Want your government to increase funding for research? Here is what you can do
Joe Luchsinger shares his advice on advocating for science investment.
In November 2017, a proposal was moving through the US federal legislature that would have increased the amount of taxes payable by graduate students across the United States by up to US$10,000 per year.
As a fourth-year MD–PhD student who would have been affected by the proposal, I e-mailed my US representative, Jim Cooper (Democrat), to ask him to oppose the tax. We met at his home office in Nashville, Tennessee, the following month, although my inexperience in lobbying meant that the conversation largely consisted of the congressman helping me to understand how I could advocate more effectively. He explained the importance of community participation (through phone calls and letters) and of bringing a larger coalition to policy discussions with legislators so that they wouldn’t see a lone graduate student as the only person fighting for an issue.
A month after our chat, I got a phone call from a member of Cooper’s staff, who told me that I had left my wallet under the conference-room table. Of course, that revelation came long after I had already replaced my driver’s licence and all of my credit cards.
It wasn’t an auspicious start. Still, I remained convinced that petitioning the federal government to improve support for research was my duty as a scientist, and I continued to look for ways to bring about that change.
Then, I got lucky. The US Society for Neuroscience (SfN) announced its year-long Early Career Policy Ambassadors programme, which included ‘advocacy’ training. I leapt at the opportunity, joined the course and learnt that there is no magic to advocating effectively — all it takes is preparation and practise.
I met extensively with legislators and their staff members in Washington DC during the training. And my efforts have paid off. I’ve been able to get Cooper, as well as staff from the offices of three US senators, into my laboratory to see federal research dollars in action.
As a result of my advocacy and that of many others, legislators rejected the tax proposal in 2017 and repeatedly increased annual federal research funding through the US National Institutes of Health up to its current $39 billion.
Here are eight takeaways from my training and advocacy efforts:
Form or find a team.
Join your national research society: it assists and coordinates scientists who want to get involved with advocacy. Many societies manage effective proposals or platforms across the research community (such as those calling for specific funding increases or regulations related to research); the unified message helps policymakers to know what legislation to support.
Begin with the end in mind.
Spell out your goals, then lay out a plan for presenting your arguments.
Before meeting with a legislator, divide up key topics among group members. You’ll each need to assemble relevant facts and concrete information on your assigned topic that you can reel off in two or three minutes.
Once in the meeting, each member of your advocacy group should introduce themselves using their name, institution, constituency, career stage and area of research.
Develop effective ‘asks’.
‘Asks’ are the policy requests that you make to legislators. Make sure to hit three points: the precise amount of funding that your group is requesting; the specific agency or initiative that will receive this funding; and the time frame for funding distribution (this year or next year, for example).
Identify the appropriate legislator.
Find out who is responsible for appropriating funds for research in your area by searching government websites. In the United States, for example, the federal government funds the majority of scientific research through agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Elsewhere, both national and international agencies might provide research grants. The governmental bodies that oversee these funding agencies dictate their resources. Determine who your representatives are in these governmental bodies because those people are likely to be the most responsive.
Get to know whether your lawmakers are involved in any funding-related committees, and concentrate your efforts on the legislators with the most influence. Learn their legislative and budgetary priorities, along with their personal interests, to prepare for potential questions. For example, in a senate office with a National Football League player on staff, I spoke about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (which is caused by repeated blows to the head and consequently is of concern to American-football players), and this helped our case.
When you’re trying to set up a meeting with a legislator or a staffer, e-mail and phone calls are a good way to make initial contact. If you have already communicated with the office, reply to the last e-mail rather than starting a new chain, to provide context and increase the likelihood of a response. Include your professional title, any scientific society (such as SfN) or advocacy group affiliated with your coalition, the number of group members, the proposed advocacy activity or request, and any planned meetings between students or researchers and the legislator.
Contact your national society or investigate online to establish which decision makers are involved in the government’s budget in its current phase. I recall a senate staffer — from an office that is a key gatekeeper for research investment — becoming particularly interested in our asks when we transitioned our discussion to the funding bill that he was actively working on and emphasized its concrete implications for research. By making your requests timely and relevant to ongoing legislation, you can increase the likelihood that your input will gain traction.
Choose advocacy activities deliberately.
Advocacy activities have different levels of impact. The more personal the activity (for example, individualized versus mass e-mails), the more weight it will hold with the legislator. These types of interaction, such as phone or face-to-face discussions, are more effective than electronic communication.
Public forums, expert panels and lab tours are ideal ways to share information with lawmakers. Tangible experiences offer lasting memories for legislators or staffers and provide them with positive stories to discuss with their colleagues while they work on legislation.
