In this interview, Dr Sandrine Soubes question Prof. Roger Barker about his approach to seeking research funding and what he has learned over the years as a reviewer of research grant and fellowships applications.
Prof. Roger Barker is a clinician working as Professor of Clinical Neuroscience on Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge. Roger is Honorary Consultant in Neurology at the University of Cambridge and at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He trained at Oxford and London and has been in his current position since 2000, after completing an MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship. He is the Director of the “Pluripotent stem cells and engineered cells” hub of the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform.
Find Roger here: https://www.neuroscience.cam.ac.uk/directory/profile.php?barker
Words of wisdom
· Have clarity of what you really want to do when you start writing for research funding.
· It is easy to let yourself be driven by what you think the funders want to hear and to end up writing applications that are just over-squeezed into the frame of a funder. This is likely to not help your application.
· Being overambitious with a funding application is a mistake often observed. Remember to really ask yourself whether what you are proposing is realistic to achieve.
· Identifying what you really want to do with your research project is incredibly critical as you will need much perseverance and resilience to access research funding.
· Pilot data are there to provide evidence to the reviewers that you can do the work that you are proposing and that the techniques are adequate to answer your research question.
· Your proposal needs a hypothesis (testable and interesting)- that is the research question you want to answer- and some clear aims, which are the approaches you are going to take to answer your question.
· “Simplicity is a wonderful thing”
· You want to aim for:
- Clarity of narrative
- Simplicity of ideas
· Don’t smother your reader with details and technical language.
· Be cautious with over-the-top and exaggerated language when presenting why your project is important.
· Do not attempt to write proposals in a rush; you need to give yourself the time to spot the problems and get plenty feedback from multiple sources.
· Resilience in research funding can be helped by reviewing in depth failed applications through conversations with the research team; critical feedback and panel reviewers may help you develop a much better project than you had originally planned.
· Put yourself in the shoes of the reviewers. You want them to understand quickly and easily what it is that you want to do and what the big question you want to address is.
· If those providing feedback are not critical enough, seek other harsher critics so that their inputs really challenge your thinking about your proposal.
This interview is sponsored by the UKRMP- the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform: https://www.ukrmp.org.uk/hubs/
To discuss this further or to be a guest on the Podcast contact Sandrine: email@example.com
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Episode on website
Dr Sandrine Soubes: Good morning and good afternoon, good evening, everyone. This is Sandrine Soubes on the podcast Research Lives and Cultures. Today, I've got the pleasure of receiving Professor Roger Barker from the University of Cambridge. I've invited him to talk about something very specific that, of course, is of great relevance to anybody in research. It's about research funding. It's one of these really challenging thing that people face throughout their career, and that in a way, makes or breaks research lives really. Before we get into the meat of the topic of accessing research funding, Roger, can you tell us a little bit about your early research life? How did you get started in research?
Professor Roger Barker: Yes. I'm medically qualified, so I essentially followed my clinical training, preclinical, clinical, and I did all the junior jobs which you do in the UK. Then, I elected to do a PhD in Cambridge, which is when I came here in 1991, so many years ago. In those days, it was relatively straightforward. I got a PhD student fellowship, did that, and that, of course, ignited my interest in research. Then after that, I went back and finished my training in neurology and then came back with a further fellowship, and from there I've developed my research interests, which are very clinically orientated.
I have this slightly hybrid life where I'm half a neurologist working on the wards dealing with patients in clinics, and half doing research of which half of that is clinical research. I cover a lot of bases but, originally, I got into research because I was always interested in research and came to it through a PhD and then subsequently a more senior clinical fellowship.
Sandrine: Can you give us a few words about the type of research that you do? I didn't say at the beginning, you work in the Department of Clinical Sciences and, obviously, it covers a great many different topics. What's your specialism?
Roger: I work with around two diseases, really. Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease so two chronic degenerative diseases of the brain, which have some similarities in the areas of the brain they affect, but also have a rather different basis. Parkinson's is largely sporadic late onset. Huntington's genetic, tends to come on earlier in life. So we do a lot of research around clinical aspects of that and trying to understand the different features that people have with these conditions, why people develop different types of Parkinsons, Huntington's disease, what's the basis for that?
Can we understand the mechanisms and therefore target treatments more specifically to subgroups of patients? The area which I'm particularly interested with respect to that is mainly cell therapies. How can we repair the brain by transplanting cells in to replace those that are lost a part of the disease process and reconnect to make circuits and return people back to normal? It's a lot of clinical work around characterization, translation of therapeutics, so we do a lot of trial work, as well as clinical work whilst taking some basic lab work around disease modelling and trying to understand what we see in the clinic in the lab.
Sandrine: Once you had done your PhD, then what was the path that you got into getting your first research project? Because, obviously, for most PhD students, often we get into a PhD, not necessarily having written the research proposal ourself. It's probably different the discipline where students really spend the first year developing the research project and writing a proposal but in the sciences and in biology in particular, often we are handed a project that the academic was working on before and we don't get an opportunity to actually write a project.
At the end of your PhD and, obviously, in your case, having the clinical element is probably different than a lot of your basic postdoctoral researchers. What was the first step for you into starting to access research funding?
Roger: Yes. You're absolutely right. It's slightly different for a clinician because I applied for a fellowship in order to do my PhD because we're quite expensive, so you have to find your own funding to do that. There are very limited routes by which you can do that. But in those days, it was relatively straightforward. You wrote two paragraphs and roughly what you wanted to do. You sent it off. They looked at your CV, they gave you the money, and off you went. There was no interview. There was nothing else. That all changed during the course of my PhD in the subsequent training. By the time I came back to get a further fellowship six years later, it was much harder.
The big problem in the clinical world, which I think is true of all scientific world, is the number of opportunities are relatively small. In the late '90s when I was applying, they were essentially the MRC in the UK and the Welcome Trust, and that was it. You had to get one of those two in order to carry on doing further research because you are quite expensive, because you're heading towards being a consultant in your specialty and there aren't many of them that are handed out every year. I was always at a very early stage empowered, if you like, with writing my own proposals because I had to defend them and had to be interviewed on them.
