 230 research and teaching laboratories now routinely share leftover chemicals, equipment and materials through a campus-wide recycling and reuse initiative.
“Before this programme, these were thrown in the trash or disposed of as hazardous waste for a price,” says Sudhakar Reddy, who co-ordinated the university’s sustainability efforts until his retirement last December. Now, he estimates, more than one-third of all unexpired and unused lab resources get passed on to other researchers, who leap on the surplus bounty — saving themselves a combined total of more than $250,000 a year.
One new recruit, pulmonary-health researcher Benjamin Singer, freely acquired two high-end microscopes — valued at more than $6,000 apiece — which he now uses to study donated human-brain specimens for molecular signs of injury after a critical illness. A second researcher, cell biologist Anthony Vecchiarelli, saved more than $10,000 while kitting out his lab with free peristaltic pumps, circulating water baths, slide warmers and consumables. “I check the website almost weekly for goodies,” says Vecchiarelli. “It is a valuable resource for a new investigator.”
Not all academics have such a website at their fingertips, however. Garry Cooper didn’t when he was a postdoc studying neurophysiology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. And it was while he was helping to clean out a lab freezer one day in 2015 that he realized there was a need for such a platform: he’d been handing a PhD student some expensive reagents, but still throwing away bagfuls of antibodies, a common, yet pricey, research tool for identifying proteins.
He decided to create a company to reduce wasteful spending and promote trading among colleagues. He envisaged it as a kind of eBay, Craigslist and Ask.com rolled into one, providing lab scientists with a valuable service at a time when research funding is increasingly hard to come by (see ‘Too much of a good thing’). He called the start-up Rheaply, a portmanteau of ‘research’ and ‘cheaply’.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING Before launching Rheaply, an online platform where scientists can buy, sell, trade or donate surplus labware and supplies, Garry Cooper surveyed 120 academic researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, to learn more about why reagents and equipment go unused, and whether scientists would be willing to donate surplus supplies. Most respondents said they had extra lab provisions that they would gladly give to colleagues. Here’s a summary of Cooper’s findings: Top reasons for reagents and equipment going unused or remaining in surplus • Initial/pilot experiments failed (71.6%) • Initial experimental needs changed (63.6%) • Original purchaser leaves lab (56.8%) • Starting quantity too large (54.5%) • Items stored in secluded areas (18.2%) • Double ordering (15.9%) Types of reagents and equipment that go unused or remain in surplus • Chemicals (80.2%) • Antibodies/biologics (38.4%) • Kit reagents (37.2%) • Glassware (27.9%) • Imaging dyes/agents (25.6%) • Tools (16.3%) • Tissue/cell-culture items (15.1%) • Tubing (12.8%) • Microscopy equipment/accessories (10.5%) • Computer software (8.1%)
After developing a web-based platform, Cooper and his company launched a pilot programme at Northwestern’s medical school last year. In its first 6 months, around 300 researchers — close to one-third of all lab scientists on the medical campus — created Rheaply accounts. According to Cooper, who remains a visiting scholar at Northwestern, those users collectively posted around 200 items, ranging from pipettes and glassware to chemicals and biological probes; at least 55 items were passed on, saving labs across the campus more than $25,000 and keeping those resources out of landfills.
Khalid Alam is one Rheaply user. Just last month, he got hold of an $800 vacuum pump for his postdoctoral research into RNA engineering — although in general, he says, “there’s not a tonne of stuff on there”. That’s one of the main problems with any environmentally minded programme aimed at scientists, says Michael Blayney, executive director of the Office for Research Safety at Northwestern. “The challenge is: how do you encourage and motivate people to interact with it?”
Amorette Getty is involved in a number of waste-reduction initiatives. One is at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she co-directs a programme called LabRATS (short for Laboratory Resources, Advocates and Teamwork for Sustainability) that encourages shared use of surplus chemicals and instrumentation. She says that scientists are most likely to pitch in for those efforts that offer them personal, tangible benefits — although these needn’t be directly monetary. “Any time I can connect the things I’m trying to do to increase safety and research efficiency, or get better storage to protect samples — that’s when I have my greatest successes,” she says.
Credit: Claire Welsh/Nature
That same ethos underpins moves by three institutes at the University of Aberdeen, UK, to centrally manage ULT freezers and raise the operating temperature to −70 °C. The initiative, says Peter McCafferey, a brain researcher who previously led the university’s Freezer Protocol Group, is as much about research resilience and reliable sample preservation as it is about energy efficiency. “We have all the freezers together, which makes it easier to keep an eye on,” he explains.
