Working Scientist Podcast: Grant Application Essentials
Expert advice on how to get the details of a grant submission right, and planning for "curveball questions" if you are asked to deliver an oral presentation.
It's the details that make a difference in a grant application and oral presentation, Julie Gould discovers.
In the third episode of our series about funding, Peter Gorsuch, Chief Editor at Nature Research Editing Services, tells Julie Gould about the all-important details to include in your grant application.
Jernej Zupanc, who runs visual communication skills training for scientists, talks fonts, colours and other ways make your application easier to navigate.
And Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of UK and Europe Research Landscape at Wellcome Trust, London, describes how to prepare for a grant application interview presentation , including answers to some difficult questions
Paid content: European Research Council
Alina Bădescu describes her research at the Faculty of Electronic, Telecommunications and Information Technology, University of Bucharest, and her experience of successfully applying for an ERC grant. Bădescu, an associate professor at the university, was invited to the ERC's HQ in Brussels for an interview as part of the application.
It's the details that make a difference in a grant application and oral presentation, Julie Gould discovers.
Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the third part of our series on funding. And as with episodes one and two of this series, at the very end of this episode we'll also conclude with a third sponsored slot featuring the work of the European Research Council.
In the second episode, we heard from Anne-Marie Coriat and Peter Gorsuch on how to best prepare for writing a grant proposal, and the conclusions were: plan ahead, ask questions and get feedback. And these are a great starting point, but I wanted to get into the nitty gritty of the grant writing process, and as luck would have it, during one of our conversations, Peter talked about just that – the nitty gritty details that the grant reviewers will want to see in a proposal.
They certainly need to know what you’re planning to do. That seems very obvious – that’s the whole point of the application is to say this is what I’m going to do – but actually some applications that I see succeed in this more than others, and there are certainly applications that are like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this and that and we’re going to learn to study that,’ and how are you going to do these things, and are you proposing work that’s feasible? Is this something that you’re capable of delivering? And those questions sometimes remain unanswered, simply because of a lack of detail. And most funding bodies, if not all, expect quite a lot of detail about actually how you’re going to do this in practice, so what machine are you going to use for things that require specialised machines, the analyses that are particularly difficult. There might be some, you know, you’re going to apply machine learning approaches to some things. Well, do you have the expertise to do that and if not, who are you going to collaborate with, or how are you going to obtain the skills and the tools necessary to do that? So, it’s that kind of really practical sort of down-to-earth thinking that the funding panel would be looking for because if you’ve got great ideas and great objectives but it’s out there in terms of the practicality, then actually that could be something that would worry the panel.
When we’re talking about specifics and practicalities, you’re talking at a granular level, really going down to the details of, I’m going to do this experiment three times, and I’m going to run it twice a week for x weeks. Are you talking that level of detail?
Exactly that level of detail.
And also, another thing that ties in with that precisely is the idea of risks, the idea of back-up plans. What happens if, for example, you’re doing some fieldwork that’s in extreme conditions or that kind of thing, that it’s tricky to do or you’re planning to produce a mutant that has such and such a quality as part of your work. What do you do if that doesn’t succeed? I don’t think you need to do that for every single step of the work, but you need to think carefully about what is the thing about this which is most likely to not go the way that I’m planning because the panel will know that as well, and they’ll be looking for a plan that accounts for those risks and that minimises them where possible but comes up with back-up plans.
Once you’ve got the grant written, the next challenge is to make sure that the reviewer reads more than just that all important abstract. Jernej Zupanc is the founder of Seyens, a company through which he runs visual communications workshops for scientists. On top of that, he’s also been a consultant for small businesses applying for Horizon 2020 funding, and he said that when you’re writing the grant proposal, you really need to put yourself in the shoes of the reviewer and think about what it is that they are seeing.