Now, obviously, they had to be taken in the context where I wanted to work and because I wanted to work on brain repair and cell therapies as we were discussing, in the UK there was almost nowhere that did it outside of Cambridge. Steve Donet and James Fawcett, who were my PhD supervisors in Cambridge were really the people who led the field in it, so it was an obvious place to stay and do that work. The work had to, obviously, marry up with what their programs of research were but it was very much my own project based on what I wanted to take forward. Once you were in that position, obviously, then, one has to get the university position and then you can start applying for grants in a more normal way really.
Sandrine: What do you think was your approach after the PhD? Because there is in a way, a transition from doing the work and if you had already submitted a proposal, but in a way, the transition from the work that you were doing with your PhD supervisor to then writing a research proposal for a fellowship or the type of funding that then become your own work and in a way that set the path for the work that you want to do long term, because obviously they are often challenging conversations in maybe letting part of the project that you were doing during the PhD that kind of belong to the academic to deciding actually, that's really what I want to do and that's really my past, my projects and so on. How did it work like that for you?
Roger: It's a very good question and it's always a tension,. So, obviously, as you're evolving out of your PhD, you have to be faithful to what you've done previously. You can't suddenly change fields. Most people don't suddenly change fields. But, obviously, you then find yourself working an area which is very much associated with your supervisor, and may even be directly competing with your supervisor. From the outside world I was thinking, why on earth would you fund me when my supervisor is much better known and has a much greater history of working it?
Somehow, trying to take what you've learned and channel it and move it into an area where you have ownership, if you like, which is distinct but related to that which we've done with your PhD and also relates to, especially with my fellowship, to the lab in which I'm working. Now, for me, it was a little bit easier in the sense that, as a clinician and my supervisors were not, I have an instant advantage in where I can take the work. But it is very difficult. I struggled with that a lot and I think, to be honest, one struggles more as the student coming through than the supervisor looking down at the student, if you like.
Now that it's the other way round, I don't see these problems necessarily, perhaps, as the PhD students becoming the postdocs and what is going to be their distinct area of research, which is distinct from me. I think that's quite difficult, to be honest. I was fortunate in that I picked an area which was a bit on the periphery of where my supervisor really wanted to work, but related to it so I could take that forward. Then, actually, my supervisor moved from Cambridge to Cardiff. Steve Dunik moved there which then, of course, left me with the advantage in some ways that I now had the place to myself because there was no one there working on it.
I was the person working in that area. The downside of that was, I was suddenly exposed on a funding front because, obviously, being attached to a well-funded big group gives you a degree of security and suddenly when you're on your own you may have freedom to develop your own ideas and your own independence but you're faced by the reality of where is that money going to come from to support it, as you were saying right at the beginning.
Sandrine: In your case, what was your approach to the writing your first independent research project? Again, I think that often, people look at the big funders and it's a bit scary to get started. How did you go about it in a way, from developing the idea and to actually deciding what funding you are going to go for in these early years of accessing research funding?
Roger: Yes. It was a bit difficult in some ways because there's, obviously, a limited number of sources you can go to and each of them have their own particular bias on what they want to see. The very first grant I ever wrote during my intermediate fellowship, that was an MLC grant which I got, so the first grant ever wrote I got and I thought, "Well, this is obviously not as difficult as people tell me." It was for an integrated and it was quite ambitious. I then wrote another 17 grants before I got the next one.
Sandrine: Oh, wow.
Roger: The one thing I learned was that you need to be very patient and you need to persevere. I think part of the problem was, I wrote a lot and didn't get anywhere. I was unclear in my own mind exactly what it was that I really wanted to study, and I was very heavily influenced by two things, really. One was by looking at the funders and thinking what they would like to see. So I slightly angled my proposal, which is reasonable, but to the point where actually it's not something that they would associate with me.
I think I was also, which is a tendency, I think, for all people when they start to be super ambitious about what they can achieve and hope to achieve. If it's not super ambitious, you think the funders won't be interested in it. So I think this lack of clarity in my own mind about what I really wanted to study, was it what was realistic to achieve, I think were two big problems early on. Once I decided that I actually, really, what I was particularly interested in, especially at that stage was characterizing subtypes of Parkinson's disease, trying to understand the basis for that, and then marry up treatments to that.
That's the key goal rather than I'm quite interested in this and I'm quite interested in that model. It just ran all over the place really. So I think it was understanding what I really wanted to do because once you've got that you will get funding. You just have to persevere and eventually you'll get something and be grateful for everything you get and then build on that really.
Sandrine: The one element that you touched upon here, which is a really hard one, you may have an idea of a project that you want to do and in a way, a lack of clarity of who will be prepared to fund it, matching between your idea of what you think is important and at the same time, the agenda of the funders and it needs to be aligned. But from what you were saying earlier is that you were trying to align it to much or you were too driven by what they wanted and not, I don't know, developing your own thinking about where you wanted to go. Is that what you're saying?
Roger: Yes. Well, when people make calls and then I'll say, so the current climate, for example, it would be how does COVID-19 impact on [unintelligible 00:11:49]? So [unintelligible 00:11:50] that is my research. I'm fascinated by COVID-19 and [unintelligible 00:11:53], which I'm not particularly. So I would then write a proposal which would be in the area which I know about but I would try and bring in elements which I'm not-- I would try and change things which I think would fit in with calls that people were making and also, what other people had told me that they really wanted. I think these were issues.
I suppose where I was really exposed on this is this idea of pilot data, which was a bit of a novelty. So, of course, I had had the experience that I wrote two paragraphs on just what I thought about brain repair centered or forgot my first PhD thesis. There wasn't any experiments in it. It was just a few ideas. Then the second one had to be a bit more structured around ideas, but this idea that you had to have pilot data, which is critical and the fact that you therefore felt that I could twist my project to your call, I could spin it in a way that you would like to see it. But, obviously, I didn't have any data in that. You just have to take my word for it I could do it and I know about it.
