An hourglass with multicoloured coins falling through from the top chamber into the bottom chamber

Bridge-funding programmes can provide researchers with enough money to sustain their work until they have secured a bigger grant.Credit: Getty

Zhen Jiang had spent several years studying molecules that regulate insulin signalling and glucose transport, and his results were urging him in a new research direction, focused on inflammation in obesity and how it relates to tissue damage. After five years, his first grant from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) was running out, so he applied for new funds to follow the leads he’d uncovered.

But reviewers scored his grant application too low to qualify for funding, and suddenly Jiang, a biochemist at Boston University’s Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine in Massachusetts, found himself without the funds he needed to keep his laboratory, of three people, running. “We depend on grant support, and if you don’t have money, a school can let you go.” A stressful situation to be in, he says.

Trying to work out what to do, he turned to the programme officer at the NIH. The officer noted that his score was close to being accepted, and suggested he apply for an NIH bridge grant, which would give him US$350,000, allowing him to gather more data and strengthen his next, larger, grant application. He also received some funding from his university, which he says was crucial to keep the lab going. After 6 months of accumulating data, he reapplied to the NIH and won a 3-year grant of about $415,000 per year to study inflammation in liver tissue, then a second 4-year grant for more than $500,000 per year to apply his work to the heart.

“This kind of bridge fund is so necessary for a lab,” Jiang says, even though the amount was tens of thousands of dollars less than one year’s worth of standard funding, which can be around $500,000 per year. It does mean, however, that researchers need to make sacrifices. “You have to cut your cost,” he says. “That’s the only way to do it.” He was forced to lay off one member of his lab and take on more of the work himself.

Jiang, who had worked as a physician in Jiangxi, China, before switching to research, knew that he’d have to fight for funding in this line of work. “This is always a competitive field. The money’s always not enough,” he says. “You have to work very hard in order to find something new and convince your funder into supporting you. It’s a tough business.”

Ahead of the game

The problem of maintaining enough support to keep lines of research going is a continuing one for academics, with the major government funding bodies regularly awarding money to only one-quarter — or less — of the proposals that they receive. The funding gaps lead to stress for researchers, who might have to curtail a line of enquiry, lay off support staff or postdocs and even potentially lose their position.

Statistics show that the problem hasn’t changed much in years, although budgets might now be spread thinner. Over the past two decades, the percentage of successful applications for NIH research grants has hovered at around 20% (see go.nature.com/4bghwbi). Although the gross amount of those grants has increased, the NIH’s spending power has remained relatively constant; the average NIH grant size was $247,000 in 1998 and in 2022, it was $288,000 in 1998 dollars (see go.nature.com/3uh4mup). And although the funding has stayed the same, the money has to go further, because the NIH approved an 8% pay raise for postdoctoral researchers earlier this year.

The NIH, which is the world’s largest funder of biomedical research, gave out just shy of 59,000 awards in 2023, a total of $34.9 billion.

A piggy bank in a rex box with a glass window with "IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS" printed on it and a hammer attached to the side

Around only one-quarter of grant proposals that are submitted to major funding bodies are successful.Credit: Adapted from Getty

The US National Science Foundation (NSF), meanwhile, handed out more than 11,000 awards in the 2020–21 fiscal year, the latest year for which statistics are available. Applicants had a success rate of 26%. The situation in the United Kingdom is similar; the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding agency gave out £3.1 billion (US$3.9 billion) in the 2022–23 fiscal year, with a success rate of 27%.

The success rate for Horizon Europe, a European Union funding scheme with €95.5 billion (US$103.6 billion) to give out between 2021 and 2027, is even lower. As of 2022, applicants had a success rate of 16% for 5,509 grants, up from 12% in the final year of Horizon 2020 (the EU’s previous funding scheme that ran from 2014 to 2020). The European Commission says that 71% of high-quality proposals don’t get funded (see go.nature.com/3yuzhp4). Germany is the leading European country in research expenditures, and the German Research Foundation (DFG) had around €3.9 billion to work with in 2022. It funded 26.5% of applications, including humanities and social sciences.

Boom and bust

Post-pandemic spikes in inflation have caused researchers to run out of grant money quickly, especially in the United Kingdom, where prices have soared much more rapidly than in the United States. Researchers estimate their costs when applying for a grant, says Bryony Butland, a former programme director at UKRI and now director of research and innovation at Queen Mary University of London, but thanks to inflation, those estimates don’t hold over four or five years of funding. “You’re in the middle of spending it, and suddenly you find that goods prices, things that you want to do, consumables have all gone up,” she says.

The uncertainty in funding can be hard on researchers, says Stuart Buck, a lawyer based in Houston, Texas. Buck runs the Good Science Project, which is searching for more sustainable ways to fund research. He says he spoke to a principal investigator with several postdoctoral students at a leading university, who told him that because of the 20% success rate, he applies for multiple grants at one time. One year the researcher applied for ten five-year grants, and not one was funded, Buck says. The next year, three applications that he resubmitted were successful.

Aside from the stress that this kind of boom-and-bust cycle creates for researchers, Buck says, it also introduces uncertainty. “It’s hard to have long-term planning for who to offer multi-year positions to when you’re not sure whether your funding might double one year because you got two grants, or it might be cut in half one year because you lost one of your grants.” And time spent submitting proposals is time not spent doing research. “We want people who are trained scientists to be able to focus on science and not just worry about having to hustle for money,” Buck says.