Well, the most important thing is that whenever you are writing a grant proposal, you have to understand that on the other side of the table there is somebody who is also a human being, which means that they have their subjective ways of determining wants to fund and what’s not to fund, which means that you have to prepare the proposal in such a way that that person is not going to struggle with what you’re trying to explain, so you have to present it in such a way that is going to be understandable. They shouldn’t think more than necessary about what you’re trying to explain. So, I think that that would be the first thing to discuss with people who apply for grants. Then the second thing which is I think is more of a visual nature, is that you have to enable what is called skimming or scanning, which means that a person can look at your page and they can go over it in let’s say less than half a minute and they have to understand which topics you’re addressing on that page, what the main messages are. And then if there are visuals, when they see the visual, they have to understand what the main message of the visual is, what the purpose is, which means that when a validator is reading through the proposal and they can come, for example, to a paragraph, if it’s just completely dense, flat text, then they will have to read every word of it. But if you, for example, use approaches such as topical sentences, which means that the first sentence of the paragraph actually states the message which that paragraph then develops, then the validators will be able to read the first sentence, they will see whether there is something already familiar with, and then in that case they might skip it and they will focus on the parts of your proposal which are things that are of higher importance to them. Then the second thing I think is of fundamental nature is that you have to get to the point as fast as possible. If the validator is looking at your grant and then for the first three pages they just understand the background but they have no idea about what you’re going to do about it, then they’re in a way losing interest into it. So. what I usually propose is that if the grant applications allow you a format where it’s not so strict, that you start with something which is called a graphical abstract and make an executive summary, which means that the validator can just on one page go through the most important things about your proposal and they get this kind of walkthrough, they get this overview, this big picture about what’s going on. And then once they have that big picture in their mind, then they can use the details you provide in the following pages to somehow fill in all the questions they might still have to answer, but in general the big picture should always come before the details.
So, one thing that many people I have spoken to in the past have commented on, especially when I’m discussing this idea of skimming when it comes to a CV, is that people aren’t keen on using things like boldface type or colours in their CV. What is your perspective on using that type of tool for a grant proposal?
When I’m writing grant proposals for businesses, those are not as conservative documents as we are used to in science, which means that in scientific grant proposal writing I think the approach would be a little less modern or a bit more traditional. However, if there’s one thing that I think can be introduced into scientific proposal writing really cleverly, it’s bold text. Of course, not overwhelming amounts of bold text, but just here and there, some things that should just not be skipped, I think that’s okay. When it comes to colour, it’s much more difficult. If I really, really summed up, use colour to add meaning, use colours to amplify and not to fancify because usually people just pick colours so the colour makes everything colourful, but this is really a waste of colour. It is in a way too overwhelming for people when they’re reading, so if you’re using colour it has to be really, really meaningful.
Can you go into a little more detail about the use of colour when it comes to graphic representation and font and texts and things like that for scientists who might be wanting to use that in their funding proposal?
This goes across all types of applications, but one thing that you can do with is colour is that if there is a concept or something that you’re dealing with in your research that’s going to appear constantly, you can associate the colour with that, and then you use the same colour in your schemes, you will use the same colour in your gantt chart, you will use the same colour in the bar chart, then use the same colour in, for example, the charts like data visualisations which means that when somebody is going over 20 pages of your proposal, whenever they come to a colour they will have already associated that concept with that colour.
So, fingers crossed, all these tips combined will improve your chances of getting that funding proposal accepted, but something else to think about is that some funding bodies will actually need candidates to give an oral presentation as part of their application. Anne-Marie Coriat from the Wellcome Trust said that these are actually a really great opportunity for a candidate to update the review panel on any work that has been done since the grant proposal was submitted.
It can be 3-6 months before an interview takes place, especially if there’s a triage process involved. So, there is an opportunity to see fit and update, and then to also provide some of the richer narrative around the application that you weren’t able to put in either because the page limits were restrictive or because actually you hadn’t covered that when you were thinking about putting your application together. So again, the key for any interview process is know what you have flexibility to do and practice, and practice with people who are used to doing this themselves. So, often in the institutions you will have people who are on panels that do interviews themselves. There will be people on promotion panels, people who do all sorts of interviews. Very often, universities will have the chance for individuals coming for interview for a grant application to have mock panels. There are some lovely little resources on the internet – Medical Research Council have got one, as have others – where they show physically the process of an interview. So, get to know what your funder is after and what they’re offering you, and then the critical thing is practice, practice, practice. And think of the worst questions you could possibly be asked and try and answer them as succinctly as you can. If you’re given the opportunity to present a slide or more than one slide, make sure that it is clear and that it isn’t cluttered – the usual advice that you get – and if you’re given the opportunity to provide a bit of richness around the proposal, make sure that you tackle those, ‘I realise that stage x in my proposal will make or break the direction in which I travel’, ‘If it works this way then I will be fine, if it doesn’t then these are my back-up plans.’ So always anticipate the worst thing that might happen in your own research proposal, don’t wait for somebody else to tell you because then you’ll be on the backfoot. Try and anticipate where people might think your research could fail or could be derailed potentially, and think about how you might respond to that so that essentially what you’re doing is you’re giving a very clear view that you not only understand the field, you understand what others are doing globally and you know how the experimental approaches that you are proposing might work or might not, and what you might do if there’s a problem.
