IndiaBioscience brings to you the International Grants Awareness Program (iGAP) which aims to improve the success rate for Indian applications at international funding opportunities- for some of which India even contributes towards. Here we explore the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) schemes.
In the second episode in this series, we talk to two experts- Vidita Vaidya (TIFR), who has been a member of the HFSP Fellowship application review committee in the past, and Guntram Bauer, from the funding agency‑i.e HFSP. They discuss the fundamentals of the HFSP schemes and their insights for prospective applicants.
For more information on HFSP schemes, visit our previous webinars (1,2).
Learn | Discuss | Succeed
[00:00:00] — Intro
You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one-stop resource for science news and careers.
[00:00:15] — Shantala Hari Dass
Hello, and welcome to today’s podcast. This is a part of our international grants awareness program, or iGAP for short. This initiative was born out of a desire to increase the number of Indians seeking and acquiring international funds. We do so by one: spreading awareness of international funding schemes by creating resources with the funding agencies, two: imparting skills to craft a successful application via workshops and other skill-building resources, and three: inculcating the confidence to apply by sharing access to a network of Indian mentors. We bring these resources to you in a variety of ways, such as webinars, podcasts, workshops, informational articles, et cetera. Now let’s continue to today’s conversation.
Welcome, everybody. I’m Shantala Hari Dass, and I’m joined today in conversation by Vidita Vaidya, who is a professor at the department of biology, TATA Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and who has been a member of the review committee for HFSP fellowships in the past, and we are also joined by Guntram Bauer, who is the director of science, policy, and communications at HFSP or the Human Frontier Science Program. We are very lucky to be in conversation with both of them. Today, we are going to be discussing a much-requested topic. We’re going to take a deep dive into HFSP funding schemes and hope to break down the HFSP mindset and why and when you should apply for this scheme. We hope that this conversation will provide insights into this funding opportunity as well as address your apprehensions or misconceptions. Welcome, Vidita. Welcome, Guntram.
Let’s start from the basics. Can you help us understand the HFSP mindset?
[00:02:29] — Vidita Vaidya
So the key part of understanding the HFSP mindset is understanding the H and F parts of it. That’s the ‘human’ and the ‘frontiers’ element of it. It really is about an attempt to ask fundamental, cutting-edge questions at the edge and cutting edge of biology. I remember the first time I sat on a fellowships committee of the HFSP, and around the table were people discussing every proposal that came up for consideration. And the one central question that came up every single time was what’s the frontier element of this proposal. And it’s in this frontier question that you’re really asking very fundamental questions that have an inbuilt high-risk component, and there’s of course, the possibility that they may fail. But that inherent risk element, the risk that comes from asking questions that have not often been asked are often at the cutting edge and in between two silos of fields, the fact that you might be switching fields, moving out of your area of comfort in a sense, the fact that you might be collaborating with people utterly out of your discipline, to be able to push the boundary forward of the field. That’s the H and F components. And that’s the critical component of the HFSP mindset.
[00:03:48] — Guntram Bauer
As a scientist, you approach HFSP, no matter for which program, I think your mindset should be that you are prepared to cross a boundary. For a young applicant coming out of the Ph.D. and seeking a fellowship funding from HFSP, that could mean being ready to immerse yourself in new literature, learning new technology, or establishing a new line of research that you have never done before, but the same is also true for teams of applicants that like to get funded through HFSP research grants, because, what we require is crossing a boundary for each of those participating laboratories in that the research funded by HFSP should represent the new line of research for the participating labs. And so this is crossing boundaries, which can take different forms to various degrees. And I think this is a key condition when one approaches HFSP.
[00:04:51] — Vidita Vaidya
I agree. It’s really like moving out of your comfort zone. What HFSP likes to see is an applicant who’s willing to step out of what’s their comfort zone and push the boundaries substantially. It may be that you are switching disciplines. You may be switching model systems. You may be bringing together a unique international team that’s now going to ask a question in a manner in which it hasn’t been asked before. So it really is about the choice of the question, the choice of the systems, the choice of the individuals you choose to collaborate with, but it’s not continuing in the same old theme. It really is moving out of your comfort zone and pushing the boundaries substantially.
