Washington state’s tech billionaires pour cash into global health
Gifts from pioneering philanthropists have equipped the US state for a frontline battle against some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
The US state of Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, was once the epicentre of the information-technology world, thanks to Microsoft and its founder, Seattle-born Bill Gates — until the dotcom boom sent investors down the coast to Silicon Valley. Now, Gates and other high-profile Microsoft alumni, along with other wealthy donors, are elevating the state as a major player in another sector: global health.
One survey, from the Washington Global Health Alliance (WGHA), an industry body that encourages collaboration between global-health organizations in the state, revealed that 207 local bodies see some of their activities as pertaining to global health. Those groups provide a diverse array of job opportunities in all aspects of the sector. “In Washington state, we have organizations that do everything from lab-based research, vaccines, diagnostics, data collection, service delivery, disaster response, down to last-mile logistics,” says Dena Morris, president and chief executive of WGHA. “Everything from beginning to end, there’s someone in the state working on it.”
Nathan Myhrvold was at Microsoft from 1986 to 2000, becoming the company’s chief technology officer in 1996. In 2000, he started the speculative patent firm Intellectual Ventures, based in Bellevue; this now has its own global-health branch, Global Good, which was set up with funding from Gates in 2012. Myhrvold says that the state has a range of specialist enterprises that make it particularly attractive to those involved in this sort of work. “The Seattle area is the Silicon Valley of saving the world,” he says.
In 2000, Gates established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, which has been the most significant contributor to the state’s global-health efforts. It has launched and funded several institutes and departments, both at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and at Washington State University, in Pullman — the state’s two largest higher education centres — as well as funding global health organizations based in the area.
In 2015, the foundation made US$4.1 billion in grants available globally. It estimates that, in the same year, it generated $1.5 billion in local economic activity, including some $340 million in direct grants to Washington-based research groups. Much of that money goes to the Seattle-based non-profit organization Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and the University of Washington — both with a history of studying and fighting infectious diseases.
The Gates Foundation, which employs 1,200 people in Washington in a $500-million, 84,000-square-metre campus next to the city’s iconic Space Needle observation tower, is the world’s largest philanthropic funder of scientific research in terms of endowment. It employs a further 300 people outside Washington.
The hugeness of the foundation has generated criticism. Gates himself has asked why sharing wealth should be optional for billionaires, rather than mandated by government, through taxes or grants. Others have pointed to surveys showing that an increase in private grants for public health can remove incentives for local governments to invest their own resources in health care, precipitating an over-reliance on foreign aid. Still more have argued that the Gates approach to funding institutes over individuals has encouraged the global-health sector to behave more like a capitalist group than a charitable one, and have suggested that the foundation be overseen by an independent international body, such as the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The single biggest gift
The Gateses aren’t the only big philanthropists in town, nor is philanthropy limited to global health. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who died last October, was another big spender in the region. Most famously, he launched the Seattle-based Allen Institute, which is organized into separate institutes specializing in brain science, cell science and artificial intelligence, along with a grant-awarding body. Rob Piercy, a spokesperson for the Allen Institute, told Nature that Allen had committed more than $1 billion since founding the first institute in 2003.
Warren Buffett is credited with much of the growth of the Gates Foundation. The businessman pledged $30 billion in 2006 — what Bill and Melinda Gates in their 2017 annual open letter called “the single biggest gift anyone has ever given anyone for anything”. That gift doubled the foundation’s resources.
Health workers give Bill Gates a tour of their work in the village of Kicheba, Tanzania, in 2017.Credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty
As the Gates Foundation grew, and started to tackle more diseases in more countries, it needed better data to track and respond to outbreaks, says David Wertheimer, director of community and civic engagement at the foundation. To this end, it launched the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in 2007 with a $107-million grant, and has continued to support the centre, which is part of the University of Washington. Wertheimer says that the university was a natural home for the institute. Like PATH, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2017, the university was addressing global-health issues “long before the Gates Foundation ever existed”, he says.
The institute collects global data on diseases, mortality, morbidity and disability, which aids the Gates Foundation in planning its mission, Wertheimer says. “It will really help us allocate time, talent and resources to the challenges of global health.” William Heisel, director of global services at the IHME, says that the increased support of the Gates Foundation has helped the institute to grow from three people when it started to about 450 now.