At this point I want to thank our experts Elizabeth Pier, Peter Gorsuch, Anne-Marie Coriat and Jernej Zupanc for speaking to me for this series on funding. From them we’ve learnt that it’s really important to perfect your grant writing skills. But it’s equally important to understand the funding landscape within which you are working. So, stay tuned because that’s exactly what we’re going to be exploring in the next few episodes of this funding series on the Working Scientist podcast.
So that’s it for this section of the podcast, but we’ve now got a slot sponsored by and featuring the work of the European Research Council. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.
So I am Alina Bădescu and I’m an associate professor at the University Politehnica of Bucharest, and I’m working in the Faculty of Electronic, Telecommunications and Information Technology.
I am a radio engineer. That is my bachelor degree that I obtained, after which I did a Master's in Sweden in Chalmers University. I received a scholarship from the Swedish Institute whom I thank right now. And after the masters, I returned to Romania and I did my PhD in the same university where I currently work. Since then I have been working here in the Telecommunications Department, continuing in the radio field.
So, the science world in Romania is progressing and when you live here, you can see year by year things are improving. Of course, one has to be realistic and if you look, for example, at the ERC results, the grantees, you’ll see that eastern Europe is still far away from western Europe when it comes to results, but things are really beginning to change right now. I would say the scientific world is going on the right way. We are hopefully improving and I think those results will show up in the near future.
ERC grants are very hard to obtain, as you know. I mean the success rate is very, very small. I would say that I was kind of worst to apply for an ERC grant in the sense that in Romania, the grant competitions are sparse so when I applied actually I had no other choice but to go for the ERC grant because I really needed the money and the equipment to do some projects, some work, that I was really interested in. So, this is how I got to apply for the ERC grant.
Okay, so the ERC grant that I received is a starting grant for two years, and the amount was €180,000, and it concerns detection of cosmic neutrinos in salt mines. It’s a subject that I started working on in my PhD, and I got to a point where I needed to do experimental work. The grant has a very long name. It is ‘Radio wave propagation in heterogeneous media: implications on the electronics of Cosmic Neutrino Detectors’. We are a team of six, out of which three are postdocs and one a PhD student, and the salary covers our wages and also I have purchased the equipment necessary to do measurements in a few Romanian salt mines and that’s it. I mean we are a small team.
So, the ultimate goal of a neutrino detector in a salt mine would be to trace the highest energetic sources in this universe, which could be supermassive black holes or gamma ray bursts or anything extremely energetic. As a general comment, you can do that by observing the source, well let’s say pointing your radio telescope towards that source or you can observe it indirectly. And one such method to study energetic sources is to observe and measure what they produce. One of the products that we are interested in our neutrinos, and why is that? Neutrinos are some particles which can travel the universe without being deflected by the magnetic field. So, if they travel in a straight line, let’s say, if one detects a neutrino on Earth and reconstructs the direction, we will know for sure that in that direction we have a high energetic source. So, one needs a huge volume of high density material just to enhance the interaction of the neutrino. One such medium is salt reservoir, salt mines. But when a neutrino will interact in a salt mine, it will produce a radio wave because salt allows propagation of radio waves on large distances. And we need that, we need propagational large distances because we need more detectors to measure the same radio signal, and once we have more radio stations which detect the same radio signal, we can reconstruct the direction where a high energetic source is, so location of a supermassive black hole. So it’s kind of astronomy done with detection of neutrinos, and nowadays, as far as I know, we are the only group in Europe which is studying the effect of cosmic neutrinos in salt mines. The universe is formed by many black holes and very massive black holes are of interest because people are ultimately interested in the evolution and what the universe is made from.