[00:05:32] — Guntram Bauer
Yes, that’s right. I think we can even amplify that because HFSP has been given the mission to not fund existing collaborations or to not fund post-doctoral fellows, to just continue what they have done during their Ph.D. We want to fund new research that establishes a new line of research, whether that is for a laboratory or for a junior scientist. So, the mindset has to be ready to step into the unknown.
[00:06:02] — Vidita Vaidya
So in a sense, you could really ask what’s the unique selling point of an HFSP fellowship or an HFSP grant. It’s the idea that the Human Frontiers of Science Program will fund a team of individuals or an individual who’s moving to a location for a post-doctoral fellowship to ask questions that are not circumscribed within just national boundaries or circumscribed within silos of disciplines but that cross these borders seamlessly. It really is the idea that when you fund research that breaks these traditional boundaries, you sometimes push a field forward in a substantial way. And it is this that HFSP will look for. It’s this key mindset that is often the question that comes up. What’s the frontier element of this proposal? How is this going to push the field forward? How is this going to break away from what’s been done traditionally and really change the landscape substantially?
[00:07:14] — Shantala Hari Dass
Thank you for breaking down for us the HFSP mindset and highlighting that applicants should keep in mind the frontier element while writing their proposals. Moving forward, who should apply for funding from HFSP, or why should one submit a proposal to HFSP versus other funding agencies?
[00:07:35] — Guntram Bauer
So when approaching HFSP, you really have to bring out that international mindset because HFSP is all about international research collaboration. It’s not about, will I get funded for the NIH or DBT or my other national grant. It’s not that HFSP is not seeking standard ground application, where you have to often show preliminary evidence. I mean, it’s really that you can, as an applicant in the fellowship or on the ground program, you can take a risk in your application and propose something really unusual, and that is actually what we are looking for, and this is very particular because we really have the mission to fund international research collaboration. So, if you think about a standard grant application that would not work for HFSP, because it may lack the risk. It may lack the innovative character, but it also would lack the international research component.
[00:08:40] — Vidita Vaidya
So when you’re writing a standard grant proposal, say for a national agency, you tend to write a grant proposal saying, here, look, this is my expertise. This is the very next natural progression for me to inquire about this. This is how I’m going to take my question that I’ve been working on forward, and more often than not, you tend to have preliminary data, and you put that preliminary data into the proposal, and it is the next natural progression. And your review committee will review your expertise, will review whether you’re capable of achieving what you’re setting up as a milestone. And it’s a very natural continuation of a question you’ve been asking, but that might not fly. And in fact, more often than not, it does not fly with an HFSP grant. And that’s because HFSP is not looking to fund what the national agencies would, in any case, be funding. It may be an excellent grant proposal, but it’s not an HFSP grant proposal. What they’re going to look for and what HFSP will be looking for is, for example, when they’re looking at a grant application, they’ll be looking at, well, these are three or four, very interesting people, all experts in their own individual domains coming together to ask a question that would not have been possible if it did not bring together this disparate expertise. And when a postdoc is making a transition, is asking for an HFSP fellowship to go to a lab, they’re looking for, what is this postdoctoral fellow going to bring? What is the host lab going to provide? And is that amalgamation of expertise going to make something unusual happen? Is it gonna move the field forward in an unusual, unexpected way? So it’s the risk element. It’s asking questions that are brave and perhaps are not the next natural sort of step. So in a sense, you really don’t want to apply for HFSP with your very next standard grant application, which you might put forward to your country’s agency. That’s not an ideal HFSP grant.
[00:10:50] — Shantala Hari Dass
That really clearly tells us when and why you should apply for an HFSP funding opportunity. This is actually a question that we have often received. Moving along, what do you think are some of the misconceptions or uncertainties about the HFSP scheme that exists, especially among the Indian life science research community?
