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29th April 2022

IFS from the Perspectives of Our SAC Members and Reviewers

February’s blog post concluded by saying that IFS’s four founders made another prediction of sorts that remains true today: that a research grant, capacity-enhancement activities and support do indeed contribute significantly to the work of early career scientists and to positive impacts in their countries. In March’s post, we heard from among the 600+ current grantees about their perspectives on IFS. This month we hear from selected members of IFS’s Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs) and external reviewers about their views, their roles as volunteer advisors, and their visions for a future IFS. We began the survey questions by asking them to describe a defining moment in their experience of IFS that exemplifies its role in science.

A number of respondents commented on how their own experiences as IFS grantees had been defining moments in their lives, recognising that many alumni of an IFS grant themselves become advisors and associates with national and international organisations, including IFS itself. One IFS advisor provided the example of participating in the IFS mentorship programme in Southeast Asia, and how this also offered an opportunity for that advisor to get feedback from younger researchers, in a switch of typical unidirectional roles. Others mentioned their participation in workshops in such countries as Benin, Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Tanzania as being definitive of how IFS brings grantees and more-established scientists together.

Unique about the support which IFS provides

How the IFS Secretariat works with grantees and others – “the staff are pleasant and helpful” – was commonly given as an example of IFS’s role in science, with policies and practices which strive for equality, diversity and inclusion in the way the organisation conducts its activities. As examples:

When IFS establishes a dialogue with a grantee, when it listens and responds, the grantee is not alone in a (frequently) harsh or hostile environment. There is an institution behind her or him, with people who respond.

There was an exchange with an IFS staff member who wanted to understand better a comment I made concerning recurring flaws I saw in some applications. I never see that happening with any other institution I am involved with.

Advisors are appreciative of how IFS works with them, noting how well organised the Secretariat is, the ease of using the online reviewing platform, and an evaluation process that allows them to see the criteria for excellence expected when selecting IFS grantees.

Other moments which defined IFS’s role in science for some advisors include:

  • Receiving proposals that show that the applicant fully understood and believed in the importance of the proposed work for her or his country and its people
  • Evaluating IFS proposals knowing that the small grant (versus other funding sources) makes a difference in the career paths of young researchers
  • Discussing project feasibility, impact and quality during SAC meetings
  • Seeing an important improvement in an applicant’s proposal when they have been given guidance on how to improve it
  • Seeing a well-designed project funded
  • Tracking scientists from under-represented countries who, sometimes with language issues, develop winning proposals and deliver great research, and
  • Witnessing the medium-term results of a grant, e.g., high-quality scientific publications, or grantees coming back with a renewal application.

As one respondent expressed it, beyond a particular defining moment, there is “an overwhelming sense of the importance of being part of a network that shares experience and knowledge openly across borders in a world that is increasingly riven by false information and multiple barriers”.

When asked why SAC members and reviewers support IFS, a couple of respondents wrote simply that they “believe in the role of IFS” and “in science as a driver of peace”. Several advisors are motived by issues of gender and socioeconomic injustices or disparities that continue to hamper the emergence of scientists who can contribute to the well-being of their societies. Others wrote about how IFS is an important organisation that has built a reputation for science support in Low- and Lower- Middle-income Countries (LLMICs). Advisors’ support was considered to be an effective means to contribute to IFS’s mission, and makes them feel like, in a small way, they are contributing to finding solutions to issues in the “developing world”.

For advisors coming from a “developing country”, they could easily understand the grounded context of research projects carried out by young scientists (as well as their needs) and they could provide relevant recommendations to both IFS and its grant applicants. As IFS supported previous early career researchers who went on to build international reputations, to then become an IFS advisor is one way of their giving back to the IFS and scientific communities. Again, it is an enriching multi-directional exchange because advisors are able to put their experience to use and also learn from applicants and grantees, and as well about current research directions.

Advisors are also appreciative of the serious attention that is given to proposals and to the best interests of young scientists, a reason one person has “stayed on for 38 years and counting”. The SAC members and reviewers have a wide scope to evaluate innovative ideas and approaches to research and development projects, and they are able to see their outcomes in real world settings.

