Introducing Lisa Michelle Restelli, one of the winners of the London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition
Lisa Michelle Restelli completed a masters degree in medical, molecular and cellular biotechnologies at San Raffaele University in Milan, Italy, and she is now a second-year PhD candidate at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Her work focuses on mitochondrial morphology and its relationship to the central nervous system, both in health and in disease. Outside the lab, she enjoys cooking, reading, and travelling, preferably in combination.
“Acceptance rates for grants in Switzerland are 30-40%,” proclaimed my prospective boss in February 2012 as I interviewed for a PhD position in neurobiology across the Alps. “We should get your project funded in no time.” As it turns out, it was actually 51% at the time for the Swiss National Science Foundation. These optimistic figures certainly had a lot to do with my final decision to move to Switzerland to pursue a PhD, closely followed by chocolate. Even as an undergrad, I could perceive the steady uncertainty of the worldwide funding situation, so I was eager to position myself in what seemed to be a safe haven.
Fourteen months and a number of grant applications later, reality started to come into focus: while the project was by no means flawed, Switzerland was finally experiencing the funding crisis the rest of the world had already been grappling with for the past few years. As a result, funding agencies found themselves having to allocate scant resources to only a fraction of the projects that would have been deserving. So, if the project’s merits are acknowledged, the PI’s track record is undisputed, and the rationale is solid, how do you deal with the “It’s not you, it’s me” rejections from funding agencies?
For those who are not familiar with the process of grant seeking, I will share a slightly shameful secret: sometimes applications are submitted even in response to calls where the scope only very loosely fits the project, in the hope to catch the proverbial “stroke of luck”. While still unwelcome, a rejection from a low-expectation application can be soothed by a pat on the back, and fundamentally blamed on the strict boundaries set by the funding agency, because – let’s face it – “cancer therapeutics” is a very broad and misleading definition.
But let us assume that everything was done properly: the application fit the funding agency’s requirements, the writing was clear and concise and the project was solid and ground-breaking. Nevertheless, unfathomably, the application did not rank high enough to qualify for funding. Ranting about the funding agency being biased and reviewer #3 being a downright troll can certainly be liberating, but should be confined to the early stages of scientific grief. Afterwards, looking ahead is the best cure for rejection.
In fact, unlike other potential causes of disappointment, grant application calls have the advantage of being recurring events. Happily, most of them also encourage re-submission upon rejection. At this point, rather than blindly re-packaging the previous application, it’s worth thinking about what pushed the winning applications to the top, and aim to improve your own for the next round.
Assuming that the quality of the underlying science is comparable – as it tends to be in the higher tiers of the rankings – it can safely be inferred that the funded PIs were simply better at selling their product. Indeed, a grant application is a veritable marketing effort, in which the audience (i.e. the grant reviewers) and the communication style are integral components of the process, just as much as the message is. Thoroughly researching the audience, in terms of previously funded projects and expertise, can help a grant writer to align their own work to the interests of their target, and to convey it in the most convincing possible way. One could, for instance, consider establishing new collaborations in order to be a better fit for a particular funding agency.
As far as the message itself goes: we often take it for granted that the officers making the final decision have a profound knowledge and understanding of our own obscure branch of science, and that they are eager to see it advance; more likely, they rely on peer review to judge the soundness of the rationale. All grant-writing seminars, webinars and workshops agree: funding agencies ultimately choose the application that projects the brightest scenario, whereby a great project is undertaken in the ideal environment, yielding results that have implications for a number (but not a far-fetched collection) of conditions. Therefore, the proficient grant-writer should emphasize the perfect match between the project and the lab, and set goals that are ambitious but feasible, rather than making claims that cannot possibly be fulfilled.
Of course, funding agencies can make mistakes, or fail to acknowledge relevant points. A request for clarification or a rebuttal letter to explain a misunderstanding can never go amiss, and can surely result in additional input. Ultimately, however, the way you bounce back is by charging forward, acting proactively and learning from every rejection in order to tailor the application for the next round.
And then, when all else fails, there’s always Swiss chocolate.