Professor Giancarlo Biagini is Head of the department of Tropical Disease Biology at LSTM and was the founder of the Director’s Catalyst Fund (DCF). Here he talks about his inspiration for creating the scheme and its subsequent impact.
Having been an Early Career Researcher (ECR) myself, I know from my own experience that it's a very difficult stage in a researcher’s life. I wanted to use my time as Chair of Research Committee to support ECRs and the biggest barriers ECRs face is access to funding. By creating the DCF scheme my objective was to help LSTM’s current crop of ECRs to transition to independent investigations by offering them meaningful and tangible support, and thought that a year’s worth of funding to run their own independent research would do just that.
The name Director’s Catalyst Fund was decided upon because I wanted it to be seen by both LSTM’s ECR community and management as prestigious and important. On behalf of Research Committee I had to make a case to management for funding for the project and thought that a strong title would help do that.
Developing submission writing skills
Another objective of the DCF scheme was to create a grant application process that was as close to real life as possible, a process that took you on a learning journey, and so instigated a formal application followed by an interview. Applicants would need to learn how to frame their research question and how to make a compelling case to secure support. Admittedly, it's a bit daunting to go through a DCF interview but we live in a competitive environment, and many external fellowship application processes require the same. It's a good skillset to master. Since the first launch of the DCF the process and offered support has evolved so that applicants feel more supported in helping them present their ideas, both on paper and then verbally. They're good skills to have, and I'd like to think that the majority of the applicants, even if they narrowly missed being successful, continued with those project ideas and perhaps developed them elsewhere. The DCF application process is not easy, but like all things in life if it was easy success would not feel such an achievement.
I am pleased to say that the DCF scheme has been very successful. Since its inception in 2016 we have supported 25 ECRs on projects ranging from primary health care governance in Guatemala to tackling upper respiratory tract infections in Liverpool. The benefits to the recipients have been varied and numerous (read about some of them here) and many have gone on to further success, either at LSTM or elsewhere – lectureships, highly-prestigious fellowships, big grants and co-investigator roles. The DCF has enriched all of their CVs, made them more competitive and taught them skills essential for this stage in their careers.
Other ERC opportunities at LSTM
I should say that the DCF was the first but is not the only LSTM initiative aimed specifically at ECRs. LSTM now offers a number of additional research funding support schemes. For example, the Medical Research Council Confidence in Concept (MRC CiC) and the Wellcome Trust iTPA have both been opened up to ECRs so that they can apply for small pots of money to kickstart their research. In the case of the MRC scheme, we were the first institution to ask permission to allow ECRs to apply as PI and since then other universities have followed suit. We are constantly trying to support the ECR community and push our funders to do the same. One of the DCF recipients actually said to me that there are so many more opportunities at LSTM than at her previous institution, which is surprising given we are a relatively small organisation.
Undeniably, LSTM benefits from the DCF in terms of papers and other outputs published and fellowships and grants won by DCF recipients. However, we also see success in terms of people progressing within the organization, or even outside it, having done better and been more competitive than they were when they first arrived. DCF is LSTM’s way of saying that we care about our ECR community and want to support individuals on whatever career path they choose. We aim to create a nurturing, supportive environment for them and I think that DCF is a huge step to help us achieve that.