Lab Culture Part 4: Grants 101
This job could be perfect: some magic pixie could just pull a lever and a pot of gold would appear to pay for whatever science we wanted to do.
Sadly there are no pixies.
In the absence of pixies, we have to rely upon grant committees, which also may or may not exist, to pay for our science.
What is Grant Funding
Getting funding is without doubt the hardest part of this job. And maybe it should be, because after all, we are spending someone else’s money to research something we are interested in. And whilst I can rationalise that in a time of limited public finances, there needs to be scrutiny over how and where it gets spent, it doesn’t make rejection any less painful knowing you are doing your bit for austerity.
The unique aspect of this process [funding] is that unlike a tender to do a specific piece of work e.g. build a bridge, where the decision is made on the basis of the best and cheapest bridge, there is (most of the time) no predetermined goal and the competition is for the “best science”.
What is funding? In a perfect world, you the scientist have an idea and need money to pay for it. They the funder has the money and need your ideas to spend it upon. The two parties then come together and everyone wins. Sadly there are very many more scientists then there are funders, so there needs to be a process to select who gets the funding to test their idea. This selection process is based on grant writing. Essentially, grants are a tendering process to do science. The unique aspect of this process is that unlike a tender to do a specific piece of work e.g. build a bridge, where the decision is made on the basis of the best and cheapest bridge, there is (most of the time) no predetermined goal and the competition is for the “best science”. This can lead to some very odd comparisons – is my flu vaccine better than your robot heart surgeon?
Types of Grant
Funding competitions fall very loosely into two types: grants and fellowships. Grants tend to be awards to academics whose salary is covered by the institute in which they work; paying the academic to recruit someone to do the work for them. A fellowship is a personal award to an individual which will cover their salary for the duration of the work on top of the funding to do that work. Fellowships offer a faster track to research funding and you don’t need to have a permanent position to apply for them (certain conditions may apply) but the downside is that when the funding stops, so does your salary. Going down the grant track, whilst you need an academic position, your salary is somewhat independent of your ability to write grants, the downside is that you will have to spend time doing things other than research to pay your way.
The type of work done will vary according upon who is paying for it (the funder). Some funders are very broad scope and will (potentially) fund whatever you want; however, most have some restrictions, for example, the Medical Research Council in the UK funds medical research. There may also be subdivisions within a funder with boards or panels focussing on specific topics. Some have a much tighter remit – Diabetes UK is unlikely to fund particle physics research. There will also be times when the funder is after a very specific piece of work within their remit. The first rule of success is to understand what the funder wants and make sure your idea matches their call, out of scope ideas will fall at the first.
The process: In brief
You write your ideas, hopes and dreams down.
A masked stranger crushes it.
The process: In detail
You have an idea. You find the funder who most closely matches your plan. You fill out the forms they need. You then submit it to the funder and await your fate. This is decided in two steps, by peer review and then by a panel. The peer review process is not dissimilar to papers except instead of the reviewer taking work you have done and tearing great holes in it, the reviewer looks at work you will do and tears great holes in it. If the peer reviewers like it enough (Triage) it’ll pass on to the board, who rank the remaining applications and fund the top x %; x being determined by how much money is in the pot.
So what do they actually judge your effort on? This is where the grant document comes in. It has three key parts: a short summary of the work, a detailed description of the work and a budget. Different components are required for different stages. The description of work is mostly for the peer reviewer who is the best judge of the feasibility, necessity and practicality of the work proposed. They will decide whether you are using the right reagents, the right analysis approach and even whether you are the right person to do the work. The summary and the budget are for the board. Sometimes the summary is described as a ‘lay’ summary; don’t get fooled by this and think you are writing it for your elderly aunt with limited knowledge of your field, it is for the board who will be experts in the broad area, but maybe not your sub-specialism. At the board, each grant only gets 5-10 minutes of discussion and normally 2 or 3 of the board members will have read it in depth and the rest will have read the summary. They are often trying to make comparisons of very disparate pieces of work and so it is the hook/the elevator pitch/ the hard sell in that summary that is critical. The budget is pretty self-explanatory, but there are a number of rules about what you can and can’t apply for. There are also other funder specific bits with bewildering names such as “Pathways to Impact”; these are necessary for the process and may help if your grant score is tied with another project.
How to win
Grants are assessed on three criteria, PPI – person, place and idea. The first P is for Person: are you the right person to do this work, do you have a track record in the area, and have you produced good outputs in the past. This is measured against your CV and reputation in the field. The second P is for Place; where are you proposing to do the work – if your institute has no arts faculty, your application on the history of the wooden spoon is unlikely to fly. Finally, I is for Idea. Ultimately it is your idea that will get you funded. Your idea will be judged on the whether it is achievable and feasible, but also whether it is novel, exciting and going to change the world. Striking the balance between these two in a short space is extremely tricky.
Gilding the lily
Even brilliant ideas need a bit of help. You need to be able to write, clearly and concisely in a way. You are not going to be in the room to clarify what you have written, so there is no room for ambiguity. It also has to be exciting, don’t bury your Nobel winning idea under dry text in six points with no paragraphs. You need to convey the impression that regardless of the result of the experiments, this proposed study will be a success. A key failing is to write a large grant that is contingent upon experiment one producing a specific result – if that data is key to the grant, do the experiment before applying. Get feedback, but not too soon: early feedback can sew doubt, which can, in turn, lead you to discard elements of brilliance.
Finally, be resilient. Most grants won’t get funded. Learn ways to cope with failure. I have a few suggestions here, here and here! However, bits of work will eventually get funded in one form or other, so if it doesn’t work as a standalone piece of work, maybe it would work as part of a larger program or collaboration. Or there might be core elements that are salvageable and can be used as the hub of a new application.
Dr John Tregoning: John is a senior lecturer at Imperial College London, investigating the immune response to respiratory infections. John has been a principal investigator since 2008. He did a Post-Doc at Imperial College working on RSV and a PhD on the development of a tetanus vaccine expressed in the chloroplasts of transgenic tobacco plants, also at Imperial College. John blogs at http://drtregoning.blogspot.co
Dr Charlie Weller: Charlie joined Wellcome in 2014 and is currently Head of the vaccines priority platform after leading the funding response to the Ebola epidemic and overseeing the Immunology portfolio. Charlie has a PhD in Immunology and investigated mast cell function in respiratory disease and parasite infections as a postdoctoral fellow at Imperial College London. She then continued her interests in respiratory disease as a laboratory head at Novartis in target identification and validation on innate immune responses in respiratory exacerbations before joining Wellcome.