[00:11:11] — Vidita Vaidya
So there’s one common general perception you hear from a lot of people, especially for program grants, where you’re required to bring together multiple collaborators from an international landscape. More often than not, you’ll hear, oh, you need a physicist, or you need a mathematician to collaborate with. And while that would be wonderful, if it was required by the problem that you’re addressing, it’s not a necessary requirement. In fact, what you would be looking for is a team that is actually well-designed. You’re not just sticking a box when you’re putting this team together. You’re looking for people who would really push the problem forward. The caliber of the team really matters, the synergy across the team matters. And I think people sometimes forget that when they’re putting a team together. It shouldn’t look like three people just came together, each of them wanting money for their individual programs, and now you’ve gotta put a mishmash of these ideas together and write this up as a grant proposal for HFSP. That’s not going to fly. What you want is the ability to show that three people with disparate interests and disparate capabilities got excited by a common problem that they want to bring their skill sets to solve. And it is this amalgamation of unique strengths from different individuals that put together a really effective HFSP team and that matters. That’s one of the central things people will look for in team grants.
[00:12:36] — Guntram Bauer
And if we think this further it is important to realize that based on what Vidita just explained, if, for example, biologists come together for a grant application to HFSP in the ideal scenario, these are biologists that represent different approaches and different fields because this is a core concept of our scientific mission that we try to bring scientists together who wouldn’t normally even talk to each other, if I exaggerate a little bit, so that we really can establish an interdisciplinary research collaboration. Because often what we see in the proposal that we receive is not a great sort of genuine interest in wanting to collaborate. And this is what our review committees look for. Is there a really good description of the scientific interaction between the participating laboratories for research grounds, and how are these concepts or these approaches convincingly described? Because it’s our goal to bring scientists together, not only in an informal way but really in real science interaction, exchanging between laboratories and therefore we are trying to put an end to the old body network where scientists want to get together, just because they have worked together for so many years, this is not our mission, and this is certainly not what would fly with HSP.
[00:14:28] — Shantala Hari Dass
Let’s talk about the Indian context now. Could you describe your experience with applications from India? Where have they fared well? And what have been some of the shortcomings?
[00:14:39] — Guntram Bauer
I think strong points in applications that we received from Indian scientists are really, both in the fellowship and the grant program, they thrive for innovativeness. They’re really interested to try new things, and, even if they look at things that are a bit off the beaten track, a bit left field, there’s this general attitude to wanting to apply novel approaches to investigate a fundamental problem. However, sometimes, and this is often the case for young scientists in the fellowship program, they get a bit carried away and then dragging out into applied questions that are not really part of our mission, and so this is something one has to be aware of that we fund really novel approaches to basic science, but we don’t want to be competing with our donor agencies in funding applied sciences.
[00:15:36] — Vidita Vaidya
I completely agree with what Guntram said, that there are clearly applications that are coming from India that are outstanding, that definitely make the cut, and I think in particular, in the fellowship space, looking at long-term fellowships and cross-disciplinary fellowships, one is beginning to see more and more interesting applications coming out of India. It would be equally nice to see LTF and CDF applicants coming into India, and one will hope that in the long term, that will grow. But I feel for the research grant, sometimes the applications are written along the lines of what you would write to a national agency, a DBT, DST, ICMR, DAE. There’s a pattern of writing that people have gotten into the mode of doing, which is an application to their national agencies, and more often than not, because of the emphasis on translational implications, the fundamental component of the proposal is a bit thin, and it might get triaged out at a very early stage of the HFSP. So in a sense, the critical part as an applicant has to understand that when you are rejected, It’s not because you haven’t written a good grant. You may have written a great grant that’s absolutely going to get funded by an excellent national agency, but it is not the right grant for HFSP. And that’s what we were discussing earlier as well. That it’s absolutely key that you understand the agency that you’re targeting. And if you remember, and keep in mind that you’re targeting the HFSP, you keep the frontier element, the risk element, front and center in this grant proposal because that is what’s going to be looked at by the HFSP review committee.
[00:17:23] — Guntram Bauer
Yes. I think what Vidita just said is very true, and sometimes it helps in particular for scientists who are planning to submit a grant proposal to HFSP sort of in a kind of a self-assessment. If one would say, this may fly as a proposal to my national agency, and if this self-assessment would lead you to the answer, yes, that could stand a chance, then it may not be a good idea to approach HFSP with such a proposal. Another element that we sometimes get to see across programs is that applications are submitted that are purely tech-driven. HFSP is, of course, open to tech development, but if there’s a lack of biology, then this is not really viewed in a very positive way. Our mission is to fund biology, basic science. It can be tech-driven. We have funded several brands and fellowships that have had very important technical components, but if biology is lacking, then the risk of being rejected is high.
