Working Scientist podcast: How to navigate the UK's new research funding landscape

An expert guide for early career researchers to UK Research and Innovation, the UK's new central funding agency.
Julie Gould is a freelance science writer in London.

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Julie Gould and James Wilsdon discuss the UK's new funding landscape.

In April 2018 the UK's funding environment was transformed with the launch of UK Research and Innovation, an umbrella agency which oversees more than £6 billion (US$7.4 billion) of research funding per year, led by Sir Mark Walport, formerly the UK government's chief scientific adviser.

In episode four of this six-part series on funding, Julie Gould discusses the changes with James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, UK. Wilsdon describes how the new funding landscape compares to the previous structure of seven research councils, how UKRI can support interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary research, and what this new funding landscape means for early career researchers.

Paid content: European Research Council

Lydia Lynch and Juleen Zierath talk about how their research projects have benefited from ERC grants. They also share some of their insights into the application process.

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Julie Gould and James Wilsdon discuss the UK's new funding landscape.

Julie Gould:

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the fourth part of our series on funding. Just as a recap, in the first few episodes we heard from grant writing experts on how to best prepare, structure and write a winning grant proposal. And for the next couple of episodes, we’re going to go a little bit broader, looking at the funding environment in which we work.

But before I go any further, just a quick reminder that there will be another ten-minute sponsored slot from the European Research Council at the end of this Working Scientist podcast.

So, back to business. In this episode, I’m looking particularly at the funding environment in the UK, really because it’s been through a huge overhaul in the last couple of years. Arguably, this has been the biggest change in 50 years. Now this change has had huge implications on how science is funded in the UK, but it’s also had implications for the individual scientists and how they look for funding, particularly in cross-disciplinary research.

It all started in 2015, following the publication of the government’s Science and Innovation Strategy. Sir Paul Nurse, who was at that time the Chief Executive of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, was asked by the UK government to lead an independent review of the seven research councils.

His review came back with several recommendations to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of funding allocations in the UK, and one of those recommendations was to change the way the funding system itself was structured.

After much debate and green, white and probably many other coloured papers, no doubt, his advice was followed and in April 2018, the research councils have come together with other bodies under an umbrella organisation called UK Research and Innovation, or UKRI, which is chaired by Mark Walport, who is the former UK government’s Chief Scientist.

So, I asked James Wilsdon, who’s a professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield to give us a potted history of the UK funding landscape and to outline some of the more recent changes.

James Wilsdon

So, we had a pretty stable funding landscape – at least in institutions – for 25 years really, and that constituted seven research councils, several of which existed for far longer than that – the MRC had existed for a century. And then you had HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council of England) which provided the block grant that was allocated as a result of the research assessments, so the REF as it’s now become. And between them, those two bits of the system, the Research Council on the one hand and HEFCE on the other, constituted what we would call the dual support system, the two legs of public funding into research.

And what we now have as a result of these reforms is the bringing together of all of those bodies – the seven research councils, the research part of HEFCE (HEFCE has been abolished and reconstituted into two new bodies), the office for students which deals with the teaching part of HEFCE’s old remit and a new body called Research England which deals with the research part and continues running the research assessment process.

We now have a new body called UK Research and Innovation, which for the first time brings the seven research councils, this new body Research England, and the innovation agency Innovate UK, all under one roof as part of a sort of consolidated, mega agency for research and innovation. The individual component parts still retain some degree of autonomy and their own boards and councils within that structure, but they are all reporting into one ultimate board and one chief executive who is Sir Mark Walport.

So, it’s quite a big change in the way the system is organised, and the reason why these changes were made – I mean this was proposed originally by Sir Paul Nurse in his review of the research funding system which was published in 2015 – the rationale for it was firstly, that there is a growing emphasis and need for multi-, inter-, trans-, disciplinary research of various kinds and the old system with the seven research councils wasn’t necessarily optimal as a way of organising that kind of cross-disciplinary research, which I think is a fair point.

So, the argument for UKRI was to bring it all together and enable better, more strategic funding across areas or topics and challenge that spanned those different disciplinary groupings.

Secondly, there was a sense in which the whole science community, the whole research community in its entirety, would benefit from a stronger single voice in making the case for the research budget with government and demonstrating to government, as it were, the value, the benefit, of all of this public investment.

Julie Gould:

Are there maybe any disadvantages to the new system?

James Wilsdon:

The old system, for all of its occasional messiness, preserved a greater degree of diversity and autonomy of its component parts and in general, I mean there are very few sort of iron laws in research or science policy, but diversity in a funding system is generally a good thing.

We see this from a lot of comparative work across many science and innovation systems around the world. And so, the concern about UKRI was well, why are we moving away in the opposite direction to a sort of single consolidated entity that potentially limits or inhibits that kind of diversity.

Now the response from the advocates of UKRI was well no, we are being cleverer than that, we are creating a single structure but within the single structure we are preserving precisely the degree of autonomy and flexibility that you are worrying about, so there’s a huge emphasis that was placed in the creation of UKRI and is still being placed in the discussion around it on the relative autonomy of the different councils within the overall structure.