If you cannot meet in person, call your legislator’s office. Staff members tally the number of phone calls that they receive on an issue. While waiting for a member of Congress in his office, I overheard staffers start to talk about taxes, after a few constituents had phoned in to express related concerns. Calls are more effective than generic e-mails, not only because they are more personal, but also because computer algorithms cannot sort through them — which ensures that a staffer will engage with your topic.
Either way, refer to particular proposals or legislation because specifics provide actionable follow-ups.
Refine your presentation.
Remember to tailor your narrative to the legislator. Your explanations should be polished and devoid of jargon.
Politicians find information most compelling when it directly affects their constituents. In my presentations, I often link my addiction research (and federal funding) to the explosion in Tennesseans battling substance-use disorder. Analogously, I advocated alongside a prominent diabetes researcher who invited patients, physicians and researchers to in-person meetings to bolster the narrative.
And you’ll need to rehearse — a lot. Ask a non-scientist to act as the legislator, and practise everything you plan to do and say. Concise delivery will help lawmakers and staffers remember you and convey your asks to others.
You might get a variation of this question: “I love science and research, so what should I cut to make room for your funding increases?” Answer by focusing on the importance of research — and remember that it is not your role to make other specific budgetary recommendations.
Follow up with the office.
Maintain communication to make sure that your issue continues to get attention. The easiest meeting for politicians is one that has no follow-up. Your ongoing contact with the office will help to underscore the importance of the issue to the constituents of your district or region. Within two days, send a thank-you note that summarizes your message.
- 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
- Career Advice
How to deliver sound science in resource-poor regions
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
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Working Scientist podcast: Inside the NIH grant-review process
Julie Gould and Elizabeth Pier discuss how the US National Institutes of Health grant review process works. Your browser does not support the audio element. In this first episode of a six-part weekly series about funding, Julie Gould outlines the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant-review process and the extent to which reviewers evaluating the same applications agree or disagree. Is the current system the best way, she asks Elizabeth Pier, lead author of a March 2018 paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Low agreement among reviewers evaluating the same NIH grant applications. Paid content This episode concludes with a slot sponsored by the European Research Council. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, its president, outlines the organization's role and remit as a grant funder. TRANSCRIPT Julie Gould and Elizabeth Pier discuss how the US National Institutes of Health grant review process works. Julie Gould: Happy 2019! I hope you’ve all managed to take some time to celebrate. As it’s a new year and new years often come with a makeover in one form or another, the Nature Careers team decided to give the podcast a makeover. As well as a new name, we’ve also got a new format. So, instead of our monthly episodes, we’re going to be producing more episodes in 2019 and grouping them together into different series, featuring six weekly episodes followed by a short break. So, here’s series one – funding – and as an added extra, each episode in this series will end with a ten-minute sponsored slot from the European Research Council. So, without any further ado, let’s go.... (Theme music) Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Grant funding plays such an overwhelming role in the career of an academic scientist, and the funders are all too aware of it. Now, I know that all researchers spend many sleepless nights and cups of coffee writing grant proposals, so when I first started doing the research for this series, I wanted to find the best experts to give you the best tips on how to write the best grant proposals to make things a little bit easier for you. But then I came across a research paper that made me stop and reflect. In March 2018, Elizabeth Pier – who was then a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the Educational Psychology department – published a paper as part of her thesis in PNAS. The paper was entitled "Low agreement among reviewers evaluating the same NIH grant applications." When I first read this title, I thought, "Wait a minute, I thought the idea of the whole funding process was that the top proposals were being funded, the ones where everyone in the peer review system agreed that these were the best ideas supported by the best researchers to do the work." But clearly, this title shows that there’s something else going on in the background, so I wanted to find out more. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, which commissioned an independent study to examine the potential for bias to enter into the peer review process. The overarching goal of the whole project was to look for evidence of gender or racial bias, based on the characteristics of the PI or the application, and where in the process these biases might enter. Now, this particular piece of research from Pier is just one of the studies. It recreated a peer review panel to see how these meetings unfold and how they affect the decision-making process. Using previously accepted NIH project proposals, Pier explored this as part of her research. But before we go any further, it’s worth me outlining some of the basic steps of how the NIH proposal review system works. Now, just so you’re clear, these steps are the bare bones and they miss out a lot of the details, but they should give a flavour of what happens once you hit submit. So, the NIH uses a two-stage review process. In the first stage, between two and five reviewers individually evaluate each grant application, and they rate them using the NIH’s nine-point scale, with one for exceptional and nine for poor. They also record what they feel