[00:18:38] — Vidita Vaidya
So, you know, when we are talking about technology or tools to address a problem, I like to give this sort of funny analogy to my lab. I’d say to my lab, you know, you can walk from your laboratory to the gates of the Institute. You can use your own two feet to get to the gate, but you could also go to the gate in a super fancy BMW car. You can do this in many ways. You may not need the BMW because it’s only a five-minute walk. So if you’re throwing every technological tool and, in this case, the analogies, if you’re using a BMW for a distance that you can absolutely walk with your own two feet, it isn’t giving you any fundamental biological insight. It’s just that you’ve done a very expensive way of getting from location A to location B. This is sort of BMW science, for which you’re driving the fanciest car possible, but the insights you really don’t require that BMW. You could have just walked to the gate and solved the problem as simply as that. So in a sense, spending a lot of money, throwing every new fangle tool and technology, if it is not giving you a substantial delta in your insight into the biological problem, then you really need to ask yourself if it is required. If the tool or technology changes the fundamental way in which you approach a problem or think about it or the insights you get, then 100% center it, but otherwise, keep the biological problem front and center. Let the tools not overtake that entire question that you are asking.
[00:20:09] — Guntram Bauer
Yes. So along these lines just explained by Vidita, I think one advice for fellowship applicants is that HFSP is not funding you to extend your past work. You fare better if you show that you want to do something new, and the committee, of course, is welcoming if you propose something that presents a novel technology or a new approach, a new study system, which does not mean that you have to forget everything that you’ve learned during your Ph.D., but you should show in a convincing fashion that you are genuinely interested in in trying something new.
[00:21:06] — Shantala Hari Dass
Is there anything else that you would like to discuss with respect to the Indian context?
[00:21:12] — Vidita Vaidya
So one of the handicaps that you sometimes might face in India is that our networks tend to be often local. And the local life sciences community in India, while thriving and small, is still growing and hasn’t really got to a complete critical mass. The larger networks tend to be in the west, partly because the research ecosystems are larger. So especially for the HFSP, when you’re putting together a grant application that requires you to cross national boundaries if you’re a fellowship applicant, or for a program grant requires to put together an international team, then your lack of a network can sometimes become a bit of a disadvantage. And then it’s going to be important for you to think about this well ahead of time. COVID’s been a great situation in which we’ve suddenly had travel just cut short, and we found ways to work around it. We found ways to continue to collaborate, build networks, talk to people across national, and international boundaries. And so this might be something that you want to factor in as you’re making a fellowship application or as you’re putting a program grant application together. The HFSP community is also expanding. So it’s not a given that you only need to look westward. The HFSP community is growing and there are many countries that are partner countries to the HFSP. Do your homework, find the best international team that’s going to help you put together an exciting proposal to solve a fundamental biological problem. I think it’s critical to start early. I think it is critical to pick right. For a fellowship applicant, it’s critical to pick the right host lab. For a program grant, it’s critical to pick a team in which there’s synergy, and that collaboration is going to work. For this, it’s going to matter to put in the work. Don’t let this be an afterthought in your application. It is not an afterthought. It’s a central, fundamental component of your proposal. Treat it with the same degree of intensity you will the fundamental question that you’re asking. It’s as important. So the team you put together, the host institution you go to, and the host lab really matter, and so perhaps the advice I would give is to put that at the same degree of intensity and importance you do the biological problem that you’re going to address. Choose your mentor appropriately. Choose your team appropriately. This is critical to a competitive grant application.
[00:23:35] — Guntram Bauer
I think extending this, what Vidita just said, is also an important message for the whole of the Indian scientific community because one has to realize that HFSP programs are very competitive, both for fellowship and grants. If 100 applied, there’s no guarantee that 90 will be funded, and that’s sort of the sad part of the picture. Because you always apply with the very best from many different countries in the world. It’s a very challenging task for our committee members, who are very, very good and established scientists. But I really don’t envy them having to draw a cutoff line among very, very talented scientists. But this is why what IndiaBioscience is doing is so important, to bring out the information and inform scientists about what it takes to be successful in an HSFP application.