So, I wrote the proposal in 2015, and I think in April 2016 I received an email in which I was informed my grant passed to the first evaluating stage and that I will be invited in Brussels for an interview for the second step. I think it was in June when I went to Brussels for the interview and I had to present my project to the reviewers. And after that, I waited for two more months I think, and in August I received a congratulating email in which it was announced that my grant will be financed. I read the email and I couldn’t believe it. It was really, really good. I mean I was more than surprised. To be honest I didn’t expect to receive the grant because of the high competition so anyway I was very, very happy.
Well, as I always say, if you don’t apply then you won’t get the grant. Well the first step in obtaining the grant is to apply for a grant. And as hard as it may sound, it’s not impossible. I mean if I could do it, anybody can, so I would advise as many researchers to apply for it. I would advise Romanian researchers to apply for it, and in Romania, for example, if you pass the first evaluating stage but your project is not financed, the Romanian state will give you I think half of the money that you applied for initially, to do this project and of course this is a measure to encourage applications for such grants. So, good luck everybody.
Originally posted on nature.com on 18th January 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00197-8
- 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
- Sponsored Content Article
Working Scientist podcast: How to beat research funding's boom and bust cycle
Julie Gould and Michael Teitelbaum discuss the highs and lows of funding cycles and how to survive them as an early career researcher. Your browser does not support the audio element. In the penultimate episode of this six-part series on grants and funding, Julie Gould asks how early career researchers can develop their careers in the face of funding's "boom and bust" cycle and the short-termism it engenders. Governments are swayed by political uncertainty and technological developments, argues Michael Teitelbaum, author of Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent. In the US, for example, space research funding dramatically increased after Soviet Russia launched the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, ending after the 1969 moon landing. Similar booms followed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, says Teitelbaum, a Wertheim Fellow in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and senior advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. But he argues that they are unsustainable and can have a negative impact on the careers of junior scientists and their research. Will Brexit trigger a funding downturn, and if so, for how long? Watch this space, says Teitelbaum. Sponsored content: European Research Council (ERC) Retired Portuguese Navy Captain Joaquim Alves, a principal investigator at the Centre for the History of Science and Technology, University of Lisbon, leads the European Research Council project MEDEA-CHART, dedicated to the study of medieval and early modern nautical charts. He describes his career and the support he has received from the ERC. TRANSCRIPT Julie Gould and Michael Teitelbaum discuss the highs and lows of funding cycles and how to survive them as an early career researcher. Julie Gould Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the fifth and penultimate episode of our series on funding. In the previous episode, we looked at a recent major upheaval in the UK science funding environment, with the creation of UK Research and Innovation. This time, we’re looking at some of the processes that determine how funding decisions are and have been made in the past, and what impact that these decisions can have on careers in scientific research. But before we go on, don’t forget that at the end of this Working Scientist podcast, we’ve got a ten-minute sponsored slot from the European Research Council. Right, so funding – how do governments decide where to put their money? Professor Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, has studied how funding has been allocated in the US since the world wars, and he’s found that funding comes in cycles, and he calls them "alarm/boom/bust" cycles, and I asked Michael to give us a quick, simple introduction into what these cycles are. Michael Teitelbaum Government funding for basic research often runs in cycles. Politicians and governments decide that there needs to be more funding for basic research and they often will raise the funding quite rapidly to show a significant effect, but then are unable to sustain that rate of increase. Sometimes the funding even declines subsequently. So, you get a cycle of boom followed by bust, over a period of perhaps a decade. My conclusion is that this is quite unhealthy for basic research, which is a quintessentially long-term kind of activity involving long study periods to become fully professional, followed by long careers in basic research. If the funding increases sharply and then doesn’t continue to increase or declines, that is very destabilising for both basic research itself and for career prospects in basic research. Julie Gould And why do you think the governments react in such a way by actually putting quite considerable sums of money towards whatever basic research they’re aiming to fund? Michael Teitelbaum It’s not universal, but it’s common that governments are convinced by industry or by academic institutions that they have been funding basic research insufficiently, and they tend to over-respond to that kind of representation by increasing funding at levels that cannot be sustained over the longer term. Julie Gould Why would you say that these cycles are destructive towards the careers of researchers? Michael Teitelbaum Well, the problem is that basic research and careers in basic research are fundamentally long-term propositions, and this kind of funding which is for a period of years