Seeds of collaboration
What’s made the area so successful is how all these entities interact, he says. The IHME shares its data with local and regional organizations, and the Gates Foundation brings together a range of stakeholders; it has held more than 8,000 meetings since 2006, ranging from one-on-ones to conferences of hundreds. “It’s a very collaborative community here,” says Heisel.
Public-health specialist Dorothy Thomas says she sees and benefits from that community spirit. Thomas manages logistics at the non-profit organization VillageReach in Seattle, which aims to provide remote communities in the developing world with health care, and is building a database to track the price of delivering vaccine components to different parts of the world. She is working with scientists at the Gates Foundation, PATH and the University of Washington, among others, to build a map of their costs. She’s been pleased with the spirit of cooperation for that project. “There’s an openness, an excitement when it comes to sharing the work that they’ve been doing,” Thomas says.
Another characteristic of institutes in Washington is a focus on open-access publishing. The Allen institutes have remained committed to open-access research since they were founded, says Piercy. “No login, no password, no anything required to access the research,” he says. “It’s really the single biggest thing that sets us apart from other basic-science research institutes.”
The Gates Foundation also maintains strict open-access policies for the research it funds. Work paid for by the foundation must be published without an embargo, and in front of a paywall, in any journal that’s willing to make the research accessible. This approach has been taken a step further by an international consortium of European research funders, which plans to forbid publishing in anything other than fully open-access journals. The initiative is being led Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s special envoy on open access, who cited the Gates Foundation as an inspiration.
Washington’s combination of open data and open doors makes it easy to collaborate with a wide sphere of people, says Heisel. “You are rarely in a room where it’s just charitable organizations speaking to themselves.”
Collaborations have emerged between academic, non-profit and commercial partners. For example, the IHME partnered with PATH to look at the effectiveness of immunizations by Gavi, a vaccine alliance based in Geneva, Switzerland. PATH provided on-the-ground insight, while the IHME collected and analysed data. “The ecosystem in Washington is ripe for this,” says David Fleming, PATH’s vice-president of public health. The state’s prosperity, paradoxically, causes some challenges, says Allan Jones, president and chief executive of the Allen Institute. Competition for talent is hot. For example, finding computational scientists can be tough with Facebook and Amazon often seeking similar skills. “We have to compete against that market and we do lose out,” Jones says.
The same goes for property. Facebook, Google and Amazon have bought property in popular South Lake Union, where, along with the Allen Institute, the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute also have a presence.
Lee Hood, president of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, worries that the institute might have to move in two years, when its lease comes up for renewal. The Seattle area’s property market has cooled in recent months, but is still one of the most expensive areas in which to buy a home in the United States (see ‘Paddle your own canoe’). Thomas shares a house with five people to beat the rental market. She says that the biggest downside to the state, however, is Washington’s five-month rainy season. “Moisture is coming from every single possible direction that you can imagine,” she says. “That can be pretty rough.”
PADDLE YOUR OWN CANOE
Clay Reid enjoys a quintessentially Seattle commute. He takes his kayak down a hill a few hundred metres from his house, launches it into Lake Union, paddles 2.5 kilometres, and parks it in a garage at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. The 30-minute journey illustrates the difference between cultures in Seattle, Washington, and Boston, Massachusetts, Reid says — he worked as a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston before joining the Allen institute in 2012.
“You’re much more likely to discuss how you got to work than what you do at work,” Reid says. Conversations turn to hiking, cycling, camping, climbing and paddling — all of which can be pursued in and around Puget Sound, within an hour’s drive of the city. Reid even anticipated the location of the Allen institute, buying a house near Lake Union to make his commute possible. Now, he often has much of the lake to himself. Paddling is better than driving, because new offices for Facebook and Amazon are bringing more traffic into the South Lake Union area — a problem that will only increase when Google expands its own campus there.
Demand for housing has pushed property prices to record highs, with median home prices in the Seattle area hitting US $830,000 last spring. When Reid was looking for a house, he found himself competing against local tech millionaires offering above the asking price and paying in cash. He and his wife settled for a smaller dwelling and later extended the property.