According to one SAC member, in response to a question about IFS’s uniqueness:

… independence of criterion, not subject to local pressures. IFS support recognizes scientific potential in people who only have their credentials to introduce themselves. IFS trusts them, trusts the person; it has confidence that the grant will be used for the purpose described in the application, without the need to monitor the grantee, save for final reports. This trust-based commitment creates a solid link between the grantee and the organisation. It provides the grantees with confidence in their achievements, and empowers them to pursue a career in science based on them.

Grantees often do not have many options for acquiring funding for their research, in particular those with scarce previous experience in autonomous research. IFS grants are like seed money that can be a credential in the search for complementary funds from other financial bodies. Being one of the few international funding agencies that offers whole-hearted support to early career scientists, as one respondent put it: “no one else does it ... how’s that in terms of uniqueness?”

In practical and administrative terms, elements of IFS’s unique and bespoke approach are seen in:

  • The personal approach which can be experienced at all levels (e.g., evaluation of proposals, contact within SACs with Scientific Coordinators in the Secretariat and with the IFS Director)
  • Clear, simple and space-limited application guidelines and forms
  • Fair reviewing process
  • Fruitful feedback sent to grantees who are invited to submit renewal applications, for second and sometimes third grants
  • Lack of bureaucracy for receiving and managing the grant
  • Guidance from established scientists to develop and manage high-quality scientific research activities, and
  • Support that goes beyond the provision of a grant, including opportunities to join workshops, funds to participate in scientific conferences and for equipment and supplies, and access to potential networks of collaborators.

When asked about their visions for a future IFS, many of the SAC members and reviewers responded with a question of “Why change something which is working well?”, suggesting that IFS should not only continue its support of early career scientists from LLMICs, but also expand it significantly. Thus, one visionary respondent calls for “a world where scientists regardless of their location are supported and are part of a community that is collectively responding to current issues faced by humanity”.

Specific recommendations for how IFS could modify its operations and rise to such a vision include:

  • Granting schemes for scientists returning from studies elsewhere to their home countries, where the scientific environment may be poor (not just in financing, but also in critical mass), and often even hostile to returning, well-qualified scientists
  • Follow-on granting schemes where applicants can take a successful idea forward with larger-scale funding
  • Support to recently graduated PhDs to establish research groups in their countries
  • Integration of individual support and networking, including collaborative multi-disciplinary grants
  • Mentoring programmes with continuous feedback between senior and junior scientists, and
  • More exchanges between researchers from “developing” and “developed” countries, including partnerships between early career scientists in both settings, and scientific forums and conferences organised by IFS and its partners.

A common response about an envisioned future highlighted the need to review the research areas in which IFS funds grants, with the aim of fostering scientific originality to generate high quality science and realistic solutions to priority local problems. IFS’s mission may have to be more focused, in terms of categories of scientists that qualify for funding and the research areas. For example, there is little on the sustainability of agricultural production (e.g., soil fertility, role of organic matter in soils) and there is little on climate change (and its mitigation and adaptation) and the ways it affects agricultural and food production. One way to do this could be through grants to collaborative networks in different countries, carrying out research using common methodological frameworks applied to different case studies.

Representatives of the SACs and the community of external reviewers generally concurred that it is worth considering how IFS can establish itself more directly in its grantees’ countries. For example, IFS’s many alumni could play roles as coaches, mentors and collaborators, strengthening the involvement of the community of people who have benefited from IFS. Contacts and relationships could be facilitated in innovative ways among the regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. As one person wrote, “It’s time to move, document and celebrate what IFS has achieved in half-a-century, and build a refreshed grant-funding organisation for scientists in the ‘Global South’”. There is an urgent need for more support from existing and new funding and strategic partners. IFS itself also needs to do more public awareness-raising to promote its work, so as to attract more attention and investment through cooperation with countries within its three regions.

 

 

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Two of our many grantees

Mr Pham Duc Phuc

Mr Pham Duc Phuc
Vietnam

No. of IFS Grants: 1 (2004)


Current position:
Researcher, Division of Enteric Infections, Department of Microbiology, National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, Hanoi, Vietnam

Dr Achmed Subagio

Dr Achmed Subagio
Indonesia

No. of IFS Grants: 1 (2003)


Current position:
Researcher, Faculty of Agricultural Technology, Jember University, East Java, Indonesia

> Find out more about our grantees

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