Webinar Report: Private funding in science

How can early-career researchers attract funding from non-governmental sources?

Moderator: Brianne Kent, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of British Columbia, and Chair of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group.

Speakers: Herve Vanderschuren, Professor of Plant Genetics, University of Liège; Maryrose Franko, Executive Director, Health Research Alliance; and Candace Hassall, Head of Researcher Affairs, Wellcome Trust.

Many non-government organisations, private companies and non-profits offer research funding. Their diversity makes it difficult to generalise about how they work and what they are looking for – but this variety can work to your advantage.

Take a chance

With their focus on a specific field or problem, private funders often define success differently to governmental funders, who have to account to taxpayers. “I would think that if you have a wild and crazy idea you’re much more likely to be successful applying to a non-profit non-governmental funder”, says Maryrose Franko. “Our niche is often funding the risky science”.

Find the best fit – for them and for you

Look carefully at the eligibility requirements of a funding call, and think about how you can tailor your application to show how your project will help the funder meet their aims. Many funders share previous successful applications, and may make their review process open too. Herve Vanderschuren found these helped him to prepare his own proposals. “You can learn about the strategies that people have used to get their project funded”, he says – for example, have they framed their research as innovative, or particularly high risk? However, Candace Hassall warns, “you shouldn’t try to artificially squeeze [your proposal] into a box that doesn’t really fit”. Instead, “find other sources of support that better suit your research and your career stage”.

Think as well about whether the funding mechanism is appropriate for your way of working. For example, venture philanthropists often require you to meet the milestones you’ve laid out in your proposal before they will provide you with further funding.

Big isn’t always better

Smaller funders may offer smaller grants, but if your work is closely allied to their aims, applying to them might provide good value. “Your chances of success may well be higher because you’re just competing with other people who work in a small field rather than competing across the enormous breadth of biomedicine and public health”, suggests Hassall.

Always ask if you’re unsure

The overwhelming advice from all the panellists is to get in touch with the funder if you have any questions about your application. By making a 20 minute phone call, Vanderschuren was able to learn from one funder that a project idea he had did not fit in with their funding aims, saving him from preparing an unsuccessful application. “If you’re unsure it’s much better to call or email your program officers than waste their time and yours”, agrees Franko.

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