and then disappears is destabilising to a system that requires many years of graduate and advanced study and research to become a professional in basic research. And research projects that take many years to develop, you can’t really achieve a great deal in basic research in only a few years, and if you study for 8-10 years or more to become a research scientist, you might find yourself, with these short cycles of funding, you might find yourself finishing your studies just in time to face a very poor career situation in those fields. Julie Gould In his book called Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Michael explored some of these "alarm/boom/bust" cycles in the US from the past century. Now one of the examples he uses in the book is the shock of the successful 1957 Soviet Union launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1. Michael Teitelbaum This led to what I would consider to be a near political panic among leaders of the US government, especially people such as Lyndon Johnson who was then majority leader in the US Senate, and led to an enormous increase in funding for space and rocketry and controls for catching up with the Soviet Union in space. That cycle ended with the success of John F Kennedy’s promise to successfully land humans on the Moon and return them to Earth safely by the end of the 1960s. When that spectacular achievement was achieved, the political system tended to lose interest in the massive funding for the space programme and there was a bust. The third cycle in the 1980s was stimulated by then President Reagan’s so-called Strategic Defense Initiative - critics called it the Star Wars Initiative - which led to massive funding, but only short-term for that initiative. And then the final two cycles that I identify in the book were different in the sense that they weren’t military, they weren’t strategic in that sense. The first was the internet, the boom resulting from the internet becoming a commercial activity rather than a research or academic activity and the expansion therefore of the internet and other kinds of booms in the 1990s. Again, that was in the private sector not in the government sector. And finally, overlapping that was a decision by the US Congress and the presidential leadership of both parties to double funding over a five-year period for the National Institutes of Health. A massive increase for five years, averaging about 14% per year that then was followed by flat funding for subsequent years. Julie Gould So, what cycle are we in at the moment? Michael Teitelbaum One of the characteristics of a cycle like this is you don’t know it’s a cycle until it finishes, so we can’t be sure at this point that we’re in an ‘alarm/boost/bust’ cycle. We could just be in an alarm and boom cycle without a bust to follow – we will have to come back and talk in five years to see if there is a bust that ensues at the end. But the current boom situation is in information technology, in social media, in fields that are largely created by industry and particularly by firms in Silicon Valley and in the Seattle area, led by Intel and Microsoft in particular. In terms of their lobbying, they argue they cannot find the skilled personnel they need to remain competitive internationally, that there’s a shortage of skilled personnel in these fields. It’s not a new claim. It’s been a claim that was common in all of these other booms and busts over the previous half-century. But their goal is not to encourage a funding boom from the federal government for their fields because they are in the commercial sector and they’re profit-seeking firms. What they’re looking for – and they’ve been successful in their lobbying efforts – is large-scale access to temporary workers coming from low-wage countries, largely via visas with hot names like H1B and L1 and so on. They’ve been quite successful with getting these short-term, temporary workers – large numbers of them in the hundreds of thousands – claiming that otherwise they would not be able to continue to be competitive internationally. And then there’s also parallel lobbying from higher education groups. Their goals are indeed to increase research grant funding because it’s a very substantial source of revenue for them, but also to continue to have easy access to large numbers of international graduate students who pay full tuition. Julie Gould How can early career researchers keep track of these cycles and see and feel what’s happening and learn to navigate them? Michael Teitelbaum I think the key words would be pay attention and be flexible. If you’re an early career researcher or aspiring to be a researcher in one of these fields, you need to keep track of what we are discussing here in terms of increased funding from government sources or decreased funding, increased numbers of temporary visas or decreased numbers of temporary visas. All of these things will have some impact over time on your personal experience. So, you need to pay attention, for example, to the trajectories of key science funding agencies. I would say a way to do that is to pay attention to reports from credible publications that do report in an objective way on what is happening in the politics, if you will, of funding and of temporary visas. You would have to pay attention to the budget requests of key agencies and assess whether those requests are likely, if they are responded to positively, are they likely to be sustainable over the longer term, or are they likely to be short-term pulses of funding, which would be destabilising. And then those who are already doing research and are funded by government agencies need to be cautious in responding to requests for proposals that seem to be short-term pulses of funding or boom-type funding. They need to build a portfolio, I would say, of different funding sources, rather than depend on a particular source that seems to be flush with money at the moment but may not be in the future. In other words, the same kind of advice that any investment advisor would give to a client – that they should diversify their commitments and thereby reduce their exposure to risk in the future. Julie Gould Speaking of the future, the impact that political systems have on scientific funding and thinking back on the previous episode with James Wilsdon on the UK scientific funding environment, I asked Michael what he thought might happen - or not - with Brexit - or not. Michael Teitelbaum If that were to happen – I know there’s a great deal of concern in the UK among academic institutions in terms of whether they would be able to apply what has become quite a large amount of basic research funding from the European Union – I think that’s all up in the air now so I don’t think we can make any forecasts or projections about what will happen, but it’s an issue that I think should be watched. If I were a young scientist engaged in pursuing a career in basic research in the UK, I would be paying a lot of attention to this. Julie Gould Okay, well let’s chat again in five years’ time. Michael Teitelbaum Laughs. I don’t think we need five years for that one, that’s probably two years, but it’s not now – we can’t do it now. Julie Gould So, what does this all mean? Well, the long and short of it is we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but what I think we can say is that the funding environment at the moment is a difficult one to navigate, so the more skills and tools amassed for writing grant proposals will be vital for survival in the scientific workforce. In the final episode of this series, we’ll hear more about some alternative ways of distributing scientific funding that may alleviate some of the pressures that researchers face in the current, very competitive climate. Now, that’s all for this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now have a slot sponsored by and featuring the work of the European Research Council. Joaquim Alves Gaspar tells of his work in cartography and with the European Research Council project MEDEA-CHART. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould. Joaquim Alves Gaspar My name is Joaquim Alves Gaspar. I was born in Lisbon, Portugal 69 years ago. I joined the Portuguese Navy when I was 19, and I served for about 40 years. In 2006, that is 12 years ago, I started a PhD programme on the geometric analysis and numerical modelling of old nautical charts, which I completed in 2010. In my thesis, I have proposed and tested a series of cartometric methods, that means geometrical methods of analysis and numerical modelling, aimed at a better understanding of how old charts were constructed and used at sea. As soon as I got the degree, I was invited to become a member of a research centre in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Lisbon, where I am now and where I have been working for eight years, first as a postdoctoral researcher and now, after winning the grant, as a principal investigator. Most of what I know about the technical and the scientific methods related to the history of nautical cartography, I learned it from the Navy. I am not only referring to the theoretical background which people can study from the books, but also to the actual experience of contacting a ship at sea, and using nautical charts for the planning and the execution of navigation. It was this knowledge and this experience that gave me the capacity to fully understand old charts, not only as historical artefacts, but images of the world, which is a traditional approach, but also and mostly as instruments to navigate. This is something that a traditional historian of cartography is not prepared to do. By looking into those charts with the eyes of a cartographer and of a navigator and with the assistance of the analytical and modelling tools that I have developed, I could establish a meaningful connection between the methods of chart construction in all kinds, of course, as described in the historical sources and the practice of navigation. This development has opened new and promising lands of research. That is what my ERC project is about. I applied to and I won a starting grant in the section S6 – that is the history of the human past. It was at that time the first ever Portuguese proposal to be accepted in that particular section. It was the first ever grant that was considered to a project on the history of cartography and also, as far as I know, no one is using these kinds of techniques to study old maps. The total amount of the grant is about €1.2 million, to be applied during five years. The funding will be mostly used to pay the six grantees now working with us to cover travel expenses and to buy some equipment. We have a team of eight members: the PI (myself), a retired Navy officer, a senior researcher who is a physicist who converted to the history of science and he is now the head of the department of history and philosophy science, a postdoctoral researcher who is also a physicist by education, three PhD students, a junior computer expert who is developing our information systems and a project manager and she is a neuroscientist by education. Of these, only one of the PhD students is an historian by education. This tells us something about what I have called the multidisciplinary nature of my project. The general objective of the project, as stated in my proposal, is to solve a series of questions which have, should I say, eluded historians of cartography for a very long time, pertaining to the birth, the technical evolution and the use of nautical charts during the Middle Ages and also the early modern period. For example, we want to clarify when, how, why and where the first nautical charts were constructed. This is a very popular subject among the international community of historians of cartography. Not only we have been very successful in bringing many of them to the discussion, but also significant progress has been made in the last year. For example, it is now consensual among us that the oldest nautical charts were constructed using navigational information collected by the pilot at sea. Certain distortions