So, so I think that was a mistake that I made was, I think, paying too much attention to what other people said you needed to definitely put in your grant. Therefore the deficiencies, which result from that were obvious. I would not have funded those 17 grants. I may have found the bits of it, but not all of it. That, and that was also, I found, the other thing frustrating was the absence of an iterative process. The binary outcomes of grants has always been something I've struggled with rather than, "You've put in three experiments, Roger, one is a complete non-starter, one is fantastic, and one we're not sure about, so they've come back with one or two experiment and we will fund it."
That to me is a much more better way of doing s[unintelligible 00:13:35] and funding people. But, sadly, it's really how most people operate. I think that was a problem really. I think also that there were very limited sources. I think there's more nowadays, although in the UK now, we're not quite sure what our position is within the EU. It makes it difficult, but EU funding was a great opportunity to link up to other people and to do more work, which I've been a great beneficiary of over the last two decades.
Sandrine: One of the things you mentioned is pilot data and that's something that comes up a lot in conversation that I've had with postdocs and research fellows. People always ask how much pilot data do I need in this application. From your experience of reviewing a lot of grants, what is really needed and what is really the role that the pilot data needs to serve, because you could be doing the entire research of the project and everything is the pilot data.
At the same time, a great challenge that postdocs have is that they need to negotiate probably with their PI access to resources to develop the pilot data. So there is a lot of negotiation going on. As a reviewer, when you're looking at a fellowship or at grants, what do you really want to see?
Roger: Yes, it's a very good point. NIH, they always used to say that your pilot data was, basically, the entire grant. So you were writing your grant for all the data you'd already got. Therefore, when you could predict what might go wrong with the experiments, you could predict it with absolute certainty and how'd you deal with it because you'd already done it. I think for me it, obviously, depends on what level you're reviewing grants. But if we're talking about the postdoc level, I think the key thing is to have confidence that the person putting the application understands the technique and the technologies.
There is a tendency to just throw in the things which are around. So I'll do single cell transcript teaming, and you'll say, "Great, but you've never done it. I can't see where your bio informatics pipeline is. So whilst it's an obvious technique to use, I'm not entirely convinced that you can do it. So how is that going to be done?" Or if someone's come up with a new way of gene editing, and you'll say, "In theory, it sounds fantastic, but is there any evidence you can actually get this to work and edit the gene you're interested in?" I think key bits of evidence or key bits of data, which make it feasible for you to do the work is important.
So it's normally critical bits of data, which make the hypothesis likely to be worth pursuing and technical bits of data, which give you confidence that the technologies can be done, but not everything. Because then, of course, if you put everything in people will just say, "You've already done it, so you don't need funding for it."
If you're using a lot of data you've already published, then people will say, "Well, it's not really adventurous enough, this research. It's pretty much more of the same and just tidying up what you've already done." So it is difficult, but I think for me, those are the critical issues which I like to see in an application. Evidence that the hypothesis is likely to be correct, or at least testable and interesting, and that you can actually technically do it, or if you can't someone who can.
Sandrine: This element of negotiating with your PI to be given the time to work on the side projects that could contribute to a fellowship. I remember a really terrible story of a postdoc who was trying to develop some pilot data for a fellowship, then his PI put the pilot data in his on grant. The post-doc was just really, really upset. I don't know what then eventually happened with the relationship. I don't know whether they had not discussed it beforehand. I don't know all of the details, but I know there was a lot of anxiety and frustration. How do you negotiate that with your own postdocs or which advice would you give in term of having this conversation early on?
Roger: It's very important to have the conversation. That's the first thing to say. I think it's, obviously, very individual specific. So, obviously, PIs run things in different ways and have different views on what is the success. So for me, my own view has always been the success of the research you do is not just what you produce, but what everyone who's in, the lab has produced and gone on to do. If someone is successful following leaving the lab, I can think of nothing better than that. So it's not that I feel they're competing with me and that they've taken things that I wish I'd done. It's terrific that they they've become independent and done their own work. So I think that's important.
It's also very dependent where people are in their careers as well. This is always a difficult one. If you're a postdoc, do I go to a lab where there's a relatively young, new PI, who's got lots of energy, lots of ideas? You probably you'll get to know your PI very well. Because you're in a small lab, you're fighting together to survive and do the work. The problem then is one of funding as we've discussed, but also he or she needs those papers as much as you do. So then the tension between the postdoc forging their own way and the PI is slightly more difficult. Whereas in a big lab, well-established old PI, they don't need the publications as much.
They have the papers, but you probably have less interactions. So it's always a bit of a tension. I think my view is that it makes people who are successful-- If I look around all the people, for example, in my local environment in Cambridge, you've been very successful postdocs and now group leaders. What they've all managed to do is work in labs which have been very much at the cutting edge and they've taken a project and they've taken ownership of it and both the PI and the postdoc have had equal recognition. I think that's the skill is to say, "Well, Sandra, you've developed this fantastic technology to answer these questions about brain development. You're the person that drove it in the lab. You're the person they will come to you for the technical issues."
It was my lab in which we have the ideas on this is how we could do it. So I'm credited with the fact this is part of a string of discoveries we've made over the years about how we approach the problem. So it's trying to get that moving in the direction where you [unintelligible 00:20:05] with your fellowship, whilst the PI can say, "Well, it's within my lab. I can still use it and we'll go in slightly different ways with that project." But it is such a personal thing. That's always the tension really. There are some people who are more generous in this area than others but it is a bit dependent on where everybody is in their careers and just how important that discovery or that technology or technique is.
Sandrine: If you reflect on many years of writing grants, how do you think that you've changed the way that you are writing them now?