are the application’s strengths and weaknesses. The reviewers will then meet for what’s called a study section meeting to discuss their preliminary ratings. The discussion only looks at the top half of all the applications they have evaluated. The study section members then collectively assign a final rating, and this is averaged into a final priority score. So, that’s stage one. Then in the second stage, members of the NIH advisory councils use this priority score and the written critiques from the reviewers to make funding recommendations to the Director of the NIH institute or centre that awards the funding. So, given all that, I spoke to Elizabeth Pier who now works as a research manager at Education Analytics to find out more about her research. Elizabeth Pier: In this particular study, I was really interested in looking at the degree of agreement between different reviewers and what is even happening before the reviewers come together and how are reviewers going about scoring these applications based on their assessments. So, another way of putting that is: Are the reviewers agreeing not only on the score that they assign, but are they also identifying similar strengths and weaknesses in the critiques that they write prior to the meeting, and also what’s the relationship between that numeric score and the written evaluation? Julie Gould: So, there were some sobering results... Elizabeth Pier: We found that numerically speaking, there really was no agreement between the different individual reviewers in the score that they assigned to the proposals. We also found that when we were looking at the relationship between the strengths and weaknesses, written proposal, and the score that was assigned, we did see a relationship between the number of weaknesses that a reviewer would identify in their critique and the score that the reviewer assigned, but that relationship between the weaknesses and the score doesn’t hold up between different reviewers. Julie Gould: Another way of saying this is that the individual reviewers were really consistent – the more weaknesses they identified in the proposal, the lower the score awarded. But unfortunately, it appeared that each reviewer had a different idea of what a weakness is and what score that meant the proposal would ultimately be given. So, what this means is… Elizabeth Pier: ...we can’t really compare the evaluations of different reviewers and the degree of disagreement that we see in the scores seems to be a reflection of a different sense of calibration in what constitutes a bad score versus a good score. Julie Gould: The reviewers do come together for a meeting to discuss the papers based on the initial reviews, and in the meetings that Elizabeth Pier recreated… Elizabeth Pier: As you would predict and as people told us based on their intuition participating in these kinds of meetings, the range of scores does get smaller after discussions, so there’s a degree of consensus building within individual peer review panels, but the agreement between different panels actually got wider after discussion, and we had a unique opportunity here because we had four different panels that were evaluating the same applications. So in practice each application is only evaluated by one study section but for the purposes of this study we exploited that we had these four different groups looking at the same proposals. And so, in the process of building consensus within a given panel, different panels actually went further apart. Julie Gould: So really the outcome that you’re coming to is that it’s potentially better that these reviewers don’t meet? Elizabeth Pier: Our studies haven’t indicated any value or benefit in the sense of improving the consistency or reliability of the process. Julie Gould: But what about the variability in the quality of the proposal being discussed, doesn’t that make a difference? Elizabeth Pier: But we had to ask people to donate their applications and the summary statement that they received to us and the donations that we received just happened to be funded. And so, we tried to say that above a certain quality threshold, our results suggest that it’s essentially a random process and the meeting doesn’t seem to remove that randomness. However, I will say a caveat to that caveat is that the applications that get discussed in the meeting have already gone through triage, so only the top 50% of applications based on their preliminary score even get discussed in the meeting. So, what we are talking about is given that top 50% of proposals, after you’ve already excluded the ones that really have no chance of being funded initially, there really is a lot of randomness, but even more so, there’s already randomness such that the applications that have been weeded out so to speak and don’t get the opportunity to be discussed in the meeting might actually have a lot of merits. # Had it been assigned to a different panel with different reviewer it very well could have gone on to be discussed. Julie Gould: So, what you’re saying really is that luck plays a very large role in whether or not your research gets funded. Elizabeth Pier: Yes, that is what our results suggest. Above a certain degree, if you have a relatively competitive application, there aren’t any major issues that would immediately disqualify it to any kind of representative effort in the field, there’s a great deal of randomness and luck that we find in determining who does and does not get funding. Julie Gould: So, what does that mean for all those people who are spending all these hours and hours and hours and hours and hours on getting their funding applications organised and sorted and written up? I mean my heart goes out to them... Elizabeth Pier: Yes, my heart does as well. I mean it’s one of the reasons I studied this for my dissertation because it’s incredibly important for individual careers and also incredibly important for the progress of science, right? We want to make sure that the most deserving ideas are getting rewarded and funded and that it’s not just picking out of a hat. So, I mean there are a couple of pieces of silver lining. I think that we see evidence, especially as grants get resubmitted, that being responsive to reviewers’ critiques can play a strong role in conveying to reviewers improvement over time, and so there is something to be said for if you get rejected or you don’t get funded, having some tenacity