This blog post was originally written for a nature columnist competition which I was unsuccessful in but actually most likely was the spark that made me start this blog so I thought I would share it with you.
‘Do you have any experience of bar work?’ was the question of every potential employer I approached. I was an 18 year old man on a mission and the mission was to progress from my part time, primarily adolescent job, delivering newspapers. The route as to how one initially gained experience of bar tendering in order to apply for a job as a bar tender appeared paradoxical. Fast forward a dozen years later and I find myself in a parallel situation, keen to obtain funding for my own personally conceived research ideas without a clear route to obtain such funding.
Eagerly I have scoured the internet and approached more senior established colleagues for advice. Unfortunately they are largely unaware or acknowledge that there are scant funding opportunities for early career researchers (ECR)/postdoc’s who have a thirst for academic independence. To my surprise I have found that it is not the writing of the grant that poses the most considerable challenge for the ECR but actually discovering the avenues which lead to independent research funding.
What explains this paucity of opportunities for early career researchers? Does a lack of ECR opportunities reflect a lack of desire of ECRs who want/have the capability to be independent? Alternatively does this lack of investment represent the risk posed by funding ECRs? Could it be a lack of expertise and/or time for ECRs to write grants?
Ultimately it is likely that a mixture of all these factors contribute to a lack of ECR opportunities. Several scientists have no desire to leave or reduce their time in the lab to become principal investigators (PI) and therefore have no desire to search or apply for these opportunities. Others have not yet developed, or will never have (and therefore represent risk), the capability to contend with the demands of balancing research, teaching and administrative duties required from an independent scientist. Many institutions (including my own) have recognised that grant writing is not an innate ability and now provide and promote grant writing courses to ECRs. However attendance on these training courses is largely irrelevant if little opportunities exist or no time is allocated to practice and refine this art. Far too often ECRs are absorbed by the laboratory demands of a project with downward pressure to constantly generate data being exerted by the permanent PI who ‘got’ the grant onto the predominantly temporary three year fixed term contract ECR.
The situation for the ECR is not entirely bleak and I have encountered a limited number of fellowship/small grant opportunities eligible for ECRs to apply for in addition to more novel funding avenues such as crowd funding. Crowd funding has shown great popularity predominantly with young scientists and serves as an example of the thirst of young researcher’s desire for independence and has provided innovative solutions to societal problems (openPCR being one excellent example, http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/930368578/openpcr-open-source-biotech-on-your-desktop). Academia should be an innovation pool which acts to serve and progress society as a whole. I would argue that it is a lack of independence for the ECR which is of great detriment to society and the time driven insecurity of fixed term contracts forces young innovative scientists to seek alternative routes of employment to pacify their inner creative creatures, in addition to paying the bills. Unabated by these challenges and in the same vein as when applying for my first bar job, I will use determination as my main strategy but do believe longer ECR contracts in combination with opportunities to build early career independence would go some way to enhance widespread societal progress.