Roger: I suppose what I've learned is I will only apply for things that I want to do, based on my early experiences. If there is a call that comes out in an area which I could in theory apply for, I will not apply for it if I'm not fundamentally interested in it. That in the past has led me to resign from various big grants and send money back because I realized I'd made a mistake entering into something which was a distraction from what I wanted to do. I tend to write grants on the things which I'm interested in and want to take forward myself. If I have an idea on what we want to do, I will go looking to find the source that will fund what I want to do. That's the first thing I do.
I've become much more proactive and direct in my own research and finding the funding rather than looking around and responding to calls. That, of course, comes with having a degree of security and funding which is there. I think the second thing which I've learned about writing grants over the years and this is also true of reviewing them, simplicity is a wonderful thing. I think the very best grants which I've reviewed are in areas which I know relatively little about. You read the hypothesis, the aims, the introductory paragraph and you think, "Got it, understand this, fabulous, never thought about this with [unintelligible 00:22:00] but I've got it. It's a very clear hypothesis. It's a very clever idea."
I can see how you can do it. If I'm writing it, I have to make sure that I will know those technical details or work with people who do. I think simplicity on what you write and not overloading grants which I think is what one tends to do. I also seek a huge amount of feedback on those grant applications so that I'll get lots of people to read it and I want people to be very critical.
I think one of the problems early on was if I wasn't quite sure about something, I'd write it and say, "It's fine. It dealt with it. If no one asks we're fine." But actually as a reviewer, you'll instantly spot the bits where you think this is all a bit fluffy. They don't really know what they're talking about here. People being very critical of what we write and doing various iterations and preparing a long time in advance, I think is important.
Sandrine: How long does it tend to take you from an idea that you have to actually sending the grants? It's very hard to give an answer but in your case from saying, "Okay, I'd quite like to do something about this." How long can it take you?
Roger: What it will take, I would've thought the earliest you can do anything is six months and some have taken several years. It, obviously, depends on what your ambition is and what you're trying to do. For example, we undertook a transplant trial in the park disease with fetal dopamine cells which was funded by the European Union in 2009 and started in 2010. We began the discussions on how to do that in 2006 and we went through two reviews with other grants bodies which we didn't get. We learned from that. That took three or four years for that one.
Other ones, often for a fellowship it will take at least six months, I think, to write it because I think giving yourself plenty of time to spot the problems then coming back to an earlier point, spotting key bits of information that you thought you had but you don't actually have is very important. I think it's at least six months because most people never really realize most grants are rejected. Most papers are rejected. People always feel very upset when their grants are turned down.
The vast majority of papers are rejected. They are recycled. It would be very unusual to write a grant and said, "Well, unless they said the idea was terrible, the data was terrible and the whole thing which ones never had," but you would look at it and say, okay, it didn't get funded there. What is it they liked? What did they not like? How can I now modify what I've written so I can take it through? Grants then can take quite a time to write because, obviously, you're changing it as you go.
Sandrine: That's an important point because once you've had a grants rejected and you may have already invested many months, then how do you build the resilience to go back at it and in a way review it and change it and redraft it? The ideas that you put in them are things that you want the answer. You're very unlikely to want to let go. What is your own approach from receiving a negative response and probably feeling really miserable and frustrated and angry to actually regaining the energy to work on it again in a different way and reshape it and redraft it? What's your actual process?
Well, I think it comes back to something I said earlier which is that you have to believe in what you're doing. If you're a bit half-hearted about [unintelligible 00:25:35] I'd be quite interested in that rejection, you'll think, "Well, forget it." You have to be motivated to do it and you're actually right. Your first response when you get it is outrage, how could any one turn this down? Then it becomes anger that the reviewers' comments are just ridiculous. I can't believe anyone's written this. Then you just have to take a bit of time to reflect on it and think in this there will be some useful information which we can build into it. Now, that's not to say all the criticism you get is useful.
Sometimes people do write things which are seemly unhelpful either about yourself personally which I've had, about the whole field which you can't change. If they don't believe in the field, they don't believe in the field. There's nothing I can do to change that. Normally there are helpful comments which will enable you to go back and look at the grant and say, "How can I modify it based on these comments and take it forward?" Now, it may be the comments are such that you think, "I cannot realistically answer these," and they're good points.
"I think I'm going to have to let this project go." We had one where we were trying to develop new ligands for looking at things in the brain, delivering them through a rabies virus [inaudible 00:26:47] delivery system. There was a very technical question and I spoke to people in chemistry, spoke to people in radiochemistry. I don't think we can answer.
We could answer them if we had a lot of money but we don't have the money to do it. We're a bit in a catch 22 situation. I think you have to, if there's any state, well, actually this is what I want to do. Let me think about it and modify it.
Recently we had a grant for a small trial [unintelligible 00:27:09] which I thought was the perfect example of how a grant should go. We put in the grant and we originally put a letter of intent. We put in a full grant through one funding agency. We got completely slaughtered with the full grant. Even though we were told this was one of the best grants they'd seen in the letter of intent, they completely took us to pieces. Now, probably three-quarters of that information was because they didn't like the field but within it, there were some good points. We rewrote it. We sent it to another source. They came back with further comments. We rewrote it. We had further comments.
We rewrote it and now we're funding and we're ready to go. The study we will now do is infinitely better than the one we began with. That is to me, how it should be, how it should work. But it's terribly easy to get demoralized or to become very defensive. When you become very defensive, you can come quite arrogant and say, "They don't know what they're talking about. I do. I'm just going to keep writing the same thing." This is a very natural thing. I've had it with Ph.D students and postdocs in my group, mainly with papers. They'll say, "I'm just going to send it somewhere else," and I say, "yes, but you're going to get the same comments." They'll say, "No, they're just stupid these people."