and resubmitting that application and doing everything you can to address the reviewers’ critiques and feedback. It can make a potential difference. I also think that it’s important for folks not to take it personally. As academics, we definitely are used to rejection and used to plenty of times when we think we have really great ideas and reviewers of manuscripts or of grant applications don’t seem to agree with us, so I would encourage people to take a little bit of solace in that it’s not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the ideas but it’s more kind of a feature of the process. Julie Gould: How would you suggest then that the process is improved? Elizabeth Pier: There should be some assessments of whether what some scholars have called a "modified lottery system" could do. So, the idea being that there’s some initial screening process that experts do conduct to make sure, like I said, they’re kind of weeding out any really problematic proposals, things that are just wildly out of left field in terms of being feasible to complete given the budget or things like that. And then after that kind of initial screen then it really is just a random selection. And the reason I think that would be an improvement is because if the process is already random above a certain quality threshold, which our study suggests it is, we might as well save the money and the time involved to convene thousands of people and spend millions of dollars to have these meetings if the outcome is essentially the same as a random process. Julie Gould: Now, we’ll touch on the idea of a lottery-style funding system later on in the series, but what we can say now is that change is going to be slow – it always is in academia. Is there anything that can be done in the meantime, before this lottery style system or something completely different is created? Elizabeth Pier: Starting to accept the fact that it’s not a completely objective process, that humans are fallible, they are subjective, and when you’re asking experts to make very complex judgements about the potential likelihood of success of a project, that’s a really difficult decision that’s going to bring in a lot of heuristics and biases that go into their decision making. Julie Gould: My final question to Elizabeth was what advice have you got for anyone who’s currently writing a grant proposal to the NIH. Elizabeth Pier: One piece of advice, which is probably pretty obvious but I will say is backed by our findings, is that weaknesses are much more predictive of the score that reviewers will assign, rather than strengths. So, what that means is minimise as many weaknesses as you can. Julie Gould: So, after all of that, I’m intrigued. What do you think? How would you feel about a more lottery-style funding system? Please send in your thoughts to the Nature Careers team which you can do via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. And over the next two episodes, I’ll be speaking to different experts on how to minimise the number of weaknesses within your funding application, in the hopes – fingers crossed – that you’ll have a bit more success and a bit more luck. 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. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould. (Theme music) Jean-Pierre Bourguignon: So, my name is Jean-Pierre Bourguignon and my title is President of the European Research Council, which of course is supported by the European Union as through the European Commission. I’m a French mathematician, I should say. I spent most of my career in the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique). My field was differential geometry, but did a lot of work actually at the boundary of theoretical physics, general relativity and Dirac operators and these kind of topics, but still always as a mathematician. The European Research Council is actually an interesting story. It was created in 2007, so it’s now 11 years of age, and it was a long process. Myself, the first time I heard about the possibility of having an ERC was 1995, and it was a long effort by the scientific community, and step after step we had to convince people in the Commission, people in the European Council – namely the countries – that they should support such a project, but still it has a lot of very specific characteristics, particularly the power which has been given to its scientific council is considerable. It really was an innovation and the council has the responsibility of deciding on how to spend the money and how to do the evaluation. This is unique in the setting of the European Commission, that a group of 22 scientists are given such a responsibility and of course as President of the European Research Council, I have some very specific ones, which is to confirm the list of people who are granted and really guarantee the quality of the work done. The mission of the ERC was really to make Europe more attractive, to be a place where science can develop really in the most ambitious way and to push the ambition, particularly of young people, upward, that is to make them independent early enough and to take their vision on board. You know, we are at the stage of giving 1100 research grants this year, which is of course a very significant amount of money. The budget is now really over €2 billion per year, and we are covering all fields of science – that is physical sciences, engineering, including maths, computer science, and so on, life sciences, social sciences and humanities. If you want to know what you are doing, you need to talk and meet and discuss with the people you are funding and so I do travel a lot, particularly in Europe, to meet the people we call our grantees – the people who get the grants from the ERC – and this part of my job is really extremely worthwhile and extremely rewarding because the selection process is a very tough one – the typical success rate at this moment is 13%. And it means that people have all proposed very ambitious projects that are conditioned to be successful at the ERC, high risk again, we need to encourage the panels who are selecting people to really accept to take risks. And that’s one thing I hear regularly from grantees, telling me, ‘I submitted a very similar project to my national agency but then I was not funded, it was considered too risky, then I submitted to the ERC, and then the ERC funds me,’ so it makes a big difference. Another component