When we started up this blog I had hoped to post a bit more educational content on the workings of the sensors we develop and the research that we do. Sadly, however, I have been nowhere near a lab in what feels like months. Partly this is because I have just migrated from being a PhD student where I was scrambling to finish my thesis, a task that never required moving far from my keyboard. However, mostly the lack of practical science on this blog is due to a much more depressing problem, the funding cycle.

Round and round we go

A rough flow diagram of funding for university research

As a new research fellow my first task is to make sure I can stay a research fellow. To do this I need to find someone to pay my salary. I love scientific research and all, but I do have a small child that gets very cranky when I don’t feed him so I need some form of pay. I think the general perception of universities is that anyone working in one is paid for by the tax payer and/or with student fees. The truth however, is far more complicated than that. For a start, like a growing majority of private sector workers, I am on a contract for the duration of a specific project, not a permanent employee. However, unlike a typical contract employee the onus is on me to find further funding once my time is up. In order to get this funding I need to follow a series of long and laborious steps.

Step 1: have an idea. As a researcher one thing I am  rarely short on is bright ideas of cool things you could develop. Every project I do will often create 2-3 spin off ideas that you want to pursue but don’t have the funds. However, any bright idea I have has to be tempered with what funding is available, I may be able to make the best pocket fluff sensor in the world but I still need to find someone to pay money for me to develop it.

Step 2: where to apply. There are many different bodies responsible for different pots of money and they all have their own agendas and processes; for example some may take ideas at any time whereas others may only accept applications in specific calls for certain solutions. Often I spend a lot of time switching between step 1 and step 2 as I try to refine my idea to match what funding is available. This stage can either be relatively quick if I am responding to a particular call or can be a bit of a slog through all of the possible funding groups looking for ways to fit a project.

Step 3:  preparing the actual application. This is the longest and most desk-based stage. A funding application is around 15-20 pages long and consists of a very detailed summary of your chosen project. Each funding body will have its own style of application and will want specific headers, fonts and content. The guidance documents that explain all of these can be biblical in size (MOD’s application manuals come in at a collective 142 pages!) and occasionally impossible to follow. For example, a grant application I recently worked on had two different guidance documents, one of which specifically told us to ignore  a piece of guidance in the other one. It was like reading documents written by a divorcing couple. Obviously it varies from grant to grant but navigating these documents to produce a coherent summary of your proposed project can take several weeks to draft and even longer for everyone involved to review.

Step 4: submit. Finally, after countless re-writes, I get to click on the nice little submit button on the web interface and enjoy the warm feeling that my grant application is finished. Then seconds later try my best not to break down with the fear that I forgot to add something in that I should have done. I find drinking helps with this stage.

Step 5: wait and repeat steps 1-4. As well crafted as I am sure all of my grant applications are, they only have a relatively small chance of getting funded. For example in 2010-2011 EPSRC received 2568 grant proposals of which 912 were funded (36%) and similarly BBSRC in 2010-2011 received 1832 grant proposals of which only 513 were funded (28%). If you are brave enough to apply for a fellowship grant then these success rates are in the order of single digits (e.g. Royal Society fellowship is about 8%). So while you are waiting for a decision on your application (which can take up to 6 months) you will need to write up other projects and submit those to other funding bodies, who will of course have a whole new set of guidance to read through. It’s at this point that I start to think of my day job as being similar to Sisyphus.

Stage 6: MONEY! Should one of my applications be successful this is by far the best stage, as this is stage where I get to do the thing I have spent years training for; this is when I get to do the actual research! All the other grant applications get instantly forgotten about (I can’t save them up for next time sadly) and I start living in my lab full of a burning desire to solve whatever problem I promised I could solve.

Stage 7: end of the project. This is the point at which you go back to step 1 and start applying for funding all over again. To be clear this stage actually happens about 6 months from the end of the project as that is about how long steps 1-6 take. So, on any given project the last 8 months of my time are about 75% funding applications 25% actual research.

How I spend my project time

How my time ends up getting spent in a project

So what this means is that out of a 2 year period (assuming I get funding) around a quarter of my time will be taken up reading funding guidelines and re-writing projects to fit that year’s research trend. Because the grants are often fast-changing and only valid for around 12 months I can’t even work on these throughout the project. It often all gets compressed into the last 6 months, or in my case the first 6 months of a new job.

Which is where I am now, at my desk, writing funding applications, not doing research in the lab 🙁

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