You'll say, "Yes, but everybody else says the opposite. We're saying this. You're going to have to have a bit more evidence or at least be a bit conciliatory that the findings may not be quite as we interpret them." Resilience is very important I think in the world of research. I often say this to people, "Because the people who are very successful, you will only see their successes." [unintelligible 00:28:40] IPS, everyone will know his papers. You won't know how many papers he got rejected before that.
You don't know how many papers he's got rejected after that and which grants he's put in and hasn't got. It's more than likely you'll get them now post Nobel Prize. But I know lots of people who are very established, very well-known scientists who've had papers rejected and grants rejected. It's important to remember everybody still has it and it still hurts. Even if you've done it for 20, 30, 40 years, getting rejection is never a nice thing but trying to not take it too personally, stand back from it, review it, and think I really want to do this. How can I do it and how can I make it better?
Sandrine: In practical terms, what do you do to build this resilience? Some people will say, "Well, you just get on with it," but is there something that you do? I don't know. Letting go a couple of months before you look at it again. In your own experience, what works for you to have, again, regain the energy to look at it again?
Roger: I think for me, it's other people. I'm a great believer in working in teams and I think science, one of the big changes in science in my lifetime has been from the individual in the lab to consorting into groups of people because the technologies have moved so fast and they're so complicated, people just can't do it.
So for me, what I really like to do with such grants is to reflect on the comments with the people who've been involved with it because I would never put in a grant [unintelligible 00:30:18] even for a fellowship, which I don't do obviously nowadays, but I went for an ELC grant which I didn't get, but that was my personal [unintelligible 00:30:25]. Again, it's built on a team of people working. I like to sit down with the team and all those most involved with it and reflect. Part of it is just venting, so we will just complain, get that out of our system and then you critically engage with the comments and say, where can we go next, how can we do this?
Resilience becomes, as I say, it never goes away, but you get better at it the more you have, and all of us have had a lot. I think that's the way I cope with it. I don't put it in a drawer and forget about it. I think I want to get on with this. Let me get together the people who have been involved with it, let's reflect on it and then let's find out where we can go next. Now, sometimes it may need several months because with funding calls you can't go back, but there's an actual gap between them.
Sandrine: That's really interesting because it's using the energy of the group and the dynamic of this interaction to re-boost your energy, to go back to the drawing table and rethink a project. One of the questions that I have is about your own approach as a reviewer. When you're asked to be a reviewer, obviously it's something that's not paid, it's often seen as something of a prestige in the career of academics.
You've been invited to be a reviewer for other grants. At the same time it takes away a lot of time from your own day-to-day job. Can you tell us a little bit so that for the research or the early career researchers who are still starting on their journey, what it's really like to be in the shoes of a reviewer. What does it feel like in practice? Do you do your reviewing very late at night when you've had your work day when you're in the hospital and in the lab and do you do it with a glass of wine? What's in practice the reality of being a reviewer?
Roger: You're absolutely right. What you should say is, of course, I get up first thing in the morning and I do nothing else but review one grant a day and spend eight hours on it with nothing to distract me, emails, a drink, anything like that. The reality is that people often have to fit their reviewing in around the other activities they're doing. It's probably fair to say people might not necessarily give the attention to the reviewing process, which they should do. It obviously varies from individual to individual. I chaired an ERC committee, European Research Council Committee on Fellowships. I was terribly impressed by the level of attention that people gave the reviewing process there.
That for me is something one should aspire to do. The difficulty I would say with reviewing is if you've got one or two to do, it's relatively easy. If you're part of a review panel and you have as I did for the ERC 130, that is a lot of reviewing. It's terribly hard to take each grant on its own merit because if you're 129th, you're probably going to do quite well because you're getting towards the end. If you're 65, it's a bit difficult. One, you might be quite critical because it's the first one. So you have to counter against that as a reviewer but people that have their grants reviewed need to bear in mind where people are looking at it. That then I think comes back a bit to how you write grants.
The things which are very attractive, and this is true of exam essays and papers and everything you ever submit, is if you imagine what it's like on the other side, that the person wants, you need to grab the person's attention, tell them what you're going to do and tell them how you're going to do it and have that up front so when they've got tired, they've got what it's about. For me, that's very important when I'm reviewing, that it's very clear. If I have to keep going back and reading and reading and trying to dig down on things, you're instantly irritated by the grant.
Similarly it's little things like hugely dense text with thumbnail figures which you can't read. It just overwhelms you and and it's very hard to keep your attention with it. For me, I try and read the grant and I would say, "What is it you want to do? What's the big question here? How are you going to do it?" I try and limit the amount of reviewing I do if I've got a lot of grants due, because I know that I will start to lose my attention after I've done a certain number. As the years have gone by, I've tried to actually carve out time for it. I've got a massive review exercise this year for the so-called REF in the UK. I'm part of one their committees. So that's a huge amount of reviewing.
I have put days aside every week where I would do nothing but review. The reality is most people's grants will be read on planes, in the evenings when there's a few moments in the lab. But good reviewers if you get a good review, it's fantastic. I think people are generally much more attentive to it now than they used to be. I think as a chairman of a review committee, the problem that people run into when they're reviewing is they're often scared of being critical. They simply write a long review as people get their papers, which is essentially just a summary of the paper or the grant, though he doesn't really engage with it.
I always think a good way to review grants is what are the good things about this grant and what are the problems with it. I think when you're writing a grant, get people to review it and say what is good about this grant and what is bad about it, and don't be afraid of being critical about it. I had someone a few years ago who came to see me about applying for a fairly senior fellowship in the ERC and I said, "You just won't get it," and they said, "You're the first person who's told me that. That seems a bit unfair."
I said, "Well, I'm not being unfair. I'm just being honest here. I'll tell you why. Your application, these are the issues with it and your CV simply isn't strong. If you really want to apply for this, it's not for me to tell you not to apply for it. This is what you're going to need on your CV, and this is what you're going to need on your application to make this fly." I think it's an unfair process for the reasons that we've discussed and I can't see how you get it better.