But Cooper reckoned that people would need more motivation before adopting such practices. To help Rheaply catch on, he devised a point-based system that rewards online engagement and activity. So far, Cooper has convinced a handful of large academic and private clients to sign up, and he hopes to close deals soon with several prominent universities and government research agencies, including the US National Institutes of Health.
Expanding that idea of collective action offers additional opportunities for cutting costs. Most universities already have core facilities for specialized equipment, technologies and services, but a few are now taking this centralized approach further in how they set up their labs.
Take cell-culture work, for example. This line of research requires fairly basic equipment — laminar-flow hood, incubator, cell counter, microscope, centrifuge, cryostorage tanks — all of which is priced within the budget of a typical lab. According to a survey of biosafety officers at member institutions of the Association of American Universities, 86% of cell-culture spaces remain private, used only by individual labs.
But at the University of Colorado Boulder, the Biochemistry Cell Culture Facility is shared by 70 users from 16 labs, all of whom chip in to pay the salary of a single facility manager. A case study of the collaborative research space, published earlier this year, compared the facility’s approach with a hypothetical situation in which all the labs worked on cell culture independently. The study found that centralizing media preparation and other tasks, instead of getting graduate students and postdocs in each group to perform these jobs, saved each lab more than nine hours a week.
Other savings, achieved through bulk purchasing and the use of recycled ethanol, for example, helped the biochemistry department and individual labs to collectively cut their expenses by around $195,000 per year, the analysis showed. Their efforts saved the university a further $71,000 each year by reducing energy bills and lowering the costs of ventilation and lab maintenance. “There’s so much cost avoidance,” says Kathy Ramirez-Aguilar, programme manager of the university’s Green Labs Program, who conducted the study with her deputy, Christina Greever.
Robert Kuchta, an enzymologist who uses the facility, points to a less obvious, environ-mental benefit of the sharing system. “It dramatically reduces liquid-nitrogen usage,” he says. That’s because containers used to store liquid nitrogen are typically cylindrical, and many small cylinders, of the type that might be used by individual labs, have a larger collective surface area — and thus a higher rate of nitrogen evaporation — than does a single, large cryopreservation tank of the same volume that can store samples in one place.
Even without access to a joint facility, individual labs can still realize some of these gains by taking advantage of laboratory-management software. An automated inventory system can free money that would otherwise be spent on paying someone to keep tabs on the thousands of reagents commonly used by large chemistry labs. And it can save researchers from making wasteful purchases because they can’t find existing stock on the shelves.
What’s more, just as members of the University of Colorado’s shared facility can pool their hazardous junk for disposal — reducing the number of times sterilized autoclaves are inefficiently run half-empty, and getting a better deal from waste-disposal companies — so, too, can individual labs that share a common chemical-tracking system.
“You find ways to pack the same waste together — and it’s quite often the same price, because you’re disposing of one package,” says Marcus Phelan, a chief technical officer and dangerous-goods safety adviser at Trinity College Dublin, where chemistry labs all use a cloud-based inventory system called LabCup.
A new light dawns
As well as benefiting from campus-wide initiatives, scientists can take individual action that will simultaneously save money, the environment and the integrity of their research.
For example, labs with fluorescent microscopes can replace mercury lamps with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are less toxic and more energy-efficient. According to Allison Paradise, executive director of My Green Lab, LEDs are better for science because they provide a more consistent light source than do mercury lamps, which degrade over time and make it hard to quantitatively compare images from different time points in an experiment. Buoyed by the success of the freezer challenge, Paradise says that she is in discussions with sponsors to set up a similar initiative, this time aimed at eliminating mercury from microscope lamps. If she’s successful, that effort will launch later this year.
Ultimately, it might take a greater attention to sustainability and efficiency across the entire research enterprise for the biggest benefits to accrue, both financially and environmentally — in which case, scientists and funding agencies must band together to make that goal a priority.
Individual labs might not have to pay the energy bills out of their own research grants, but facilities fees are part of the funding infrastructure, through what’s often referred to as ‘indirect costs’. Bringing those costs down could make more funds available for salaries, travel, equipment and other expenses that more directly support scientists and their research projects.
So far, there’s little incentive for individual scientists to do their part. However, with many funding agencies emphasizing the need to justify the broader impacts of proposed research, Ramirez-Aguilar argues that implementing energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable lab practices can be a smart way for researchers to make their grants stand out. It might seem a small detail, but having such procedures in place could make all the difference to the success of your application. “If it makes your proposal look better,” she says, “you’re more likely to get funding.”