Reid has one characteristic that sets him apart from most Seattlites, however — he prefers decaf to regular coffee. When he orders, he sometimes incurs the disdain of snobby baristas. “In Boston, people can be judgemental about what you do for a living,” Reid says. “In Seattle, people can be equally judgemental about how you take your coffee.”
Up the coast from the valley
There is no shortage of global-health problems whose solutions involve advanced technology. For example, Global Good is developing a microscope that can automatically detect diseases such as malaria. The team uses machine-learning technology and pattern-matching software to enable the identification of pathogens that the human eye might miss. This improves the often poor quality of malaria microscopy, which plagues malaria management and elimination programmes; and it could greatly improve the effectiveness of malaria research worldwide, Myhrvold says.
The global-health ecosystem in Washington makes such inventions possible, he says. For example, if Global Good needs a biosafety laboratory to study tuberculosis, or mosquito samples to examine malaria, he can usually find collaborators. The sheer number of global-health organizations, combined with their willingness to work together, makes Washington state — and Seattle in particular — a special place to work, he says.
Many fellow technology specialists agree, Myhrvold says, and have joined him in moving to the sector. “They like working on some of this stuff. It’s fun. It makes you feel good about yourself, about the impact you have.”
First published on Nature Careers on 16 Jan 2019
- 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 get a funded internship in industry
As part of a broad mission to prepare science students for careers outside academia, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has expanded a funding initiative to support master’s and PhD students for six-month internships in companies, government laboratories and non-profit organizations. The INTERN supplemental-funding opportunity, launched last year for select departments within the NSF, will now be open to almost every graduate student supported by an NSF grant, says Prakash Balan, programme director in the NSF’s Directorate for Engineering. At a time when available US industry positions far outnumber job openings in US academia, the internships can give students real-world training for their futures, he adds. “Opportunities like this give students exposure and experience at a time when it matters most,” he says. The programme also fits in with the agency’s overall agenda. “NSF has a long-term vision to foster the growth of a competitive and diverse workforce,” Balan says. “We want to advance the science and innovation skills of the nation at large.” The expanded programme provides up to US$55,000 to support a student for six months. The sum is meant to cover travel, tuition, stipends, materials and other expenses. The student’s supervisor can use up to $2,500 of the award to visit the site hosting the internship and co-mentor the student. The NSF has pledged to support up to 200 students in each of the fiscal years 2019 and 2020, although Balan says that more awards could be provided if the demand is great enough. To be eligible, students must have completed at least one year of their master’s or PhD programmes. Jennifer Weller, programme director of the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, says that she expects to receive many applications from biology students. “I’ve already had 20 phone calls asking for more details,” she says. Weller explains that she worked for five years in industry (at the biotechnology company PE/Applied Biosystems) before eventually returning to academia. Fostering the flow of talent and ideas between academia and industry should be a top priority for the agency, she says. Interest in the INTERN initiative goes both ways. The programme began after corporations contacted the NSF asking for help finding student interns, Balan says. Those requests encouraged the agency to think how best to connect graduate students with industry. To apply for an INTERN award, students must provide a letter from their supervisor and from the prospective company or other host organization, and must make a convincing case that the experience would help them to achieve their overall training and career goals. “It’s not something that can be pulled together with a casual contact,” Balan says. “The host organization and the university have to put their minds together to create something very powerful for the student.” In another outreach effort, the NSF is seeking submissions for its 2026 Idea Machine, a competition to elicit big ideas for future research projects. The agency is looking for ambitious visions within the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “We’re crowdsourcing the best and brightest ideas so we know what the community’s thinking,” Balan says. The agency plans to award two to four winners $26,000 each, with the possibility that the winning entries would trigger long-term NSF investments. The competition, which is open to members of the general public as well as to scientists, will accept suggestions up to 26 October. Originally published on Nature Careers on 11 September 2018 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06641-5
- Career Advice
What to do when your grant is rejected
