IFS from the Perspectives of Our Alumni (Former Grantees)

Published: 2022-05-31

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. In April, selected members of IFS’s Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs) and external reviewers wrote about their views and their roles as volunteer advisors. This month we hear from 286 IFS alumni (former grantees) about their perspectives on IFS and the impact that the grant funding had on them and their careers. We began the survey questions by asking respondents to describe a defining moment in their experience of IFS that exemplifies its role in science.

Many of the surveyed alumni responded simply to say that when there was no other financial support for either their degree studies or their research project aspirations, the IFS grant and support provided that opportunity. In some cases, this meant having enough funding to do fieldwork, to acquire basic laboratory equipment, or to train at a European institution. In one case, the grant was seen as the early career scientist’s initiation into the world of research; another continues the line of research started with the IFS grant. Others wrote about the grant giving them trust in themselves and funding bodies, and increasing the visibility of their work, which in turn fueled their career. As one alumnus expressed it:

When I read the email congratulating me and announcing that my project was accepted for funding, you cannot imagine my joy and admiration for IFS. I burst with happiness because I knew I had won a great opportunity to evolve in science.

Even before the awarding of a grant, alumni emphasized the importance of the feedback from reviewers on the project proposals, and how this convinced them of the need to get (and give) feedback in a “ping-pong” manner until the proposal was acceptable. When one person’s first attempt for funding support was rejected, they followed up with the Secretariat and were given detailed reasons for the failure. That moment helped the researcher to understand how to gather information and prepare a proper proposal. They now encourage their students and university staff to visit the IFS website and also to take advantage of the learning opportunities offered by IFS. As examples, one respondent was invited to a workshop in Benin in December 2014, marking a turning point in their career with the boost in confidence. As far back as the 1980s, at an IFS General Assembly in Morocco, one former grantee recalled actively participating, receiving and taking care of international government and non-government guests, and presenting their IFS-funded aquaculture research work, remembering the event as if it has happened yesterday.

defining moment in your experience of IFS

For some alumni, IFS gave them their first opportunity to collaborate with scientists from their own regions, such as a fellowship at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi. Bringing scientists from different countries and sometimes different disciplines to work together towards achieving a common goal shows how important IFS is in advancing science, especially where results would have been difficult to obtain if the research had been done individually. Such relationships are long-lasting, as in the case of one scientist who recently contacted previous teammates again to explore further collaboration. An alumna who participated in a capacity-enhancing workshop for women in agriculture was inspired by later career women in terms of work-life balance and excelling in her career without compromising her roles as a woman.

IFS’s role in science is considered by some to be the connections that can be made between the actual lived experience of people and the results of research done by others. This can be a scientific solution to a certain problem in a community, or knowledge that is new to scientists or highlights gaps which they need to work on. Thanks to the funding that one respondent received for their research project on the impact of burning on crop yields, they were able to convince farmers about the negative impact on yield and on the climate through CO2 emissions. IFS funding often enables research to happen on neglected flora and fauna and with under-represented communities.

Defining moments can also occur in unexpected ways, as in:

…the day I invited the customs agents at the airport in Belém (Brazil) for a beer in order to explain to them why I sometimes received packages from abroad, and how damaging it was to my lab if these packages were somehow mismanaged or not readily released. The response to my explanation of what IFS was and the importance of the equipment for my projects – and the consequent change in their attitudes from then on – is to me (even after almost four decades) a defining moment of the role that science can and should have in society.

The impact of IFS support on researchers and their careers is seen in maturing minds; thinking in new ways; launching into fruitful lines of research and directions of inquiry; and improving skills, knowledge and access to equipment to conduct research independently and originally. A woman researcher’s confidence enabled her to believe in herself and eventually to collaborate on bigger projects. Another benefitted from funding for a post-doctoral collaborative project with three other African countries and four other young researchers, even winning a prize for their project. The grant helped another respondent to acquire more funds and now as a mid-career researcher, to develop products for industry.

Through increased international networking, alumni present their research findings at global events, join rosters of experts, get invited to author book chapters, and publish in high impact factor journals, all of which help to secure more research grants from local and international funding sources, and be promoted. The IFS grant allowed one person to finish a project and to maintain scientific collaborations with the European laboratory where they did post-doctoral training. Another person found that the support was instrumental as they settled back into their own country after finishing a doctoral degree in Europe.

In terms of research that benefits from local scientists investigating local problems, one person published the first results in the region on a native species, forming a solid base to generate other projects and more knowledge on important species. IFS support was also the trigger for initiating the rapid evaluation of seed orchards for scientific tree breeding, enabling prediction of the gain versus diversity balance in each generation. Another early career scientist was the first to survey fishes in a particular region of their country, even discovering a new species. This gave them leverage to network with more groups on almost all continents. Grantees were also involved in the creation of an association called New Vision for Africa Togo, where they provide technical assistance to local communities in the drafting and management of projects related to the sustainable management of natural resources in the context of climate change. Others support local communities through informal education via NGO partners.

When asked about one of the intended impacts of an IFS grant as being to have a multiplier effect, most respondents reported how they have now themselves become mentors, advisors, collaborators and co-authors, for their own MSc and PhD students, post-docs and research assistants who go on to further studies. Many of these have even started their own businesses, and some have gained positions as professors and researchers at other universities, research and extension institutions, and private companies.

Many research groups use equipment and infrastructure acquired through IFS grants, training others as well, and are no longer dependent on other laboratories and institutions. Some institutions have indeed become well-known as providers of analytic services using such equipment, while others have established “centers of excellence” that train young scientists from all over the world. One institution in India is now an important node in mixed-species bird flock research globally. In Vietnam, one researcher introduced animal welfare studies into the country for the first time and is now collaborating with other young scientists to seek additional funding and to publish their findings.

Grantees also pass on the benefits of their relationship with IFS by being involved in alumni associations in their countries and therefore contributing to the multiplier effect by helping in the capacity enhancement of younger colleagues to develop outstanding research proposals and articles. Women have especially been encouraged to forge ahead in science, including one daughter who now desires to follow the path of her scientist mother, who wrote: “It is an unending cord, initiated and knitted by IFS.”

Commonly mentioned as their vision for a future IFS was encouraging former grantees to serve the cause of IFS in various ways, e.g., through associations and networks of alumni, events that bring them together, mechanisms where they can donate time and money to IFS, and roles they can play to make IFS more visible in the world. Specific recommendations for changes to how IFS operates included:

  • Having a separate call for women researchers
  • Speeding up the selection results for each session so that scientists can move faster
  • Increasing grant amounts, given inflation and high costs
  • Supporting mid-career scientists whose research has taken off, especially so they can supervise younger colleagues, and
  • Following up to turn research findings into actions that community members can resonate with.

A number of respondents also urged IFS to reconsider its research areas so that climate change is centered, with more multi-disciplinarity that touches communities directly through science, and that addresses socio-economic inequalities and scientific denialism. In other words, IFS is seen by many as having much potential as a change-making science advocacy organization.





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