How to deliver sound science in resource-poor regions
Scientists in areas that lack basic provisions — including dependable electricity, water supplies and funding — do research that has a high societal impact. Five people describe the challenges they face.
A well-equipped laboratory stocked with reagents and supplied with uninterrupted electricity and unlimited water might seem like a basic requirement for conducting research. But scientists who work in regions that have limited resources or that are riven by conflict cannot take such amenities for granted. They must perpetually seek scarce grants, publish their own journals, form their own scientific societies and — crucially — draw on their deep reserves of resilience. Nature asked five such researchers how they run productive labs in the face of electricity shortages, border-checkpoint closures, poor Internet connections and other challenges.
Marlo Mendoza: Engage with stakeholders
Forestry researcher, University of the Philippines, Los Baños
For the past 13 years, I have been profiling the contamination of the Marilao, Meycauayan and Obando River System (MMORS), which was on the ‘Dirty 30’ list of the most polluted places in the world in 2007, according to the non-profit organization Pure Earth. There are many polluting industries upstream, including the largest lead smelter in the Philippines, gold smelters, jewellery workshops and tanneries. Downstream are fish farms. We found elevated levels of heavy metals in the water, in the sediments and in fish, especially shellfish, which are sold in the local markets (M. E. T. Mendoza et al. J. Nat. Stud. 11, 1–18; 2012). At least 100,000 people in the municipalities of Marilao, Meycauayan and Obando, and in the metropolitan Manila area, are eating contaminated fish.
There are no toxicologists in the area who can accurately diagnose illnesses connected with heavy-metal ingestion. So when we looked at medical records, there were no entries for heavy-metal poisoning. If we cannot prove that these metals are causing harm to people, it’s very difficult to convince policymakers and local executives to take action. We have no local laboratories that can analyse heavy metals found in fish, or in water or blood samples.
Local officials, the governor and some of the mayors were really antagonistic because the fishing industry is a major source of income for these municipalities. I have been very careful, even from the outset, to always update the mayors on our projects, and I am accompanied by local and regional government representatives whenever I do my monitoring activities. I do nothing without their consent and am very transparent in my work.
One of my strategies was to build a network of stakeholders — including national agencies such as the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — that share my concerns. I also built a good rapport with people who live in the region. There are several associations for fishers and leather-makers in these areas, and we work with them and include them in consultations and meetings about water-quality management. Our project helped to have the area declared as a legally designated water-quality management area. That’s why we’re able to continue our work.
We used funding from Pure Earth to do regular longitudinal sampling in sections of the river system, including of sediment, water, fish and other aquatic life. There’s a problem collecting data and samples, because it is costly and the national and local governments have limited funds. There is also no single repository of data with which monitoring can be more effectively planned and analysed.
Our monitoring results were included in a Pure Earth database that was shared with other stakeholders, including regional environmental-management offices and local government units. In turn, this encouraged those agencies to conduct studies to complement our work and to share their data. So I was able to get money from the Asian Development Bank, Green Cross Switzerland and the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation, as well as a small amount from the Coca-Cola Company, to conduct environmental monitoring — including assessment of heavy metals in selected aquatic organisms.
Emmanuel I. Unuabonah: Use available resources
Materials chemist, Redeemer’s University, Osun State, Nigeria
Potable water is a challenge for us here in Africa and across the world: around 1.8 billion people worldwide get their drinking water from a source that is polluted with faeces. As part of our work, we are developing hybrid clay composites to adsorb enteric bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella species and Vibrio cholerae, from water. We also use composites made from readily available materials such as kaolinite clay, papaya seeds and plantain peels to extract heavy metals from water.
We are not funded by the government. On average, for close to 100 days a year, we have no electricity. We have an alternative utility on campus, so when the power goes off at the national grid during work hours, the generator comes on. If we get lucky with timings, we are guaranteed 36 hours of uninterrupted power to run experiments. But when the generator isn’t running and the grid power has gone off, we just have to wait.