The day after she submitted a grant proposal last November, Sarah McNaughton listed all the tactics she could think of to boost her chances of success next time. “I expect to be rejected,” says McNaughton. “It is the exception to get funded, not the rule.” Publishing key papers and forging new collaborations were on her list, as was collecting preliminary data. McNaughton, a nutrition researcher at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, studies dietary patterns to find ways to improve public health. For the next phase of her work, she wants volunteers to use wearable cameras to capture what influences their food choices in real life, so she can determine how those vary depending on a person’s nutrition knowledge and cooking skills. After McNaughton had sent off her grant application to Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), top of her to-do list was launching a pilot study. “If we can show that people will wear the cameras, and they capture the data we need, that would really strengthen the application,” she says. A good idea is no guarantee of grant success. At the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2017 — the most recent year for which data are available — proposals worth a total of almost US$4 billion were rejected simply because they were beyond the organization’s budget, even though reviewers had rated them as very good or excellent. At the US National Institutes of Health, the aggregate success rate for research grants was 20.5% in 2017 (the most recent data available). At the biomedical-research funder Wellcome in London, roughly 50% of applications make it through the preliminary stage. Of those, around 20% were funded in 2017–18. And the NHMRC Investigator Grant category that McNaughton applied for had a success rate of just 7% in the previous round in 2019. “Given the low success rates of funding around the world, the odds are stacked against you in winning that one proposal,” says Drew Evans, an energy researcher at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, and former deputy chair of the Australian Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. “Work towards a portfolio of activities,” he says. Aiming for different strands of funding to cover various aspects of a researcher’s work is a safer bet than seeking one major grant, he adds. McNaughton applies the same strategy to any research for which she is seeking funding. “I think about how I can split it up and target it to other organizations,” she says. It’s the first step towards applying to different funders without having to start from scratch each time — and you can work on it while waiting for the outcome of one application. “Rather than writing eight different grants, you are building an area — calling on the same literature and on your same publications,” McNaughton says. Planning for rejection is a crucial part of the granting process, say those who have been through the wringer (see ‘More on rejection recovery’). The limited pot of research funds worldwide means that competition is fierce. “We receive many more proposals — many more very good proposals — than we can possibly fund,” says Dawn Tilbury, a mechanical engineer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who is head of the NSF Engineering Directorate, which funds basic research in science and engineering. MORE ON REJECTION RECOVERY It’s painful when your grant application is rejected, but here are some further thoughts on helping you to work productively after you’ve recovered from your disappointment. • You’re not alone. Average success rates are around 20% among large funders, so grant rejection is common. “Don’t lose heart,” says Shahid Jameel, chief executive of IndiaAlliance, a biomedical-research funder in New Delhi and Hyderabad. Rejection doesn’t mean that your work is flawed. • Give yourself time. Allow a week or so to recover, says Candace Hassall, head of researcher affairs at the biomedical funder Wellcome in London. “When people are turned down, they are angry and upset. Let that play out,” she says. Put the application to one side for a few days before you consider your next steps. • Share your setback. Discussing the grant rejection with colleagues, mentors and others can provide emotional support in the short term, and give you constructive feedback to help you to reapply for the grant when you are ready. “People whose grants have been rejected might not want to tell anybody, but getting advice and input can really help,” says Karen Noble, head of research careers at Cancer Research UK, which funds scientists and health-care professionals working on cancer treatments. • Look for ways to improve. Tackling the concerns of the reviewers who rejected your grant is important. “But don’t assume that just by addressing the issues outlined, you will necessarily be successful next time,” says Noble. It is unlikely that the same reviewers will see your application again, so look at it holistically and strengthen it for the next round. This might involve incorporating key new data, learning a crucial technique or forming a fresh collaboration. • Get feedback. Your revision needs review by a broad, diverse group of people, including colleagues, mentors and members of your network. You should also circulate the revision to scientists who don’t specialize in your field. Rejection hurts Rejection can be a bruising experience, say veteran grant-writers, and applicants need to give themselves at least a week to get through the initial pain. “Take a deep breath, close your computer, go home. Talk to your partner, or pet your cat,” says Tilbury. It’s a rollercoaster that Evans has ridden plenty of