[00:24:48] — Shantala Hari Dass
With that, we wind up our conversation today. Before we sign off, do you have any last messages?
[00:24:55] — Guntram Bauer
Doing your homework is very important. What do I mean by that? You have to realize or try to gauge in a way that what you want to propose fits with our scientific mission. So you can talk to the previous awardees or active awardees to feel and see if this kind of topic would fly with HFSP. I think that’s always a good thing. Definitely, when it then comes to writing the proposal, make sure that the proposal is read by more than two or three. So you really can collect feedback and try to have your proposal read by experienced grant writers, if you have the possibility, because, in our applications, you don’t have a lot of space. You have to be very good in writing to the point in conveying your research idea and convincing the revenue committees about the methods and the approaches that you apply. It has to be a very precise and fine-tuned writing effort here for a research proposal. However, having said that, HFSP receives applications from more than 40 different countries in the world, and nobody has ever failed because of language. So it’s not really a language issue. The problem is always to bring your ideas out in writing, and for that, I think having early feedback on your idea and in the ground writing proposal process is very good thing. My final recommendation, and I’ve seen this so many times over so many years, is, take time and read the guidelines, get familiar with the philosophy of our program so that you write a proposal that is well anchored in our scientific mission. Because there’s nothing more sad for us than having to reject a grant team with a great idea that doesn’t fit our scientific scope. So there are a couple of helpful advisory documents out there, the grant writing guide, there’s a fellowship primer available for younger scientists, would really highly recommend that, you should consider reading them before applying, and whenever you don’t find an answer, it is always good to contact us. Because we happily respond to inquiries, whether a topic is fitting or not and so it’s always good to contact us to get sort of an early go-ahead, and we do that because HFSP is an organization run by scientists for scientists.
[00:27:45] — Vidita Vaidya
So I’d like to say that there’s a great joy in having the opportunity to come up with the kind of ideas that you would put together in an HFSP proposal. Here, you have this opportunity to write, think big, inherent components of risk, interesting frontier ideas that you’d like to take on, right? And that itself is so unique and special and that’s really unique to the HFSP grant. It’s so different from a standard grant application, which is more often a continuation of your work, where you have preliminary data, et cetera. In fact, standard grant applications don’t want a huge component of risk. That would be worrisome sometimes to a standard grant application. And so, in some ways, I’d say, perhaps when you are writing this grant, you don’t worry so much about whether you’re gonna be successful or not, but use this as an opportunity to really go through the process of asking yourself what’s the most exciting question in biology I want to take on and how am I going to take this on in a manner in which it pushes the field fundamentally forward. There are many times I’ve asked myself that question, if I was to write an HFSP grant proposal, what would that idea be? How would I like to pursue it? Right. Very rarely do you find an organization that’s going to come around and tell you, come to me with your riskiest, pie-in-the-sky idea. Think big, unfettered by whether or not you’re absolutely going to achieve it or not, just take that risk and fly. This is what’s so special about the HFSP, and you are not going to have too many opportunities to write this kind of grant proposal. So whether you’re successful or not, the process of writing it itself may really change the way you think about your science and so that’s the little bit of advice I would give.
[00:29:45] — Shantala Hari Dass
Thank you for joining us in conversation today, Vidita Vaidya and Guntram Bauer. It has been a pleasure to sit with you virtually and have this conversation on the HFSP organization, the HFSP mindset, as well as some insights for prospective applicants. I’m sure that the Indian life science research community will find this conversation very valuable in their journey to writing an application for an HFSP scheme. For our listeners, thank you very much for joining us in today’s conversation. I hope that you find this resource helpful in your journey with HFSP. I hope that you will join us in future sessions from iGAP, where we discuss other international funding opportunities.
Thank you for joining us today in this conversation. If you found this podcast helpful and, or are interested in more resources on international funding opportunities open to Indian life science researchers, please head over to our website and go through the other iGAP resources and keep on the lookout for future announcements.
[00:30:51] — Outro
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