A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Right Stuff, following a conversation over a brew in Greenland about the philosophy of working on challenging frontiers, and the kind of people it attracts. Joseph Cook has also written about the parallels between astronauts and Arctic scientists so I’ll not explore that here. Moreover, I’m several inches too tall for a ride on Soyuz, and my personality has far too many rough edges to take this kind of thing on breakfast TV with such flawless grace. Let’s not even talk motion sickness. It’s fair to say I therefore have no aspirations to be an astronaut!
Instead, I’m going to write about something even harder than becoming an astronaut. Funding a career in science.
Gordon Cooper: You know what makes this bird go up? FUNDING makes this bird go up.
Gus Grissom: He’s right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers
The relevance to
Arctic science could not be clearer. Any future in research has to be fundable. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.
In December I spent some time helping a talented younger scientist debug a fellowship application. I could see some great potential in the science and the applicant which wasn’t coming through clearly on paper in the drafts I looked at, early-on. You may have The Right Stuff, but no bucks…no Buck Rogers.
It occurred to me that in this era of enlightenment such topics as the basics of grant-craft make it on to graduate school curricula. It seems not. Things may not have changed since my own graduate training.
I have a chequered history with grant capture. Sure, there are many projects where I have been proud to secure funding from challenging sources (e.g. NERC, Royal Society and Leverhulme) as a PI in my late twenties/early thirties but this has often felt like more luck than judgement. My boss made clear that while there was room for academic freedom, there was no room for failure: I should expect to bring in grants and 4* REF papers, building a group from the bench and pipettors I used for my PhD. The sooner the better. A kind colleague gave me photocopies of the case for support for two highly rated NERC grants, describing them as following the formula for success. The rest is the product of tolerant coinvestigators (ca. 2010: “Arwyn, have you fecked [Full Economic Costed] this grant yet up yet?” “Mind your language!”), tenaciously supportive research administrators and (usually) constructive comments from peer reviewers. It still feels like I’m breaking in to academia, with the sirens wailing in the distance.
So today I was pleased to abuse my position as the Director of an Interdisciplinary Research Centre to convene a workshop titled Your Fundable Future with its affiliated graduate research students. I reached out to the students past the middle of their PhDs. Their futures may well depend on funding sooner, rather than later. Hopefully I could pass on just some of the stuff I wished I knew at their career stage but have learned from hard knocks since.
As we handled real grant proposals (I’ve hitherto failed to gain funding for!) as part of some of the exercises, I won’t detail the process further, but here are some of the resources which I’ve found helpful in trying to figure out the funding game.
It helps to start from a strong position with your science.
You will need to write clearly – your audience comprises clever people with no time or special interest in your pet project
You will need to learn the rules of the game. Ensuring perfect adherence to eligibility is important (including every detail of submission format).
Humans decide who gets funded on the basis of subjective interpretations of seemingly objective reviews, panels, criteria.
There’s other advice too. For example, it’s important to sell your project to the reader within the first few lines of a proposal. If you’ve read this far, that matters less though.