Sandrine: When you read a grant, what totally puts you off? You mentioned a couple of things earlier, but if you're faced with a manuscript where there is really some sense that, "I'm not even going to bother with this one anymore."
Roger: The hypothesis is very vague, the language is full of hyperbole. It's completely over the top. However many time I read the aims, I can't actually see what it is they're going to do. One of the problems I think is that what the aims are, is often the hypothesis. Whereas I was thinking hypothesis is what is the theory you are trying to test? What is the actual question you're asking yourself? The aims are how will I actually answer that question? If you're just paraphrasing your ideas, it's not very helpful. That to me is a real big turnoff and then I think for me, the other thing, which is very important is, why is that important?
There's lots of questions I can ask and there are ways to approach it. That I think is this thing about hyperbole. If you say, "If I understood exactly how the presynaptic membrane was formed in the CA3 subfield, this will solve Alzheimer's disease." Give us a break. It obviously could contribute, but that's just a ridiculous statement but there is a tendency for people to write that because there is a tendency for people to say, what's the clinical relevance of your work. A much more sensible thing would say, "This will tell us how synapses form. Obviously synaptic pathology is a part of many disorders and it becomes, it could be Alzheimer's disease.
This may in some way, inform us about synaptic pathology and diseases. If we understood that it may lead to new therapies. You might not know what those new therapies, but you might not need to know that, but I've understood it. The presentation, as I say, I think if it's very dense text with lots of pictures, that is with lots of tiny pictures and connectograms with everything connected and that's sort of thing, or very technical early on. Again, if your opening paragraph is full of technical language, that is I think a problem.
It's something I had a long chat to my postdoc, I remember, back when he was putting in a fellowship was, he said, "I need to put all this detail," and I say [unintelligible 00:38:40]. He said, "But suppose so-and-so read it, who's a great expert in the field." I said, "If the great expert in the field reads it they'll know you, so they'll notice." But the highest probability is that, it's somebody who knows nothing about this field, who's going to read it or vaguely knows about it. If you start going into very detailed technical language about how you would analyze EGs, you've completely lost them. Then I can't see the wood for the trees here. I can't see where you're going.
I think clarity and simplicity, it's amazing really. There's a grant many years ago where the idea wasn't anything I worked on. It was glial biology, but the idea was so simple, and you think, "That is such a simple idea. Of course, there would be an expert who would know whether it was so simple that it was worth asking because it'd already been solved, but it was just something. I can see that. I could stop a man in the street and ask him that question, and he would be interested in it. Simplicity of ideas and clarity of the narrative around it's very important.
Sandrine: I guess for many early career researchers, if they write in a way that's quite simple, maybe scared that they not sounding professional enough knowledgeable enough. You see that in research presentation, it's the same way people try to dump everything instead of really taking you on a journey of understanding. It's [unintelligible 00:40:05]. It's the same.
Roger: I always say, people want to hear a story. When people stand up and say, "I stained for protein X, and I found it in my cells, I found it just [unintelligible 00:40:15] the brain. Then I did this control without the primary. Then I used this antibody and used this and this, and then I did a blot and then I did--" and he said, "We'll take it that it's there." Okay? For a paper, you may need to put that detail in and for a grant, you may just need to say, "We verified it using X, Y, and Z," but people like stories. They like to know where they're going. It's also then flatters that reviewer because he says, "Oh yes, yes. Now I like this. I've understood this."
So they feel that they've understood the story and somehow they've contributed to it. I agree with you completely. I think taking people somewhere without smothering them with detail is what they want. When you start, that's the problem. Because when I started that was it. You think, "No one's going to believe that I stained this and found a dopamine neuron in these three-dimensional cultures we've made." I'm going to have to tell you all the things I've done to [unintelligible 00:41:05] are definitely there. They're not interested.
Sandrine: One of the things that you mentioned earlier was that most of the research now is done as teams, or the term people use is team science through collaboration. Can you take us through the way you go about developing a research grant in collaboration with others, either as you being the principal investigator or as a co-investigator, what do you try to do in a way to make it work well so that the process of the writing is enjoyable and actually gets there in a timely fashion.
Roger: Yes, the first thing I would say about working as teams is I think they're much more efficient. Secondly, coming back to the point we made it earlier. If you're rejected and it's spread across a team, it's much less personal than when it's you. For your own psyche, it's quite good. I suppose for me, it comes back to some points I've made earlier. First of all, if I have something I want to do, I will look around and say, who are the people who can help me do this? Don't have forced marriages.
This sometimes happens, for example, with European grants where you're trying to run a consortium and people say, "You need this type of country. You need this type of sense. You need this type of investigator," and you think, "Yes, but there's no one that works in our area. It would look so artificial and it wouldn't work and it would be disruptive." I think you need to look around for the groups that you think will work with you on the project you want to do.
Obviously, for people that's a huge help because working with people that you already know, it makes the whole process much easier and also it's much more efficient, I would say. But then the critical thing, especially when you're an early-stage researcher is comes back to a point we said about supervisors and PIs and [unintelligible 00:42:52] and Ph.D. students is if you're part of a big consortia how can I have an identity with that? So how is it that I will know that I've contributed this rather, I'm just part of this massive European consortium on [unintelligible 00:43:05]. It's very important, I think, for each group to bring their own expertise to solve a problem.
So, for example, we do cell therapies and proxies, as I said at the beginning, and I don't make cell therapies. That's not what I do, but I've always had a passion for repairing the brain. There are groups that do it, particularly a fabulous group in London, Sweden, Marlin Palmer, and such like, so go and work with them. They have a fantastic complementarity where each will have their own identity. You can't do it without the other, and suddenly you start to, it starts [unintelligible 00:43:39] and from that other things will come.