which is very important in our strategy is the fact that the clause, which has been put in place by the European Research Council. Really, we have three categories at the moment for the individual grants, which is the starting grants, consolidator grants and advanced grants, and it means timed to PhD. So, starting grants – to 2 to 7 years, consolidator grants – 7 to 12 years, and advanced grants – there is no condition, it just means people who are already confirmed, and while doing that it means that in the end we are dedicating typically two thirds of our budget to the younger people, people who are typically below 40 years of age. Very often people get the belief that really if you are not from one of the leading research institutions in Europe, then you have no chance. This is not the case. I mean the institution which is your host institution is not part of the evaluation, which is really the key for the evaluation is the project. You have to show that you have thought of what kind of resources will be needed, and you describe them, but this is not the institution as such which is very important. So, it means that in particular in terms of the support we give, part of it could be also buying expensive equipment if you need them and if it’s not available in your institution. So, we consider the project, not just as helping the people, but helping the people also to set up the environment which will make it possible to get the project through. So, this is sometimes one misconception that people have, that they get the feeling that if they are coming from a smaller place, they have no chance. The number of institutions the ERC has been signing with is close to 800 now, so of course it’s quite a significant number of institutions based in Europe and of course some of the leading ones got more grants than others, but definitely even small institutions have been very successful at the ERC. One of the key things that the ERC is doing is empowering researchers. This is something very, very important for us, and a very good example for this is one of the specific characteristics of the ERC programme which is called portability, but the host institution is not part of the selection criteria – it’s just here to make sure that there is a legal body that is able to receive the contract and it gives a lot of power to the researchers. And one of the typical powers, what I mentioned, portability, which means that the researcher can change the host institution if he or she feels that it’s not given the proper treatment, or maybe they could give other personal reasons to do that. This is the whole philosophy behind it – we really want the researchers in the driver’s seat at the level of the council but also at the level of how they run their contract, and of course there is an institution behind it because you want to be sure that there is a legal basis for this, but we really want the researchers to be able to do their research in the best possible conditions. The map I have in front of me, which is the map of the world, has on top of it one of our mottos which is ‘Open to the world.’ One of the conditions to be funded is that you have to spend at least 50% of your time in Europe, but you can be from any country, and we want to be sure that Europe is the leader to tackle some of the most challenging scientific problems. At the very beginning, we could notice that the percentage of women who were applying to the ERC was less than the percentage of women in the scientific community, and we felt this was definitely not adequate. Also, we had for the ones who applied, the success rate was definitely lower than the success rate for men. Through very sustained efforts, and identifying the issue from the very beginning, I think we made very significant progress. So, first of all, the percentage of women applying to the ERC has been steadily growing. We are now basically at the level where the percentage of women applying to the ERC is very similar to the level of the percentage of women in the age group of the different goals we have. So, from that point of view, I think we really achieved something which means that there’s no some kind of resistance or reluctance of women to apply, so this is one step. And then, of course very important but I think the two are linked – the fact that in recent years, the ERC women have been on average more successful than men. It’s a very slight difference but since we started the situation shows the opposite. We are very pleased that all the efforts we made, particularly to tackle complicit bias or various other things have been more or less successful. I’ve been visiting many, many countries in Europe, in particular countries in the "EU13," because I feel you need to understand the real situation people are exposed to in the various countries, and they are the ones who joined Europe the most recently, and most of them located in the eastern part of Europe and it’s very important to realise that actually that situation can be quite different from one country to the next. It has to do with teaching load, it has to do with the power structures in the institutes, it has to do of course with the support which is available to people, so for me it was very, very important to meet the researchers because that’s for me the key point. Also, to meet the authorities in these countries and to understand in which environment they are operating because I think that’s the very best way. We, at the level of the European Research Council, have also introduced some help, in particular by encouraging the various countries, could be also regions, to support possibilities of researchers in typically underrepresented regions (it could be EU13 countries) – to really give them some possibility of spending some time with the support of their countries or their region, in ERC teams, so that they understand what it takes to submit a proposal, but also to understand better, to really also test their ideas with other people so that then they have a much better idea what it takes to submit a proposal and therefore they are better prepared personally, not just intellectually, to really submit a proposal in good conditions because they have seen what a difference it makes and also what also kind of effort you have to put in if you want to be successful. Originally posted on Nature Careers - 04 January 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00016-0