Originally published on 7th February 2018
- 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
Funders pledge career support for UK researchers
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
Washington state’s tech billionaires pour cash into global health
The US state of Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, was once the epicentre of the information-technology world, thanks to Microsoft and its founder, Seattle-born Bill Gates — until the dotcom boom sent investors down the coast to Silicon Valley. Now, Gates and other high-profile Microsoft alumni, along with other wealthy donors, are elevating the state as a major player in another sector: global health. One survey, from the Washington Global Health Alliance (WGHA), an industry body that encourages collaboration between global-health organizations in the state, revealed that 207 local bodies see some of their activities as pertaining to global health. Those groups provide a diverse array of job opportunities in all aspects of the sector. “In Washington state, we have organizations that do everything from lab-based research, vaccines, diagnostics, data collection, service delivery, disaster response, down to last-mile logistics,” says Dena Morris, president and chief executive of WGHA. “Everything from beginning to end, there’s someone in the state working on it.” Nathan Myhrvold was at Microsoft from 1986 to 2000, becoming the company’s chief technology officer in 1996. In 2000, he started the speculative patent firm Intellectual Ventures, based in Bellevue; this now has its own global-health branch, Global Good, which was set up with funding from Gates in 2012. Myhrvold says that the state has a range of specialist enterprises that make it particularly attractive to those involved in this sort of work. “The Seattle area is the Silicon Valley of saving the world,” he says. In 2000, Gates established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, which has been the most significant contributor to the state’s global-health efforts. It has launched and funded several institutes and departments, both at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and at Washington State University, in Pullman — the state’s two largest higher education centres — as well as funding global health organizations based in the area. In 2015, the foundation made US$4.1 billion in grants available globally. It estimates that, in the same year, it generated $1.5 billion in local economic activity, including some $340 million in direct grants to Washington-based research groups. Much of that money goes to the Seattle-based non-profit organization Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and the University of Washington — both with a history of studying and fighting infectious diseases. The Gates Foundation, which employs 1,200 people in Washington in a $500-million, 84,000-square-metre campus next to the city’s iconic Space Needle observation tower, is the world’s largest philanthropic funder of scientific research in terms of endowment. It employs a further 300 people outside Washington. The hugeness of the foundation has generated criticism. Gates himself has asked why sharing wealth should be optional for billionaires, rather than mandated by government, through taxes or grants. Others have pointed to surveys showing that an increase in private grants for public health can remove incentives for local governments to invest their own resources in health care, precipitating an over-reliance on foreign aid. Still more have argued that the Gates approach to funding institutes over individuals has encouraged the global-health sector to behave more like a capitalist group than a charitable one, and have suggested that the foundation be overseen by an independent international body, such as the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The single biggest gift The Gateses aren’t the only big philanthropists in town, nor is philanthropy limited to global health. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who died last October, was another big spender in the region. Most famously, he launched the Seattle-based Allen Institute, which is organized into separate institutes specializing in brain science, cell science and artificial intelligence, along with a grant-awarding body. Rob Piercy, a spokesperson for the Allen Institute, told Nature that Allen had committed more than $1 billion since founding the first institute in 2003. Warren Buffett is credited with much of the growth of the Gates Foundation. The businessman pledged $30 billion in 2006 — what Bill and Melinda Gates in their 2017 annual open letter called “the single biggest gift anyone has ever given anyone for anything”. That gift doubled the foundation’s resources. Health workers give Bill Gates a tour of their work in the village of Kicheba, Tanzania, in 2017.Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty As the Gates Foundation grew, and started to tackle more diseases in more countries, it needed better data to track and respond to outbreaks, says David Wertheimer, director of community and civic engagement at the foundation. To this end, it launched the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in 2007 with a $107-million grant, and has continued to support the centre, which is part of the University of Washington. Wertheimer says that the university was a natural home for the institute. Like PATH, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2017, the university was addressing global-health issues “long before the Gates Foundation ever existed”, he says. The institute collects global data on diseases, mortality, morbidity and disability, which aids the Gates Foundation in planning its mission, Wertheimer says. “It will really help us allocate time, talent and resources to the challenges of global health.” William Heisel, director of global services at the IHME, says that the increased support of the Gates Foundation has helped the institute to grow from three people when it started to about 450 now. Seeds of collaboration What’s made the area so successful is how all these entities interact, he says. The IHME shares its data with local and regional organizations, and the Gates Foundation brings together a range of stakeholders; it has held more than 8,000 meetings since 2006, ranging from one-on-ones to conferences of hundreds. “It’s a very collaborative community here,” says Heisel. Public-health specialist Dorothy Thomas says she sees and benefits from that community spirit. Thomas