Life at the (Funding) Frontiers


Once a researcher and now working for the Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO), I am often asked, especially by young scientists keenly embarking on a research career, how I ended up working for an international funding agency. Their reactions range from curiosity about the various career paths open to those with a research degree, to incredulity that I dared to abandon the lab and go over to the “dark side” of bureaucracy. But I explain to them that the experience of working in an international environment with exposure to outstanding scientists from all over the world has been, and continues to be, an immensely rewarding experience. Far from being on the dark side, it has in fact been distinctly illuminating.

It all started conventionally: studies of biochemistry at BSc and PhD levels in the United Kingdom, my home country. Then, after a short postdoctoral period in London, I made a move to Munich in 1975 on a Max Planck Fellowship at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Psychiatry (now Neurobiology). In fact, I stayed there for 21 years, to the point of having a permanent staff position and running my own research lab on molecular signalling and neuron-glia interactions. The work was going well and funding was healthy.

(Perverse) enjoyment of administration

So what may possibly have triggered a career transition at this stage? Well, in accordance with academic tradition, grey hair brought more administrative responsibilities. Even more so that the head of my department was the institute’s overall director, therefore, I took on much of his day-to-day departmental administrative responsibilities. The fact was, I actually enjoyed many of these administrative duties (perversely, some colleagues may say!). Also, as the resident Brit, I had of course been editing most of the manuscripts of my colleagues, and this had broadened my scientific interests. All this led me to decide to take the bull by the horns and make a sideways step into a different career path, rather than being discontent with research.

So I began to explore different opportunities and my search coalesced into an interest in science funding, where I felt I could use my scientific experience directly. The Web provided a mine of information and, also with the generous encouragement of colleagues in the institute, I was able to identify organisations and people to contact.

My first port of call was actually the HFSPO Secretariat in Strasbourg and I am happy to say that I fell on my feet as a position of director of fellowships was then expected to become vacant. So there I was, joining the HFSPO in 1996 at the “ripe old age” of 49. I mention this deliberately since during my explorations I was told more than once that I was too old to change career, and I hope that this will be an encouragement to those who feel they are on an unstoppable conveyor belt with no way of stepping off.

Much has been written recently about different ways that scientists can contribute away from the bench, of course on Next Wave but also in various other publications,* and I have met many scientists who have sought new challenges at different points in their careers. For me, the attraction of using my scientific experience in a very different context was strong enough to make me give up my permanent MPI position and take on a less secure position at the HFSPO.

“What could be more boring than a funding agency?” commented the science editor of a well-known weekly magazine (which had best remain nameless) when I suggested profiling the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) as a model of international cooperation in scientific research. Well, to me science funding is far from boring. So what exactly does the job entail?

Basically it involves administering and monitoring all the HFSP awards and programmes. The day-to-day functions of the scientific directors are to act as contact points for potential applicants, read around 700 applications to check for eligibility and to assign them to members of the review committee, provide support to applicants and reviewers throughout the process, and maintain close contact with the awardees. As you can imagine, we work very much to deadlines, especially since we have only one funding cycle per year so everything comes in at once. This is tiring but I have always found it an exciting time as we enter a new review round and see the new batch of applications and applicants.

The basic work of the organisation is similar in one way or another to other funding agencies. But the HFSPO in addition has some very specific aims concerned with breaking down both geographical and disciplinary barriers, which appeal to me personally.

Firstly, we fund scientific research in a truly global context in the form of grants for international collaborations between two to four labs in different countries (and with high priority given to teams on different continents), with both a special programme for Young Investigators and programme grants for scientists at any stage of their careers. In addition, our fellowship programme fosters postdoctoral mobility throughout the world. Most national agencies throughout the world also have international programmes, but these are more likely to be bilateral and collaborative grants require separate approval by both partners. The global consequences of postdoctoral mobility are also important to us: Our fellowships are enhanced by the possibility of repatriation and those who return to their home countries can apply for a Career Development Award.

Secondly, at the HFSPO, being a small and very flexible organisation (with only 15 employees), we work very closely with the scientists and scientific policymakers. This contact with international colleagues of such a high calibre is one of the most exciting aspects of working in such an organisation, plus the political and administrative challenges of working in a truly international environment are fascinating and rewarding.

Thirdly, our funding priorities are unusual since we aim to support highly interdisciplinary science at the interface between biology and the other natural sciences. This has been an especially exciting aspect for me. It requires a broad knowledge of biology and acquiring an education in physics, mathematics, and other disciplines in the physical sciences (attending meetings and conferences on these subjects being a key way to do this). Biologists and physicists really do think about living systems in very different ways and it is essential to grasp this to ensure that we develop appropriate innovative strategies to support scientists from all these fields working at the frontier of the life sciences.

Prepared to fund such innovative projects

We are particularly keen to fund projects of a high-risk/high-impact nature. In fact, in our grant programme we state explicitly that we are prepared to fund such innovative projects and do not require preliminary data. When you see the benefits of such an approach on the ground it is extremely satisfying. For example, last year one of our “Young Investigators” reported that his project, the development of a new method to visualise fibre tracts in the brain using functional imaging techniques, was not only successful but he recently secured ongoing funding for it from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Originally this work was refused by a major national funding organisation as it was considered too risky. In fact, I vividly remember our review discussion about this project and it was clear that without our explicit willingness to bet on such innovative young scientists, this project might never have received the support it deserved. These are moments that you really cherish.

So where can you look for similar positions? Funding mechanisms differ in various countries: In the English-speaking world the main sources of public scientific funds are the major research councils and agencies (e.g., the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom and NIH or the National Science Foundation in the United States) and there is also a tradition of foundations or charities supplying funds for scientific research such as the Wellcome Trust and many smaller organisations. These national organisations also provide opportunities in the international arena.

In some countries, for instance where funding is largely channelled via the ministries, the situation can be different and a civil service career path might be necessary. Organisations such as HFSPO provide an attractive international environment but being small do not have a large turnover of staff and openings do not often arise. Don’t wait for positions to be advertised–it is far better to take the initiative yourself and contact people in appropriate agencies to explore possibilities and get the ball rolling. That is the way I did it and I certainly don’t regret making the move.

If you do want to enter the world of science funding you will normally need to have a PhD and experience in a good lab to have an impression of how scientific programmes can be run. For recruitment at a more senior level, more extensive scientific and management experience is required up to professorial level. In dealing with senior scientists on advisory boards or in review committees it is important to have scientific credibility to be able to work in a constructive, collegial way. Excellent communication skills and a willingness to learn about what is going on in new fields are also critical. A good feeling for diplomacy is also necessary when trying to convince already over-committed scientists to join the review committees and then to chase them if their reviews are late!

Do I miss working in a lab? Due to our close contacts with the scientific community I consider that I am still working in an academic environment and I consider myself to be primarily a scientist in what I do. But I must admit to missing some aspects of lab life, like dealing on a day-to-day basis with young scientists. However, this is more than compensated by the pleasure and excitement of listening to the work of (for example) our Young Investigators and holders of Career Development Awards at the Awardees Annual Meeting. Knowing that we make a difference is a reward in itself.


* Towards a New Paradigm for Education, Training and Career Paths in the Natural Sciences.

What you don’t learn at the bench.

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