Gitanjali Yadav is a Scientist at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research, New Delhi. She is also a Lecturer at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, as one of the first appointees of a Joint Deputation Program between India and the U.K. She attended YIM 2016 as a Young Investigator. In this invited piece, she talks about the perennial hurdle of getting, and sustaining funds for research.
As a young scholar, I often imagined having my own lab someday. What I didn’t realize then, was that my vision of the perfect lab stemmed from already being part of a well-equipped lab with modern machines, constant flow of funds, uninterrupted staff payments, and regular avenues for PIs and students to attend global conventions. This perfect cycle of having funds for cutting-edge research, followed by recognition and awards, leading to newer grants, is quite literally the ‘Neverland’ for young investigators.
A more realistic scenario is where you might have a lab indeed, but it’s still an empty room with or without furniture! You proposed a great research idea, but the funding agency disposed of it. Even when success appears 100% guaranteed, funding probability may remain zero. You have an approved proposal, but the task force felt certain that it could be done with a fraction of your estimated budget. You agreed to take that fraction, but the sanction letter is yet to arrive. The sanction letter comes along eventually, but the funds haven’t been transferred to your department. By the time you get the promised funds, you are about a month from the guillotine– 31st March is breathing down your neck. And then you’re in the dreaded utilisation, justification, ‘or else’ cycle!
I choose to treat the challenges of funding in a lighter vein, to avoid a sense of dystopia, or the fear that with time, my concept of research may get distorted by what gets funded, rather than what I set out to do. Life as a young investigator can be stressful. You’re expected to cut the supervisorial umbilical cord, and transform overnight from a promising scholar to a capable manager of a mid-size business enterprise, handling truckloads of administrative paperwork, setting up purchase pipelines, installing equipment, running experiments, paying staff, resolving crises arising out of thin air. All the time. I was at a conference recently where the former DBT Secretary M.K Bhan, explained very beautifully, the need for young scientists to find a sense of music in research and to strive towards a ‘kinder’ kind of science in order to avoid the stress and the noise that seeps into us from our environment.
Getting and sustaining funds is as critical as the science we publish, or the rigour of our methods, and the concept has to be internalised long before you become a PI. I’d never have landed my first job if it wasn’t for DBT’s newly initiated IYBA research grant. I’d never have had the confidence to apply for this grant if it wasn’t for earlier, much smaller awards as a student– starting from CSIR’s innovative ‘Catch Them Young’ award, devised by S.K. Brahmachari for post graduate students. During the past decade, I have been funded variously, often in minuscule amounts, by national and international grants, as well as the corporate sector. I have also had to let go of the best students for lack of funds to sustain them. The Indian system has several opportunities for each stage of the scientific career, from both public and private sector sources, but they won’t come knocking at your door each morning. In a short but insightful conversation, Raghavendra Gadagkar, former INSA President, had said that ignorance is not bliss, and even less so, for young investigators. You’ve got to constantly work at reading, learning, writing and applying for grants, and make no mistake- you’ve also got to do first-class science alongside.
Instead of perceiving the funding agency as an unsurmountable opaque wall, find ways to get through this barrier, communicate your work in a way that compels their attention. This is another challenge altogether, learning to communicate effectively. Over lunch with Mary Williams, features editor at the American Society of Plant Biology, I discovered the immense potential of networking and social media for advancing science. Ironically, and quite unfortunately, many young academics in India are still averse to Facebook and Twitter, refusing to harness the infinite power available to them, almost like an Ostrich burying its head in the sand. We need to incorporate science communication and grant writing skills into the curriculum, with emphasis on how to convey science to funding agencies and the public in an engaging manner.
I am encouraged by the energy and commitment of the members of groups like IndiaBioscience and Living Science that work, both online and offline to educate researchers about new findings, thoughts, policies and funding opportunities. We are slowly but surely making way for a change in policies and habits to improve access to funding opportunities for all, especially young scientists and students, across international borders.