times. “You go through the various stages of emotions — anger, disappointment, despair, grieving almost,” he says. “Having time to digest, to get upset and angry — you need to go through that process, because you need a clear mind to come back to it constructively.” But grant-seekers can develop tricks to handle rejection better, says McNaughton. “Part of the reason I make a to-do list is to pull back my expectations,” she says. “Once it might have taken me a week or two to bounce back. Now, it’s 24 hours.” During the emotional recalibration process, researchers should share the setback with others, including colleagues and other professional contacts, says Evans. “It is your network that is going to give you the support and encouragement to keep going,” he says. Peers and mentors can help to put the rejection into context. They might also know of other funding opportunities that can help to bridge an immediate financial shortfall, or of potential collaborators who might be able to bring a researcher into a larger funding opportunity. Ask the funder After working through the emotional component, applicants should next seek feedback from the granting organization. The level of feedback sent out with rejection letters varies drastically, depending on the organization, the scheme applied for and the stage the application reached before rejection. For smaller funders, feedback might not be provided as a matter of course. “That takes a bit of effort to put together,” says Kristina Elvidge, research manager at the Sanfilippo Children’s Foundation in Australia. The charity, based near Sydney, funds up to Aus$700,000 (around US$472,000) annually on research into treatments for the rare genetic disorder Sanfilippo syndrome, which causes fatal brain damage. “I always give feedback to rejected applicants if they ask — but they very rarely do,” Elvidge says. For researchers whose work might align closely with the mission of a small foundation, seeking feedback can be the first step in starting a dialogue and building a relationship with a potential long-term funder. Megan Donnell, the foundation’s executive director and founder, says that the organization welcomes such efforts. Discussing grant rejections with peers can help to put them into context, advises Drew Evans (left), shown talking to early-career researcher Nasim Amiralian.Credit: Drew Evans For applicants to a larger organization or agency, such as the NSF, a rejection typically comes with some feedback — but that doesn’t mean the researcher can’t seek more, Tilbury says. “The programme director might be able to fill in some of the blanks,” she says. The feedback can contain many comments, criticisms and suggestions, and often the grant reviewers do not agree with each other. The programme director can help the applicant to peel away superficial concerns and make sure that she or he understands the proposal’s underlying weaknesses so as to address them in a potential revision, Tilbury says. “It’s one of the things programme directors enjoy doing — mentoring junior faculty members and trying to help them in their grant writing.” Some funders will not have the resources to provide feedback. But researchers should not fear tainting their reputation if they ask, says Candace Hassall, head of researcher affairs at Wellcome. “A funding agency won’t think badly of anyone contacting them for advice, even if we can’t give it.” Get feedback on the feedback Once a researcher has gathered constructive criticism, he or she should candidly appraise the strengths and weaknesses of their application. It is important to avoid taking feedback personally, says Shahid Jameel, chief executive of IndiaAlliance, a large research funder in New Delhi and Hyderabad. It supports biomedical and health research in India, and is itself funded by Wellcome and the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology. “You have to get out of this mindset that there is either something wrong with you, or that people are against you,” Jameel says. “Reviewers really want you to do well — that is why they are spending their time reviewing your grant and providing feedback.” Reviewer feedback often seems less negative over time, McNaughton says. “I often colour code my reviewers’ comments — green for good and red for bad — and then realize that actually, there are a lot of good things in there as well,” she says. “These little things can make the process a bit easier.” And getting reviewer feedback is certainly preferable to not getting any, she adds. For her most recent rejection, she received only numerical scores on various components of her grant. “Then it is very difficult to know how to improve the application,” she says. Unsuccessful applicants should also seek input from colleagues and others whose opinions they value. “Talk to your peer group and your mentors — they will have been through the process and they can help you interpret the letter,” says Karen Noble, head of research careers at Cancer Research UK in London, which funds work on cancer treatments. Researchers can ask colleagues whether they agree with the feedback, whether they think that the reviewers missed an important point because it was not fully explained in the proposal, or whether they consider the proposal’s argument to be flawed. Researchers also need to determine whether they should reapply to the same funding scheme or seek alternatives (see ‘Rejection resources’). If an application fell at the first round of screening — in which reviewers assess the overall suitability of an