affecting the old charts were caused by the use of magnetic compasses to navigate, which as you know, don’t point exactly to the geographical north. The difference is the so-called declination, magnetic declination. The novelty in my project is that we intend to provide good answers to those questions by using what we call a multidisciplinary approach including a novelty of techniques of geometrical analysis, numerical modelling, carbon-14 dating and multispectral analysis of the old parchments, which will complement, of course, the traditional methods of historical research. So far, one and a half years after the project started, the results are promising. Aim the highest possible and don’t just give it a try – do it using everything you’ve got. Don’t be humble. ERC grants are intended to be given to the very best researchers proposing the best projects. If you are confident that you have an excellent idea, one that will make the panel members raise out of their chairs, and that you are the right person to make it work, then don’t be shy. Go for it. However, having made the decision of proceeding to the next stage, you will now need a great deal of humbleness to be able to create the best possible proposal. The reason is that you will have to engage into an extremely competitive process with highly competent and motivated people. In other words, you will have to work hard and be professional. It took me a full year to write the proposal, despite my experience and background. Let me elaborate a bit on this. You know you have a wonderful idea, otherwise you wouldn’t have engaged in the process. The job now will be to organise each idea into a meaningful and visible project, and of course, to convince the evaluation panel that you are the best possible person to make it work. Don’t leave anything to fortune or chance, so that you won’t blame yourself for not taking into account all the variables. That’s all I have to advise. One of the unwritten goals of the project is to pass the message. I won’t live forever and I want my methods and my techniques to be passed and to be used again by other people, and Portugal is the best place because I also want to give a push to the research on the subject of Portugal. Originally posted on Nature Careers - 01 February 2019 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00403-7
- Career Advice
How to get a funded internship in industry
As part of a broad mission to prepare science students for careers outside academia, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has expanded a funding initiative to support master’s and PhD students for six-month internships in companies, government laboratories and non-profit organizations. The INTERN supplemental-funding opportunity, launched last year for select departments within the NSF, will now be open to almost every graduate student supported by an NSF grant, says Prakash Balan, programme director in the NSF’s Directorate for Engineering. At a time when available US industry positions far outnumber job openings in US academia, the internships can give students real-world training for their futures, he adds. “Opportunities like this give students exposure and experience at a time when it matters most,” he says. The programme also fits in with the agency’s overall agenda. “NSF has a long-term vision to foster the growth of a competitive and diverse workforce,” Balan says. “We want to advance the science and innovation skills of the nation at large.” The expanded programme provides up to US$55,000 to support a student for six months. The sum is meant to cover travel, tuition, stipends, materials and other expenses. The student’s supervisor can use up to $2,500 of the award to visit the site hosting the internship and co-mentor the student. The NSF has pledged to support up to 200 students in each of the fiscal years 2019 and 2020, although Balan says that more awards could be provided if the demand is great enough. To be eligible, students must have completed at least one year of their master’s or PhD programmes. Jennifer Weller, programme director of the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, says that she expects to receive many applications from biology students. “I’ve already had 20 phone calls asking for more details,” she says. Weller explains that she worked for five years in industry (at the biotechnology company PE/Applied Biosystems) before eventually returning to academia. Fostering the flow of talent and ideas between academia and industry should be a top priority for the agency, she says. Interest in the INTERN initiative goes both ways. The programme began after corporations contacted the NSF asking for help finding student interns, Balan says. Those requests encouraged the agency to think how best to connect graduate students with industry. To apply for an INTERN award, students must provide a letter from their supervisor and from the prospective company or other host organization, and must make a convincing case that the experience would help them to achieve their overall training and career goals. “It’s not something that can be pulled together with a casual contact,” Balan says. “The host organization and the university have to put their minds together to create something very powerful for the student.” In another outreach effort, the NSF is seeking submissions for its 2026 Idea Machine, a competition to elicit big ideas for future research projects. The agency is looking for ambitious visions within the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “We’re crowdsourcing the best and brightest ideas so we know what the community’s thinking,” Balan says. The agency plans to award two to four winners $26,000 each, with the possibility that the winning entries would trigger long-term NSF investments. The competition, which is open to members of the general public as well as to scientists, will accept suggestions up to 26 October. Originally published on Nature Careers on 11 September 2018 - https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06641-5