London, UK (Scicasts) – Securing funding is now difficult or very difficult, say scientists who took part in the latest Scicasts survey. The trend is towards fewer larger grants, collaborative projects and research with potential to strengthen the economy. We tried to find out the reasons and uncover what one needs to keep in mind when applying for science grants.

“I am afraid we’ve left the era when we could talk about easy funding,” says science career consultant Sara Shinton, who for 15 years has been working with researchers at all stages of their career and established the Shinton Consulting agency.

The foundation of this trend, she says, goes back to the 1990s, when universities received more government support and academic field was expanding. The argument at the time was that research is relevant and can improve the quality of people’s lives in many ways.

The White Paper of the UK government in 1993 states that “Science, technology and engineering are ultimately linked with progress across the whole range of human endeavour: educational, intellectual, medical, environmental, social, economic and cultural”.

“We are now at the point when we are asked to deliver on the promises we made twenty years ago,” says Sara. The scientists are being asked to show the value of the knowledge generated and prove that their research, indeed, can strengthen the economy.

Getting funding now is much more competitive and money tends to be now more strongly aligned with strategic priorities.

Sara Shinton in an exclusive interview to Scicasts.

The global economic crisis, which came on top of that, forced governments to make decisions over where they should direct the money and to define a common strategy for science funding.

“General trends are drawn from societal challenges,” says Sara. “There is a lot of diversity across Europe but we are facing fundamentally many of the same challenges.”

Among those identified by the European Commission in 2014 are Health, Food Security, Energy, Transport and Climate Change. The recent report by RAND Cooperation outlined global research challenges, comparing Europe, China, India and the US (below – Click on the green circles to expand).

The difference in approaching these is between funders and how they see solutions to the challenges. The funds would often be directed to those areas where a country has existing expertise.

Reaching out internationally

“You’ll notice that individual government will look at individual science base and decide to direct the money to where there is already a track record and existing capacity,” says Sara. But if the national funding agencies are not interested in the research you are doing, a likely choice would be to find international partners.

“What international collaborations give you is accessibility to different sets of funds.”

The funds can come from a collaborator’s country or centralized sources such as the European Commission. Much finding nowadays is made available to cooperative research across countries, which is also the main prerequisite for applicant’s eligibility in the recent calls from the European Commission.

International cooperation has always been a key feature of the scientific endeavour.

From the European Commission website.

The movement towards reaching out across the globe is also reflected in the results of our recent survey. Researchers from the USA, Latin America, Europe and Asia reported that they have collaborators from all continents, with a total 70% of scientists working together with somebody from abroad.

However, finding the right partners for a project can often be a challenge in itself. Here Sara urges scientists to start networking early and get involved in various events. Science conferences may be the first natural choice alongside other less-known activities such as the COST actions directly promoted and sponsored by the EU.

“At the early stages of your career,” says Sara, “try and meet as many people as possible, find people who attract you and with whom you have exciting conversations. That’s where innovative research will come from.”

Applied research instead of basic science?

Being the main concern of the respondents of our survey, the question seems to puzzle scientists from all over the world. “Basic science in the USA is being destroyed,” writes an American principal investigator.

In turn, the UK Research Councils now request a clear Impact Summary submitted with every grant proposal, in order to “increase the likelihood of the research having the intended societal and economic impact”.

Does it mean that we have passed the era of exploratory research and must now focus on the applications?

“I think it is a mild misconception that academics have”, says Sara, “that it is all about applied research. It isn’t all about applied research, even though there are certainly many pockets of funding focused on that.”

What statements like Impact Summaries are about, she explains, is ensuring that once fundamental knowledge has been generated, it is available to partners who can take it to the next step. While in the early days universities would publish their findings and leave it to industrial partners to take care of the innovation, scientists are now requested to “be open and aware of where the research might go next”.

Partnering up with industry stakeholders might increase the chances of securing funding for the project, however, as Sara points out, one needs to carefully choose collaborators.

“There would be some researchers reading this,” she says, “for whom industrial connections would be natural, and it would make sense. It has to look authentic, you don’t want to just “bolt on” a collaborator who doesn’t fit your research.”

It is important to have a clear research vision instead of just “ticking the box” when looking for a company with whom one could join forces. The world of industry is a diverse as the academic world, with smaller companies conducting innovative blue-sky research alongside large corporations focusing on development.

“If you genuinely think that what you are doing could be taken further, like a therapy or a product, then there is a natural connection with an industrial partner,” says Sara.

Funding bodies are now trying to build bridges in this area by opening up grants for companies and academics to work together. We need to recognize the value of these collaborations, notes Sara. “They often don’t lead to as many publications for academics, which is their main currency. And for industrial partners, they might not lead to clear cut intellectual property. That needs to be worked out in the middle.”

Keeping focus when writing grants

Research supported by the funding bodies often depends on their own agenda as well as national research priorities. Funding agencies like ERC provide financial aid to large multinational projects, while BBSRC in the UK supports mainly national life sciences sector and Cancer Research UK funds the disease-related studies.

“You need to apply your research skills to the process of finding funding,” points out Sara. There would be funders out there who seek out international research, such as Marie Curie Actions, and agencies ready to support research not funded elsewhere.

The Levelhulme Trust is among those worth looking at, she says, for scientists whose projects lay outside the “fashion area”. Originality, importance, significance and merit are the first criteria they seek in applications, says the official website. Particularly welcomed are applications that “reflect an individual’s personal vision, take appropriate risks and transcend disciplinary boundaries.”

“When writing a research proposal,” says Sara, “I am driven by the funder’s document. I would go through the funder’s call and annotate it with things that I think are important”. It is common and quite natural, she says, for scientists to be entirely focused on research but they need to be aware of other agendas underlying the proposal.

The application also needs to mention training provided to the researchers involved, a potential bridge with another discipline or a more effective solution to the existing problem. It is important for a successful funding application to be directly related to what the funder needs to hear.

For young researchers at the dawn of their career, Sara advises them to apply for individual funding early on. “The first thing I would do,” she says, “is go to the research office in your institute, tell them about the research you are doing, and they will help you find funding bodies, which are aligned with your interests”.

“I would research the funding bodies and find people who are getting the money from them. I’d draw out main characteristics of those people and try to see how I can demonstrate the same characteristics with my own research and ideas.”

Sara Shinton is a founder of Shinton Consulting, an agency that provides careers advice, information and professional development training to academic researchers, students and academic staff. They work with universities, write articles and organize career-related workshops.