So, a lot now rests on whether that works in practice in the way that has been described, and I think it is too early to say.

Julie Gould:

So how does it work? Funding bodies will say I want money, I want money, we need money for this because this is important and we need money for that because that’s important, but how is it actually decided who gets what money?

James Wilsdon:

So, normally there’s two stages to this process in terms of the negotiation between the research funding system and government. The first stage is what we might call the argument over the size of the cake, and this happens every time there’s a spending review or there’s a new government.

There will be an intense period of lobbying and advocacy by the research community for the size of the research budget and of course, at the same time as that, every other group in society is lobbying, you know, the police are lobbying for money and the farmers are lobbying for money, as is always the case in the way budget setting happens in democratic systems. Then there will be a point at which the size of the cake is agreed, and then there is a much more private argument about the slicing up of the cake. By and large, those budgets have remained relatively static over the last 25 years, with the one exception of the biomedical bit which has grown relative to others. What we’re in now is a very different debate because as well as creating UKRI, the government has also pumped into the system these additional funding streams. We’ve also got a new target from government to increase the overall R&D intensity of the economy as a percentage of GDP from its current level at about 1.7% up to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, but unlike some previous targets, there is a real serious effort underway now inside Whitehall and inside UKRI to really map out the road to the 2.4% target and work out what would be involved.

Julie Gould:

All these changes that are being made will obviously have a big impact at the higher level, but what does it mean for the young researchers who are looking for money to fund their research? Does anything change for them and do they have to do things a little bit differently?

James Wilsdon:

In general, yes things are changing and the most profound way in which they’re changing is if you look at budgets across the system, all of the growth where we see it in budget terms is in these new challenge-oriented, challenge-directed funding schemes which are generally larger scale grants in terms of size. They’re multi- or interdisciplinary in their orientation. They require researchers to be engaged with other disciplines in the research space often also with users of research in policy or government or business, and so operating in that way is quite a shift, a really quite profound shift in terms of the sort of skillset it demands and the way in which you assemble a grant and also the role that you play. Let’s imagine a public health researcher who might previously have applied for a smallish grant from maybe MRC if they’re more fundamental, but also things like NIHR or whatever, yet increasingly the biggest opportunities for them as a researcher are going to be joining up with others and putting in much bigger bids to these strategic funds.

Julie Gould:

James has given us a great insight into what the funding landscape in the UK looks like right now, but this is always open to change.

Professor Michael Teitelbaum from Harvard Law School has studied how the funding has changed in the US since the world wars.

He calls them boom-and-bust cycles, and in the penultimate episode in this series we’ll hear more from him on what these are and what they mean for science.

But that’s all we’ve got time for in this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now, as promised, have a slot sponsored by and featuring the work of the European Research Council.

This time, we hear from Juleen Zierath from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and she tells us about why she decided to stay in Europe to conduct her research rather than return to the US. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.

Juleen Zierath:

So, my name is Juleen Zierath and I’m currently a professor of physiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and I’m also the Executive Director of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen.

My undergraduate education was from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, where I had a major in secondary education, in other words, to be a teacher. I did a masters then and that was in exercise physiology, and after that masters I worked at Washington University School of Medicine in the research laboratory of John Holloszy, and that led me to an interest in obtaining a PhD, and for that I moved to the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, in a research area related to type-2 diabetes. And thereafter, I performed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, and then I moved back to Sweden and I started my professional life at the Karolinska Institutet and subsequently also at the University of Copenhagen.

Well, one of the reasons why after the postdoc I returned to Europe was because I had had this experience where there was a very close dynamic collaboration between many clinical investigators and basic researchers, and I would say that that is very characteristic of the Scandinavian research environments in the medical field, in my experience. I’ve also worked at the Hagedorn Research Institute in Copenhagen and I have been really impressed with this kind of close, collaborative spirit that we have in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, and then given that I’m interested diabetes and if I think my background was really more applied, from the very beginning I wanted to be a teacher and teach about sports physiology. I’m really interested in how physical activity and diet can affect human health, so for me to be able to work very close to clinicians who are meeting people with disease – diabetes or people who are obese – who are trying to understand the pathogenesis of those diseases, it was really essential for me to have that close contact. And I feel as though that’s lacking to the same height in the US and so that’s what took me back to Scandinavia. And then the different funding streams in Europe have really helped to keep me in anchored in Europe. I’ve had certainly many offers to go back to the US, but I fear that what I would miss would be this bench to bedside and back again approach that is so characteristic of Scandinavia.

I received the funding in 2008. It was a five-year programme and the total award was €2.5 million, and it was pretty much divided equally for each year, with €0.5 million per year. So, this was five years of substantial funding which allowed me to take more risks in my work and kind of make entrance into, I would say, new fields that are of emerging interest for metabolism and diabetes. And the programme largely funded postdoctoral fellows and some technical assistants and obviously consumables. I didn’t necessarily purchase a lot of equipment with the funding but it was more brain power and talent development.