Toll on trainees

The loss of grants can also take a toll on trainee researchers’ careers. Wei Yang Tham, an economist at the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, and his colleagues compared data from a group of NIH grants with data from the US census and tax records to look at what effect lapses in funding had on people working in labs with a single grant (see go.nature.com/4br9fli). After a grant ran out, personnel in these labs were 40% more likely than others to disappear from the tax records, he found, meaning that they probably became unemployed. A lot of those people, many of whom had gone to the United States to study, end up leaving the country, Tham says. The largest effects are not on the faculty members, but on postdocs, graduate students and non-research staff such as project managers. Those who do stay, Tham and his colleagues found, earn on average 20% less five years later than do their continuously funded peers.

Bridging the gap

To avoid such problems, many institutions have programmes that provide labs with bridge funding, which can be used to tide over labs for a relatively short period of time while a larger package of money is sought from a research funder. A portion of research grants are intended to pay for the indirect costs of an academic lab, including fees for building maintenance, student services and utilities, which are distributed among the academic department, the school it’s in or the university as a whole. University administrators might be able to use some of that funding to provide a cushion for researchers whose money runs low.

Bridge-funding programmes are important both to make sure that a university can treat its employees well and to ensure the continuity of the science, says Deborah Thomas, a geographer and interim associate vice-chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Labs would prefer not to lose their graduate students, postdocs and research scientists, and then have to look for new staff members when funding is restored. “If you have to let that person go, then you have to rehire, there’s a lot of time involved in that. Plus, you lose knowledge,” she says.

Allan Jacobson, a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School in Worcester, agrees. “We’ve put so much into these people and see them as assets,” he says. “Just because they have a bit of a funding problem doesn’t mean you should let them sink. It’s in the department’s interest to keep everybody happy and functional.”

Jacobson, who spent 30 years as chair of the department of microbiology and physiological systems at the Chan Medical School, negotiated funding from the school to develop what he called a rejuvenation programme. If faculty members were struggling to get grants, he would offer them multi-year in-house ‘sabbaticals’, with funding for supplies and technical help, to work with another researcher at the medical school and learn something new that could bolster their own research.

Jacobson says there can be other creative ways to drum up research support. That includes considering whether research that is struggling to get funding might have some commercial potential, and if so turning to the university’s commercialization office, which can sometimes provide “fairly sizeable grants”, he says. That can then be used for the translation of that research into a product. For instance, one researcher in his department whose funding was on the edge had done work which showed promise as a treatment for an eye disease. The department helped him to team up with a researcher in ophthalmology to develop a mouse model for the study, and the commercialization department helped to license the technology.

Funding policies and support structures differ across countries. For example, some researchers at German universities have access to bridge funding. Postdocs whose positions are expiring can apply for funding from the DFG to set up their own groups, through the Emmy Noether Programme. At the University of Potsdam in Germany, applicants to the programme who are waiting for a decision and whose applications look promising can receive up to six months of bridge funds, says Barbara Höhle, a linguist and vice-president for research at the university.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty members in Germany, by contrast, don’t have to look to funding agencies to pay their salaries. They have salaries and a budget guaranteed by the universities, which are publicly funded, and agency funding goes towards the implicit cost of hiring researchers. “It’s more the employees in the projects that can be affected by these gaps,” Höhle says. The downside for aspiring researchers, she says, is that universities don’t have much room to increase the number of faculty members.

Planning helps

Researchers can keep their projects going when their laboratory income drops by planning ahead, Jacobson says. It’s a good idea to apply for several grants with different expiration dates, so that money doesn’t run completely dry. And careful budgeting can allow faculty members to save some of their grant in a rainy-day fund; the NIH allows one-time ‘no-cost extensions’ using unspent funds to complete or phase out a project for up to 12 months. Jacobson has twice had a grant expire with no replacement, and was able to survive for a few months until the next grant came along thanks to both of these strategies, he says. “It’s easy to lose funding,” he says. “Most divisions of the NIH are funding 10–12% of approvable grants. It’s a rough world out there.”

The University of Houston in Texas holds grant-writing workshops for its faculty members, says Claudia Neuhauser, a mathematician and the university’s interim vice-chancellor for research. For those who might be funded by, for example, the NIH, but whose research might also appeal to the grants office at the US Department of Defense, the university introduces them to proposal-writing companies that can provide researchers with insights on how to tailor their grant applications for each agency. “Helping somebody make that transition so they can expand the types of grants they can apply for, that’s obviously important,” she says. The university also provides bridge funding of up to $100,000 that faculty members can apply for if their proposal has received a high enough score from the funding agency, which means there’s a good chance it could win funding after a revision.

“We do push team science at the moment quite strongly because there are many more opportunities where you can apply as a team,” Neuhauser says. Collaborating with other scientists can lead to larger grants that are funded for longer and that often include funding for shared equipment.

Some researchers might think that they can improve their odds of success by making the costs in their proposals as low as possible. Butland cautions against this. Not only might the researchers run out of money sooner that way, but they’re also misleading funding agencies about the true costs of research. “We need to try and not underprice ourselves, which then just feeds that underfunding of the system as well,” she says.

New funding opportunities

There is new hope for UK researchers. After being cut out of the EU’s Horizon Europe funding programme by Brexit, the country rejoined it in January this year. Therefore, UK scientists can once again apply to it and to Copernicus, a component of the EU’s space programme.

Butland worries about the effects of the low success rates. “You can be spending a lot of time putting in a research application and actually never winning anything,” she says. “There is a point at which running a full competitive process doesn’t make any sense. It’s a lot of bureaucracy and burden on people.”

But competitive funding is a fact of life in science, she concedes. So researchers whose grants are nearing an end should try to expand their horizons when it comes to looking for funding sources, Butland says. UK researchers shouldn’t just stick with the research council they’re used to, and scientists in the United states can look to other NIH institutes and even other funding agencies. “Maybe another part of the funding landscape actually would find your work really interesting,” she says. “You just need to think about it a little bit differently, speak a slightly different language, but relate to their challenges and opportunities in a way that maybe you haven’t thought about before.”