Then you think, "Well, actually we're more interested in looking at subtypes of disease, which is where we can model it with cells, which isn't really the same as transplanting in, but actually now we can use the same [unintelligible 00:43:49] and that will bring in other people who then say, "Well, actually we need people who understand transcript timing. We better bring in some people to work on that." You build a network, I think, through the questions you want to answer as they evolve and then don't get forced into things which would seem to marry together very well. Now I think in Europe, we're very good at this. I think within the UK, we're very good with it. I think it's less treated in the States.
I think where people are much more lab orientated than these big collaborative networks. That's how I tend to do it. I tend to see who it is that I can work with both on a personal level and a scientific clinical level without us getting in each other's way with a clear identity and then try to make sure people in the team have a very clear role within it, rather than just part of this massive consortium.
That I think is how we did it. It's probably different in different sciences, I'm sure in some of the more basic physics and such like where there's these whole teams trying to find some funny subatomic particle. I don't know how you have an identity within that and probably the truth is no one has an identity because everyone contributes something to the final paper. That's how I try and do it, bringing people together around that. Then once you've done that, make sure you don't relax at that point. You have to work on it.
Sandrine: That's an important point because in some ways on some of these big grants, you may bring in a contributor, a collaborator that you've actually never worked with that you just know are an expert of something, but you haven't actually necessarily interacted with or you have necessarily met. Based on what they've published before, based on their expertise you think that they may be able to bring something to the project. What is it that you do to make it really work?
Roger: Well, it doesn't always really work. I would say that's the first thing to say. You have to accept the fact that sometimes these well-intentioned collaborations don't work because people have very different expectations. People aren't quite as transparent as they say, you don't have the level of communication. I think the key is communication. I think trying to keep people on the same page, regular meetings, talking to them about where you're going, what have they discovered, sharing things, and trusting the other person.
That's the key thing. Like any relationship, if you suddenly discover that you're working with someone and they've published something that you thought you were a part of, but you're not, you instantly reevaluate everything that you've done and think what were you doing this for. It didn't bother me particularly at a personal level, but you think this is just not something that I would encourage or support really. I think trying to keep people on board is by being very inclusive and very transparent in what you're doing, I think, and that is easier for some people than others.
Sandrine: One of one of the topic I'm really interested in is how you can work well with early career researchers when they are at the stage of wanting to write an application. You may be working with a postdoc who is really on the threshold of wanting their own independent funding. In a way, they are trying to figure out who they should be working with and often they maybe advised to go and work with somebody else within their PI. Then if you are approached yourself by your postdoc who said you will be a good host for a fellowship, what advice would you give to this postdoc in term of developing a project and working with you so that a fellowship application can be put forward?
Because in a way there is an expectation that it's the idea they're writing the project. Often there is a misunderstanding about what research independence is about. Writing a fellowship doesn't mean that you're going to write the worst thing all by yourself, and nobody's going to look at it. But as a PI, what really matters when you are being approached by your postdoc like that?
Roger: I think the first thing I would ask is is the project actually something we can do? Especially when you're starting with your career, because if anyone comes to want to do a Ph.D. or a postdoc with you, you are totally flattered [unintelligible 00:48:04]. So you'll just say, "Yes, come, come come." I always say to these to people we do applied science. If you want to know what fundamental goes wrong [unintelligible 00:48:13] then that's what your fellowship is on. Or you want to understand different [unintelligible 00:48:17] of STEM cells into X, Y, and Z. However much you want to work with me, this will not happen because it's just not what we do. We wouldn't be able to support you and help you.
It's very important I think for the person coming to you to understand how their project will fit in with what your lab can offer in support. That's the first thing. Secondly, you could say, "Well, actually that is an interesting avenue. It's not something I [unintelligible 00:48:40] developing say a new model of proxies. Well, I know a lot about that. I might not be the most expert person on sonic [unintelligible 00:48:45], but I know people who can. So I can work with you and somebody else to do this. I think it's making sure that the project is consistent with what you can do and what you can help support. Then it's also important to me to understand what it is that they would like to do. Ultimately, where would you like to go with your career?
What questions do you want to answer? How do you want to answer them? Are we a good fit in a more conceptual level? A lot of people will come to me, for example, because they like the lab clinic interface. They'll say, "I want to come and study multiples of disease. You've got all the patients and you have all the clinical side of things. I can learn a lot from that and you're not a basic biologist or cell biologist, but you probably can link me up with people that can study the cells in that level and you think, "Yes, that's fine. Then what you want to do?" "I want to set up my own lab on disease modeling." "Well, that's terrific. It's very competitive area."
You'll have to think how you can distinguish yourself from all the other groups that are out there, but that would be something where I could see that on your CV, working in our lab would be seen as an advantage because of what we do. That's what I tend to do when people come to me, is I try and help them as much as I can then that becomes quite obvious when they come forward if they're writing a fellowship, "So this is what I want to fellowship," and I look at it and think, "I don't really know what you're talking," about because if I have no understanding of what it is you're talking about, I'm the wrong person for it.
Sandrine: One thing that you just said, actually, this also for people to have a sense of the direction that they want to travel because in a way the fellowship is just one stage. As you put a lot of fellowship application that one of the key questions, where do you intend to take your research? What will be the big umbrella of what you want to do in science instead of just this one project that the fellowship is about? Do you think that people think enough about the umbrella of where they want to take their research?
Roger: It's a difficult one really. I suppose two things I would say to that, one is I think people think when they start, I always remember this myself from research, you put in a fellowship application, you get it and you think, "That's it. I've got no other ideas. I'm completely finished. When this is finished, I'm finished because I've got not another single idea in my head. Everything's on that grant." Then, of course, what you realize is as you go along and start doing the work, other questions emerge out of the work that you're doing. I think the first thing to say is that you're not quite sure what direction your work will take.
Don't be too focused on exactly where the end will be. But you do need to have some idea about what field you ultimately will see yourself in. I don't think you need to be absolute, "I'm going to study the subunit of this glutamate receptor and that is it." But I do think you need to say, "Well, actually I'm going to be a receptor neuroscientist or pharmacologist or something. That's what I want to do." Or, "I'm very interested in modeling disease. That's roughly what I want to do." I'm not quite sure what disease and I'm not quite sure what models. But I think having some idea of where you want to go because it doesn't work I think if you're not quite sure. Of course, some people are genuinely undifferentiated.