Sometimes I use my salary to fund my research and to keep our students. Then I have to struggle to write international grants. I’m so grateful to The World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy; the last grant it gave in 2014 (for US$63,230) took care of stipends, school fees and research expenses for the students, and we used part of it to buy equipment. A colleague at the University of Edinburgh, UK, sent us a $600 bacteria-testing kit last year, but we can’t use it now because a related microscope part was damaged by a power surge.
We have a lot of wonderful ideas, wonderful theses just hanging about the shelves, but nobody’s utilizing them. Some young scientists developed cheap electrical power systems from electronic waste materials, but they don’t have the money to develop them further. Nigeria has a thriving oil industry, but the government’s Petroleum Trust Development Fund uses oil-industry proceeds mostly to fund scholarships for Nigerian students abroad, and spends very little on scientific research.
Kalulu Muzele Taba: Aim for the possible
Organic chemist, University of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Our research seeks to solve problems that have societal impacts, such as malaria, which is endemic in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). People in the poorest areas of Kinshasa are growing about 55 different plants, including citronella and papaya, to try to treat the symptoms of the disease. We thought, why not investigate these plants? We tested eight of the most-used plants and showed that extracts and metabolites had considerable antimalarial activities. We have a small booklet in French and in the local language, Lingala, that we send to people to explain how to use these plants more effectively. We are also studying plant extracts that can be used to treat antibiotic-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis (K. B. M. Jose et al. Med. Clin. Rev. 4, 5; 2018), using a grant from The World Academy of Sciences.
We don’t get money from the state. In our lab, we don’t have equipment. We don’t have money to buy solvents. Water is available between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., so we have a container that collects water at night, and during the day we have a pump. For electricity it’s much harder. In the middle of the day, it can come and go many times, and you hope it won’t go while you’re working. We used to have a small generator as a backup for computers, but it’s broken.
We don’t fold our hands and cry and say that things will get better. We do whatever we can. Most of the time we buy our own reagents and solvents with our salaries. We try to motivate our master’s and PhD students by finding a way to collaborate with the outside, writing to foreign labs to see whether our students can get overseas fellowships. One student, Joséphine Ntumba, went abroad three times, to the Catholic University of Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. She has completed her PhD and teaches at the University of Kinshasa. I did my PhD at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and then went to the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany. It was hard to come back. It was not only material, but mental too. I knew that some things would be impossible, but I feel that I have to contribute and inspire young people in science.
For the past five or six years, I have been the editor-in-chief of the journal Congo Sciences, which I co-founded. We started it because we wanted to bring visibility to research done in the country. The journal was financed for some time by the Academy of Research and Higher Education (ARES) in Brussels. The academy has stopped funding it now, but we are still publishing the journal.
For the past ten years, I’ve been trying to create an academy of sciences for the DRC, similar to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. We have to try to get scientists together and to speak as one voice, and then perhaps the state can start understanding that financing research at the university is important. These are some of the things that make me feel happy that I came back home. Maybe I lost a lot as a scientist, but as a Congolese, I hope I can do something for my place, and for the world.
To scientists working in comparable circumstances, I would say that although it’s hard, it’s not impossible. Know that you should find maybe not the best solution, but the least-worst one.
GGateway students on the training scheme in information technology funded by the Basque government.Credit: Mohammed Safia
Rasha Abu-Safieh: Choose the positive
Computer engineer and co-founder of GGateway, Gaza Strip
I co-founded GGateway, a social-enterprise company in the Gaza Strip that provides outsourcing services for information and communications technology (ICT) around the world. We offer training and employment to recent university graduates in Gaza with ICT degrees. Our main goal with GGateway is to help people to have a source of income. With the shortage of clean water, the polluted sea and the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt since 2007, living conditions here are dire.
We came up with the idea of GGateway in 2012. In November 2013 we launched a pilot, and in February 2015 we got the green light from the Korea International Cooperation Agency for a $1.3-million grant to fund our plan. That was one of the biggest, happiest things that ever happened to us.