applicant and proposal for that particular scheme — an alternative funder could be a better fit. For example, some government-supported agencies, such as the NSF, give grants for only basic research, whereas others, such as the US Department of Energy, are mission-focused and fund more-applied projects. “It is also important to consider funders that are not in one’s own nation,” says Jameel. REJECTION RESOURCES Every grant writer will experience rejections. Here are some resources to help you find alternative funding and boost your chances of success. • Seek help from your peers. Blogs run by academic researchers often contain useful career advice and information about the challenges of winning funding. Examples include The Research Whisperer in Australia and US-based blog The Professor Is In. Some are dedicated to research funding in specific regions, such as Research Fundermentals, which covers UK grant news. • Find another grant scheme. It might be that your chosen funder wasn’t the best fit for your proposal. Searching portals such as www.grants.gov in the United States and the funding-opportunities database SPIN (run by US firm InfoEd Global) could reveal schemes you hadn’t previously encountered. • Consider different funders. If your application for a government grant was unsuccessful, try obtaining funds from industry. Also look at small foundations — their remits vary widely (see, for example, http://fdnweb.org/eppley) but your work might align perfectly with one foundation’s mission. • Do some training. Look for short courses aimed at writing grant resubmissions so you can learn the most effective ways to reapply. • Network. Join a group of early- to mid-career researchers to gain advice and support. This might be a national organization or one at your institution. Grant-writers should keep industrial funders in mind, Evans says. He notes that applicants might be able to reshape a proposal to show its value to a particular business, adding that scientists who engage with businesses can diversify their grant portfolio and boost the resilience of their research income stream. Exploring potential applications of one’s work to industry could keep a researcher going until the next round of funding agency grants. “Industry partnerships are now one of the hot topics around the water cooler,” he says. Nailing the details Rejection also lurks after the preliminary screening stage when a grant application enters peer review. “If there’s a particular approach the reviewers don’t like, sometimes you may just need to explain it better — but sometimes there’s a mismatch,” Tilbury says. She adds that many early-career scientists seek to apply a technique or expertise they honed during a postdoc to a new area of research. If the reviewers weren’t sold on the idea, the grant-writer needs to think carefully about the proposal, Tilbury says. “Are the reviewers right? Am I using the wrong hammer to pound this nail?” If a grant-seeker is certain that their proposal — and their expertise — do fit the grant scheme, they need to make that clear to reviewers. “A common reason for rejection is that the applicant has made assumptions about what the reviewers know about them,” Hassall says. “If a technique or method is critical to what you are proposing, you have to include it. Make it easy for people to get the information that they need.” Similarly, if referees rejected a grant because the applicant had no experience in a particular technique, it pays to get it and include that information in the next round. Before reapplying, researchers should seek collaborators who are experts in that area or technique, or spend a week working in the collaborator’s lab to gain experience. It is the applications that just miss out on funding that can be the hardest to revise, Noble says. “Sometimes there wasn’t anything inherently wrong with somebody’s application. It just didn’t make it to the top of the list. Those can be the harder ones to try to repackage and put in again.” Yet perseverance is key, says Mariane Krause, a psychologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and president of the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT) in Chile, which funds research in the country. She encourages researchers to refine their applications and continue to apply. “I have many young researchers who get a grant the third time,” she says. Reapplying to the same organization for funding can work if the funder allows it. “The success rate of reapplications is significantly higher than for first-time applications,” says Alex Martin Hobdey, head of the unit at the European Research Council (ERC) that coordinates project calls and follow-ups. For example, new applicants to ERC grants have a 9–10% success rate. “For people reapplying, the success rate goes up to 14 to 15%. We have people who got their first grant on their seventh application,” he adds (see go.nature.com/2vrfugk). Some schemes impose a specific hiatus period before accepting applications, or have an annual or biannual application deadline. Others, including Cancer Research UK, don’t impose specific limits. But programme officers recommend resisting the temptation to rush in a revised application as quickly as possible. “Take time — don’t knee-jerk,” Noble says. “Will you really be in a better position to reapply in a month?” Nature 578, 477-479 (2020) doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00455-0 Originally posted on nature.com on 18th February 2020 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00455-0