They say, I want to come and spend a couple of years with you because I want to see what clinical research is about. so I can at least add a flavor of that to decide whether it's what I want to do. I have one patient who came for that very reason because they were very good in the lab, wanted a bit of clinical exposure and now they've gone back to the lab but they understand the clinical science. Actually, they're probably much more useful to the clinical people they interact with.
I think if you have no idea and you get a bit of this, I think with people coming to me because they'll say, "Well, I'm interested in brain diseases. I'm interested in STEM cells. I'm interested in regenerative medicine. It'd be great to work with you," and you say, "But, what are you going to be?" They'll say, "I think I'll do regenerative medicine." You think, "Well, I have no idea what that means really," and you may not know. That's fine. But ultimately I have to try and help you go to where you want to go next. If you don't know where you want to go, it's very hard for me to help you do that.
Sandrine: One of the things I like to ask academics about the grants that they've most cherish, the one that was the hardest to get or the one that you were the most excited about. If you think of all your years in science, what is the grant that really is the one that you say, "Okay, that was the one."?
Roger: Well, I think the most important grant I would say that I ever got was that big European grant on the transplant trial in Parkinson's disease because that was a lot of money and it was at a point when the field was essentially dead. Whilst transplant's been taking place since the '80s by the turn of the century, it seemed as though it had its day and we'd spend three years trying to get funding for it. I think if we hadn't got that European grant, I don't think we would've got the money. We wouldn't have started transplanting patients. We wouldn't have resurrected that field. I think we probably still would have STEM cell-derived dopamine cells but we would not be where we are now if we hadn't got that.
To me, that was most important because it launched a whole field that people had seen as being dead. I have to thank the funders for that because they took a bit of a risk with that because, in the climate of the time, it was seen to be not something worth investing in. They took that. That's the grant which has been the most important to me. I think the grants I've struggled with most, that was a big struggle but one of the big struggles that I had early on was trying to convince people to invest in us long-term to study natural history of disease.
The question we were asking which was not really a question, it was more of an observation, it was I want to collect everyone with park disease, follow them forever, and just see where they end up and follow their path. I don't say there are three [unintelligible 00:54:44] three times, eight times. I just want to do a natural history study and that will need funding for 20 years. I got someone and they got a fellowship to start and they finished their fellowship. The patients are now three years into the study. I have to find some more money which I did for the next three years but I have to slightly change it because everyone says, "Well, we've already done that."
That was a project which I believe passionately in. I was very junior when we started with it. It proved to be, I think, very successful. It's probably the most cited work we've done but it was incredibly hard to get it funded and it was very hard to get people to invest long term in a project where the rewards were clearly going to be not really in the first three years but 10 years out.
Sandrine: It reminds me of an academic from the University of Sheffield who studies a bird. I can't remember the name of the bird, a bird population in the British Isles. That wanted to study these birds over many, many years and also had a great challenge of accessing the funding over a long period of time, launching into those studies is a great challenge.
Roger: It's also like trying to answer something [unintelligible 00:56:06]. There's always this great story. [unintelligible 00:56:08] not but there was a Fred Sanger at the LMB. The whole center was reviewed in the mid-'70s and the director was asked, what is this chap Fred Sanger doing because he doesn't seem to publish very much at all really? They said, "Oh, he thinks he can sequence DNA and it's costing us quite a lot of money in restriction enzymes," and this and this and this. There was a great discussion about because has he been doing it for so long?
Was this really worthwhile because he'd already received quite a bit of money and it didn't seem to go anywhere and, of course, they said, "Oh, well, he's nearly retiring. He's won a Nobel Prize. We'll just say yes," and, of course, he then published his paper on DNA sequencing three years later. As far as I know, it's one of the most cited papers in the world. I don't how many times it's been cited, 70,000 or 80,000 times. I remember when he died, I think Sydney Brenner had written something in science saying he would not get funded nowadays.
I think this long-term funding for either a natural history project, as you were describing or we're describing or really tackling a fundamental question for which technologies and techniques don't exist. It's going to take you a long time to find it. I think that the grants now. As I say, I'm not a fundamental biologist. There would never be a question like that which I would need 20 years of investment in. But natural history, even at transplant studies, the cells take three, five, 10 years before the [unintelligible 00:57:26] have a benefit. Trying to get people to see long-term with the funding. I understand why they're reluctant to do it but that is a real challenge, I think.
Sandrine: To finish up, one of the questions I like to ask you is what advice would you give to your young self?
Roger: [laughs] What would I say to myself if I went back 25 years? I think I would come back to something I said earlier really. I think I wish I had been more focused on what it was I fundamentally wanted to do in research, confidence in that. Then probably be a bit more, not that I was not collegiate but probably be more collaborative in the areas which I couldn't personally contribute in because I think there was a sense that I needed money from anywhere. I had to stand on my own two feet and I had to be able to do everything myself. I think those were all mistakes really.
Sandrine: This is good advice really.
Roger: I think linked to that is knowing what you can do. What is your unique selling point? What is it people would like to do research with you for? I think once you've understood that- I always say I'll never be a basic biologist. I'm not a pure clinical researcher. You sit somewhere between the two and that's a nice place to be. I enjoy having conversations with both groups but I know what I'm not and that's I think very important for researchers, not only to know what they are but what they definitely are not.
Sandrine: All right, well, Roger, we are going to finish our discussion. It's been really a pleasure meeting you and I hope that we have other opportunities to have conversations through the network that you lead. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and your words of wisdom. Thank you.
Roger: Well, thank you very much. It's been very enjoyable. You led the discussion beautifully.
Sandrine: Thank you.
[00:59:24] [END OF AUDIO]