We were running a pilot project for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), but in July and August 2014 we had the 50 days of conflict with Israel. That was difficult: the bombing went on all day, there was no electricity and we had limited access to water and food. There was no safe zone, no safe area. So we had to stop our first project.
Two days after a ceasefire ended the conflict, we wrote up another eight new concepts for different projects, and the UNRWA agreed to operate three. We could either be positive or cry all day. We chose the positive side and to move on.
The cables that we use for all our technical networks are on the list of items that Israel does not allow to enter Gaza. With the support of the UNRWA, it took us nearly four months to bring them in from Israel. Without the UNRWA, it would have taken us a year or more. We also use a generator because most days we get electricity for two to four hours.
The overall unemployment rate among graduates in Gaza with ICT degrees is 70%. Among female ICT graduates, it’s 92%. We applied for grants that focus on vulnerable women, and got one from the Basque government in Spain to train 60 female graduates for jobs. We also got a grant from the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative to empower and train 300 ICT graduates to become professional freelancers, and won a $3-million grant in June from the World Bank to train students and software engineers. We have contracts with UN Women and UN Habitat.
We are able to travel outside Gaza only two to three times a year, maximum, and sometimes not at all; we need to apply for an exit permit from Israel with support of the UNRWA. Sometimes we are accepted, sometimes rejected; no reason is given. We often lose opportunities if we are registered for a conference, for example, or for training.
When we see what we are doing — that it’s changing people’s lives, despite all of the difficulties around us — it makes us feel good.
Elizabeth Tilley: Focus on small but crucial changes
Sanitation economics researcher, University of Malawi, The Polytechnic, Blantyre
I came to Malawi in 2015 after 9 years as a project officer and PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Dübendorf. I had worked on sanitation projects in Nepal, South Africa, Tanzania and Nicaragua. Most of my work in Malawi now is teaching and supervising master’s and PhD students on such projects as making fuel briquettes out of dried faecal sludge. We work on ‘shit-flow diagrams’ — trying to map and understand where excreta is being generated and how much of it is being treated.
We have a very bad Internet connection, and it’s a barrier to downloading files or making Skype calls. We don’t have subscriptions to journals. We have 30 computers for 4,000 students. Paper and photocopying are very expensive. We go days without water to even flush the toilets. At the university, we don’t have toilet paper, so I bring my own each day and I keep a secret bottle of soap.
The research agenda in Malawi is driven by big donors from the global north, including national governments such as Norway and Japan, and private donors and non-governmental organizations. Very little funding goes to African researchers for work on topics that they’ve identified themselves. The fact that northern countries offer funding opportunities to those in the global south is an excellent form of development.
But some proposals call for the participation of a southern partner with no requirements for the division of funding. This means that the southern partner is sometimes given a limited budget for limited work that has limited impact.
I would encourage northern researchers to think about doing sabbaticals in African universities. It gives the southern researcher a chance to focus on publications or research, to be exposed to new ideas and methods, and to connect with a broader network, and the northern researcher can learn how things operate in the south and appreciate what works well at home.
When you start to think about how crushing the whole system is, you can go crazy. I had a student who just wrote to tell me that he got into a master’s programme in the United States, and to thank me for the reference letter. He’s so excited, and that’s the kind of thing I can hold on to for a couple of months.