So, my research is really focused on understanding mechanisms for what we call insulin resistance in people who have diabetes. And what this means is that individuals who develop diabetes may do so because they have a defect in organs such as a muscle cell or a liver cell or a fat cell, and in some way these organs are insensitive to the anabolic hormone insulin, and because they’re insensitive to insulin they develop high blood sugar and many of the complications of type-2 diabetes. And so, our work has been focused on understanding how physical activity and diet can make muscle cells more sensitive to insulin and prevent the development of diabetes, so we’re focused on that. And the ERC programme was developed to identify mechanisms in muscle cells that are impaired in people with type-2 diabetes, and understanding the molecular physiology for the insulin resistance that develops in this disease and how exercise can reprogramme a muscle cell to make it more sensitive to the hormone insulin. And so that’s what we were trying to address and the idea would be if we can understand that biology, we may be able to target some of the molecules pharmacologically or genetically to improve insulin sensitivity and prevent the disease.

Lydia Lynch

So, I’m Lydia Lynch. I’m an immunologist and an associate professor at Trinity College Dublin. I got a degree in cell biology and genetics from University College Dublin and then I did a PhD in immunology, and then from there I applied for a UNESCO-L'Oréal International Women of Science Award, which would allow me to go to a different country to get a year’s experience and I got that and I also got a Marie Curie Fellowship and so we moved, me and my husband and three children and my dad, moved to Boston and I was a postdoc in Harvard there for three years. And at the end of that three years it went very well. I got a junior faculty position there as an instructor of medicine and then was recruited a year later as an assistant professor in Harvard Medical School.

So, I applied for the ERC starting grant when I was working over in Harvard Medical School and living in Boston, and I wanted to bring this research project to Trinity College Dublin for many different reasons, one of them being the ease of doing the translational research in Ireland. We had found a lot of different things in mice and I wanted to see if this translated into the clinic, and really just I felt that the immunology department in Trinity was a really great place to be and that I could do everything that I wanted in this grant there. So, you get freedom on a few different levels. One is to do a risky project which other funders, maybe in small countries like Ireland, it would be harder for them to fund because it’s quite risky, and so it gives you the freedom to do these ideas that you’ve always wanted to do but in Europe. It also gives you the freedom to choose an institution that you might want to work in, of course the institution has to agree but having an ERC grant is helpful for negotiation power. A lot of institutions want ERC grantees.

So, the ERC starting grant was for €1.8 million, and with that I basically set up an in-vivo metabolic core, which is the first of its kind in Ireland. The research started in June 2016 and it’s for five years, and it’s called FAT NKT and a lot of it is looking into the immune system in adipose tissue or fat. And so, what we’re looking at really is non-immune roles for the immune system. What we’re starting to realise is that the immune system does much more than we initially thought it did. As well as the obvious ones like fighting infection and outside dangers, bugs, viruses and even inside danger like surveying for tumour cells, it also does a lot of day-to-day repair and maintenance that we wouldn’t have thought it was really involved in. But we’re realising when it goes wrong, a lot of bad things happen and the immune system is at the heart of this and my project specifically is looking at what the immune system in fat or adipose tissue is doing.

Juleen Zierath

There were two phases to the application. So, there was shorter phase – I think it was about a five-page, in-depth synopsis of the application – and then there was a more extended grant – I think that was ten pages – and so it was a two-stage review process, but when you’re preparing the application you have to prepare both the short version and the long version at the same time. And so, one piece of advice is pay a lot of attention to both versions of the application and that there should be consistency between them. If the short version is not compelling enough, no one will actually ever read the longer version. So, that’s where the triage happens. So, the grants are submitted, a review panel looks at the short version, if they think that that looks of interest then they will allow for a secondary review and that secondary review is of the longer version of the grant. And so, I think it’s really important that they both have to be prepared with the same sense of care and carefulness. So, I think that would be really an important piece of advice to give.

Lydia Lynch

For this ERC grant, I would say be brave with your idea. Risks are okay for this one. It can’t be unrealistic to achieve it. My grant was something that I was thinking about wanting to do for a long time. There were parts that I knew I could do and that I would do but there were other parts that were risky, like some lipid chemistry that I’m not an expert in, and so I found experts to help and then I just got really excited about it. When you have this team that you could work with, with different skillsets, you get really excited about writing it because you can see it happening and I believed that we could do it and that it would open up a side of the immune system that we didn’t know much about. So, I’d say aim big but also get a lot of feedback along the way. You don’t have to take all the feedback. I think you have some instincts sometimes of when not to follow advice, but getting feedback and advice is very important. Getting some data to show that you can most likely do it and that mitigates some of the risk and then if you get to the interview stage I would say prepare. It’s a bit nerve-wracking but preparation helps with that. I’m not somebody that likes to do interviews. I get very nervous and preparation helped with that. But mainly be yourself. If you’re passionate about your project it will shine out. Don’t worry too much about like the perfect speech or the perfect answer. Show the passion that you have for your project.

Juleen Zierath

I think put your best foot forward and then realise it’s competitive. If you don’t get funded, it’s such a low probability of funding. I think it’s less than 10% so I think one has to also appreciate that there’s a lot of talent out there. So be bold, put your ideas out there but don’t be too discouraged if you don’t get funding because one should just, if you have the opportunity, go back again. Never give up.