manages logistics at the non-profit organization VillageReach in Seattle, which aims to provide remote communities in the developing world with health care, and is building a database to track the price of delivering vaccine components to different parts of the world. She is working with scientists at the Gates Foundation, PATH and the University of Washington, among others, to build a map of their costs. She’s been pleased with the spirit of cooperation for that project. “There’s an openness, an excitement when it comes to sharing the work that they’ve been doing,” Thomas says. Another characteristic of institutes in Washington is a focus on open-access publishing. The Allen institutes have remained committed to open-access research since they were founded, says Piercy. “No login, no password, no anything required to access the research,” he says. “It’s really the single biggest thing that sets us apart from other basic-science research institutes.” The Gates Foundation also maintains strict open-access policies for the research it funds. Work paid for by the foundation must be published without an embargo, and in front of a paywall, in any journal that’s willing to make the research accessible. This approach has been taken a step further by an international consortium of European research funders, which plans to forbid publishing in anything other than fully open-access journals. The initiative is being led Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s special envoy on open access, who cited the Gates Foundation as an inspiration. Washington’s combination of open data and open doors makes it easy to collaborate with a wide sphere of people, says Heisel. “You are rarely in a room where it’s just charitable organizations speaking to themselves.” Collaborations have emerged between academic, non-profit and commercial partners. For example, the IHME partnered with PATH to look at the effectiveness of immunizations by Gavi, a vaccine alliance based in Geneva, Switzerland. PATH provided on-the-ground insight, while the IHME collected and analysed data. “The ecosystem in Washington is ripe for this,” says David Fleming, PATH’s vice-president of public health. The state’s prosperity, paradoxically, causes some challenges, says Allan Jones, president and chief executive of the Allen Institute. Competition for talent is hot. For example, finding computational scientists can be tough with Facebook and Amazon often seeking similar skills. “We have to compete against that market and we do lose out,” Jones says. The same goes for property. Facebook, Google and Amazon have bought property in popular South Lake Union, where, along with the Allen Institute, the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute also have a presence. Lee Hood, president of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, worries that the institute might have to move in two years, when its lease comes up for renewal. The Seattle area’s property market has cooled in recent months, but is still one of the most expensive areas in which to buy a home in the United States (see ‘Paddle your own canoe’). Thomas shares a house with five people to beat the rental market. She says that the biggest downside to the state, however, is Washington’s five-month rainy season. “Moisture is coming from every single possible direction that you can imagine,” she says. “That can be pretty rough.” PADDLE YOUR OWN CANOE Clay Reid enjoys a quintessentially Seattle commute. He takes his kayak down a hill a few hundred metres from his house, launches it into Lake Union, paddles 2.5 kilometres, and parks it in a garage at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. The 30-minute journey illustrates the difference between cultures in Seattle, Washington, and Boston, Massachusetts, Reid says — he worked as a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston before joining the Allen institute in 2012. “You’re much more likely to discuss how you got to work than what you do at work,” Reid says. Conversations turn to hiking, cycling, camping, climbing and paddling — all of which can be pursued in and around Puget Sound, within an hour’s drive of the city. Reid even anticipated the location of the Allen institute, buying a house near Lake Union to make his commute possible. Now, he often has much of the lake to himself. Paddling is better than driving, because new offices for Facebook and Amazon are bringing more traffic into the South Lake Union area — a problem that will only increase when Google expands its own campus there. Demand for housing has pushed property prices to record highs, with median home prices in the Seattle area hitting US $830,000 last spring. When Reid was looking for a house, he found himself competing against local tech millionaires offering above the asking price and paying in cash. He and his wife settled for a smaller dwelling and later extended the property. Reid has one characteristic that sets him apart from most Seattlites, however — he prefers decaf to regular coffee. When he orders, he sometimes incurs the disdain of snobby baristas. “In Boston, people can be judgemental about what you do for a living,” Reid says. “In Seattle, people can be equally judgemental about how you take your coffee.” Paul Smaglik Up the coast from the valley There is no shortage of global-health problems whose solutions involve advanced technology. For example, Global Good is developing a microscope that can automatically detect diseases such as malaria. The team uses machine-learning technology and pattern-matching software to enable the identification of pathogens that the human eye might miss. This improves the often poor quality of malaria microscopy, which plagues malaria management and elimination programmes; and it could greatly improve the effectiveness of malaria research worldwide, Myhrvold says. The global-health ecosystem in Washington makes such inventions possible, he says. For example, if Global Good needs a biosafety laboratory to study tuberculosis, or mosquito samples to examine malaria, he can usually find collaborators. The sheer number of global-health organizations, combined with their willingness to work together, makes Washington state — and Seattle in particular — a special place to work, he says. Many fellow technology specialists agree, Myhrvold says, and have joined him in moving to the sector. “They like working on some of this stuff. It’s fun. It makes you feel good about yourself, about the impact you have.” First published on Nature Careers on 16 Jan 2019