First submitted on Nature Careers on 24 July 2018 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05768-9
- Career Advice
Secrets to writing a winning grant
When Kylie Ball begins a grant-writing workshop, she often alludes to the funding successes and failures that she has experienced in her career. “I say, ‘I’ve attracted more than $25 million in grant funding and have had more than 60 competitive grants funded. But I’ve also had probably twice as many rejected.’ A lot of early-career researchers often find those rejections really tough to take. But I actually think you learn so much from the rejected grants.” Grant writing is a job requirement for research scientists who need to fund projects year after year. Most proposals end in rejection, but missteps give researchers a chance to learn how to find other opportunities, write better proposals and navigate the system. Taking time to learn from the setbacks and successes of others can help to increase the chances of securing funds, says Ball, who runs workshops alongside her role as a behavioural scientist at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Do your research Competition for grants has never been more intense. The European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme is the European Union’s largest-ever research and innovation programme, with nearly €80 billion (US$89 billion) in funding set aside between 2014 and 2020. It reported a 14% success rate for its first 100 calls for proposals, although submissions to some categories had lower success rates. The commission has published its proposal for Horizon Europe, the €100-billion programme that will succeed Horizon 2020. In Australia, since 2017, the National Health and Medical Research Council has been funding less than 20% of proposals it receives. And the US National Science Foundation (NSF) received 49,415 proposals and funded 11,447 of them in 2017 — less than 25%. That’s tens of thousands of rejections in a single year from the NSF alone. Being a renowned scientist doesn’t ensure success. On the same day that molecular biologist Carol Greider won a Nobel prize in 2009, she learnt that her recently submitted grant proposal had been rejected. “Even on the day when you win the Nobel prize,” she said in a 2017 graduation speech at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, “sceptics may question whether you really know what you’re doing.” To increase the likelihood of funding success, scientists suggest doing an extensive search of available grants and noting differences in the types of project financed by various funding bodies. Government agencies such as the NSF tend to be interested in basic science that addresses big, conceptual questions, says Leslie Rissler, programme director at the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology in Alexandria, Virginia. A private foundation, however, might prioritize projects that inform social change or that have practical implications that fit into one of its specific missions. Pitching a proposal Before beginning an application, you should read descriptions and directions carefully, advises Ball, who recently pored over 200 pages of online material before starting a proposal. That effort can save time in the end, helping researchers to work out which awards are a good fit and which aren’t. “If you’re not absolutely spot on with what they’re looking for, it may not be worth your time in writing that grant,” she says. Experienced scientists suggest studying successful proposals, which can often be acquired from trusted colleagues and supervisors, university libraries or online databases. A website called Open Grants, for example, includes more than 200 grants, both successful and unsuccessful, that are free to peruse. Grant writers shouldn’t fear e-mailing or calling a grants agency to talk through their potential interest in a project, advises Amanda Stanley, executive director at COMPASS, a non-profit organization based in Portland, Oregon, that supports environmental scientists. For six years, she worked as a programme officer for the Wilburforce Foundation in Seattle, Washington, which supports conservation science. At this and other private foundations, the application process often begins with a ‘soft pitch’ that presents a brief case for the project. Those pitches should cover several main points, Stanley says: “‘Here’s what I’m trying to do. Here’s why it’s important. Here’s a little bit about me and the people I’m collaborating with. Would you like to talk further?’” She notes that a successful proposal must closely align with a foundation’s strategic goals. Each organization has its own process, but next steps typically include a phone conversation, a written summary and, finally, an invitation to submit a formal application. “Once you’ve gotten that invitation to submit a proposal from the programme officer, your chances of getting funded are really, really high,” Stanley says. Grants manager Cheryl Smythe (left) allows for IT glitches when submitting grant proposals.Credit: Dr Louisa Wood The write stuff Applicants should put themselves in the shoes of grant reviewers, who might need to read dozens of applications about complicated subjects that lie outside their own fields of expertise, often while juggling their own research. “Imagine you’re tired, grumpy and hungry. You’ve got 50 applications to get through,” says Cheryl Smythe, international grants manager at the Babraham Institute, a life-sciences research institution in Cambridge, UK. “Think about how you as an applicant can make it as easy as possible for them.” Formatting is an important consideration, says Aerin Jacob, a conservation scientist at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in Canmore, Canada. White space and bold headings can make proposals easier to read, as can illustrations. “Students are tempted and sometimes encouraged to squeeze in as much information as possible, so there are all kinds of tricks to fiddle with the margin size, or to make the font a little bit smaller so that you can squeeze in that one last sentence,” Jacob says. “For a reviewer, that’s exhausting to read.” Ball advises avoiding basic deal-breakers, such as spelling errors, grammatical slips and lengthy proposals that exceed word limits. Those kinds of mistake can cast doubt on how rigorous applicants will be in their research, she says. A list of key words, crucial for indexes and search engines, should be more than an afterthought, Ball adds. On a proposal for a project on promoting physical activity among women, she tagged her proposal with the word ‘women’. The descriptor was too broad, and her application ended up with a reviewer whose expertise appeared to be in sociology and gender studies instead of in exercise or nutrition. The grant didn’t score well in that round of review. To prevent a reviewer’s eyes from glazing over, Jacob says, use clear language instead of multisyllabic jargon. When technical details are necessary, follow up a complex sentence with one that sums up the big picture. Thinking back to her early proposals, Jacob remembers cramming in words instead of getting to the point. “It was probably something like, ‘I propose to study the heterogeneity of forest landscapes in spatial and temporal recovery after multiple disturbances,’ rather than, ‘I want to see what happens when a forest has been logged, burnt and farmed, and grows back,’” she says. Grants can be more speculative and more self-promotional than papers are, Rissler adds. “A grant is about convincing a jury that your ideas are worthy and exciting,” she says. “You can make some pretty sweeping generalizations about what your proposed ideas might do for science and society in the long run. A paper is much more rigid in terms of what you can say and in what you must say.” Getting some science communication training can be a worthwhile strategy for strengthening grant-writing skills, Stanley says. When she was reviewing pitch letters for a private foundation, she recalls that lots of scientists couldn’t fully explain why their work mattered. But when she received pitches that were clear and compelling, she was more willing to help those scientists brainstorm other possible funding agencies if her foundation wasn’t the right fit. Scientists who sent strong — albeit unsuccessful — applications were also more likely to get funding from the foundation for later projects. Science storytelling To refine project pitches and proposals, Stanley recommends that scientists use a free communication tool from COMPASS called the Message Box Workbook, which can help to identify key points and answer the crucial question for every audience: ‘So what?’ Scientific conferences often provide symposia or sessions that include funders and offer helpful tips for writing grants. And development officers at institutions can help scientists to connect with funders. “A good development officer is worth their weight in gold,” Stanley says. “Make friends with them.” Jacob has taken science-communication training through COMPASS, The Story Collider (a science-storytelling organization) and from other such organizations. She has learnt how to talk about her work in the manner of a storyteller. In proposals and interviews, she now includes personal details, when relevant, that explain the problems she wants to address and why she decided to speak out about conservation — an example of the kind of conflict and resolution that builds a good story. Jacob senses that the approach strikes a chord. “As a reviewer, you remember somebody’s proposal just that little bit more,” she says. “If you have a stack of proposals, you want to find the one that you connect with.” A clear focus can help to boost a grant to the top of a reviewer’s pile, Ball adds. In one of the first large grants that she applied for, she proposed collecting information on the key factors that prevent weight gain as well as designing and implementing an obesity-intervention programme. In retrospect, it was too much within the grant’s two-year time frame. She didn’t get the funding, and the feedback she received was that it would have worked better as two separate proposals. “While it’s tempting to want to claim that you can solve these enormous, challenging and complex problems in a single project,” Ball says, “realistically, that’s usually not the case.” Teaming up with collaborators can also increase the chance of success. Earlier this year, Ball was funded by the Diabetes Australia Research Program for a study that she proposed in collaboration with hospital clinicians, helping disadvantaged people with type 2 diabetes to eat healthy diets. Earlier in her career, she had written grants based on her own ideas, rather than on suggestions from clinicians or other non-academic partners. This time, she says, she focused on a real-world need rather than on her own ideas for a study. Instead of overreaching, she kept the study small and preliminary, allowing her to test the approach before trying to get funding for larger trials. It is acceptable — even advisable — to admit a study’s limitations instead of trying to meet preconceived expectations, Jacob adds. In 2016, she had a proposal rejected for a study on spatial planning on the west coast of Canada that would, crucially, be informed by knowledge from Indigenous communities. She resubmitted the same proposal the next year to the same reviewers, but with a more confident and transparent approach: she was straightforward about her desire to take a different tack from the type of research that had been tried before. This time, she made it clear that she wanted to listen to Indigenous peoples and use their priorities to guide her work. She got the funding. “I saw that if I tried to change it to meet what I thought funders wanted, I might not be accurately representing what I was doing,” she says. “I just wanted to be really clear with myself and really clear with the interviewers that this is who I am, and this is what I want to do.” What not to do Writing is hard, and experienced grant writers recommend devoting plenty of time to the task. Smythe recommends setting aside a week for each page of a proposal, noting that some applications require only a few pages while major collaborative proposals for multi-year projects can run to more than 100 pages. “It can take months to get one of these together,” she says. Scheduling should include time for rewrites, proofreads and secondary reads by friends, colleagues and family members, experts say. Working right up to the deadline can undo weeks to months of hard work. At the last minute, Jacob once accidentally submitted an earlier draft instead of the final version. It included sections that were bolded and highlighted, with comments such as, “NOTE TO SELF: MAKE THIS PART SOUND BETTER.” She didn’t get that one, and has never made the same mistake again. Add an extra buffer for technology malfunctions, adds Smythe, who once got a call from a scientist at another organization who was in a panic because his computer had stopped working while he was trying to submit a grant proposal half an hour before the deadline. She submitted it for him with 23 seconds to spare. “My hand was shaking,” she says. That proposal was not successful, although the scientist sent her a nice bottle of champagne afterwards. Grant writing doesn’t necessarily end with a proposal’s submission. Applicants might receive requests for rewrites or more information. Rejections can also come with feedback, and if they don’t, applicants can request it. Luiz Nunes de Oliveira, a physicist at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, also works as a programme coordinator at the São Paulo Research Foundation. In this role, he sometimes meets with applicants who want to follow up on rejected proposals. “We sit down and go through their résumé, and then you find out that they had lots of interesting stuff to say about themselves and they missed the opportunity,” he says. “All it takes is to write an e-mail message asking [the funder] for an interview.” Jacob recommends paying attention to such feedback to strengthen future proposals. To fund her master’s programme, she applied for a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), but didn’t get it on her first try. After requesting feedback by e-mail (to an address she found buried on NSERC’s website), she was able to see her scores by category, which revealed that a few bad grades early in her undergraduate programme were her limiting factor. There was nothing she could do about her past, but the information pushed her to work harder on other parts of her application. After gaining more research and field experience, co-authoring a paper and establishing relationships with senior colleagues who would vouch for her as referees, she finally secured funding from NSERC on her third try, two years after her first rejection. Negative feedback can be one of the best learning experiences, Rissler adds. She kept the worst review she ever received, a scathing response to a grant proposal she submitted to the NSF in 2003, when she was a postdoc studying comparative phylogeography. The feedback, she says, was painful to read. It included comments that her application was incomprehensible and filled with platitudes. After she received that letter, which is now crinkled up in her desk for posterity, Rissler called a programme officer to ask why they let her see such a negative review. She was told that the critical commenter was an outlier and that the panel had gone on to recommend her project for the grant, which she ultimately received. “I learnt that you do need to be tough,” says Rissler, who now helps to make final decisions on funding for other scientists. She emphasizes that whereas reviewers’ opinions can vary, all proposals undergo multiple independent expert reviews, followed by panel discussions and additional oversight by programme directors. Grant writing tends to provoke anxiety among early-career scientists, but opportunities exist for people who are willing to take the time to develop ideas and push past rejections and negative feedback, she says. “We can’t review proposals that we don’t get. Originally posted on nature.com on 20th December 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03914-5
- Sponsored Content Article
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
- 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