IFS from the Perspectives of Our Current Grantees

Published: 2022-03-29

Last month’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. This month we hear from among the 600+ current early career scientists about their perspectives on an IFS grant and associated support activities. 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 common response to the question about a defining moment was “when I received the email about getting the grant”. This was important encouragement for early career scientists who were in dire need of a breakthrough. Some were contemplating quitting their graduate studies because of financial issues, or because their institution had no budget to fund it, giving up on their research projects or limiting their scopes. The IFS grant allowed them to pursue their original ideas, ensure the smooth running of their research, cover the expenses, finalise the data collection and analysis, and publish the results. The grant offered hope for early career scientists – often as a first award of its kind – and helped them to have confidence in themselves.

Grantee Group Photo

The grant also demonstrates the confidence that IFS has in younger scientists who are at the beginning of a line of research, when it is not easy to find funding. An IFS grant provides a chance for scientists to realise their research passion at home, to return to their own countries after study or graduate work in scientifically developed countries, to become core researchers, to establish collaborations and networks, and to set up and equip laboratories or their own up-to-date research units that can attract the next generation of young scientists, especially the increasing numbers of women in science.

With its emphasis on empowerment through skills development and promoting interdisciplinary research among the natural and social sciences, simply put, IFS advances the conditions for conducting research from basic needs to the actual problems that need addressing. Such “gray areas” typically concern locally-driven problems and the development of locally-based solutions, or piloting studies that have never been done before, or carrying out a study whose objective is to contribute to the improvement of the living conditions of marginalized groups, especially women. These are often situations were minimal funds lead to larger impacts.

All of this encourages a rethinking of the way that science is conducted, and of how research results are valorised in grantees’ countries. Examples given included being able to conduct scientific work on wild oilseed species in Benin; the concentration of microplastics in surface water and sediment of Lake Victoria being made known for the first time; and proving through an experiment that the production of soybean cheese that meets the expectations of urban consumers in a developing country can allow women who engage in this activity to substantially improve their income. As one grantee reported: 

It is exhilarating to be recognized for my work. In 2021, when there was a quality and safety issue with poultry products on the news, a major national TV media agency called me (as an expert) to comment on it and it was aired. I had no prior engagements with the media agency. Also, in 2021, another reputable media agency contacted me to contribute to a documentary they were producing on poultry. These two incidences were defining moments for me because I realized that my work had local impact beyond the stakeholders I was directly working with and the academic community. That, for me, is impactful research and IFS made that possible.

Grantee Group Photo

The support which grantees receive from the IFS Secretariat leads one grantee to write that “it is moments like these that make me believe there are still good people on this planet”, with another saying that “the whole staff of IFS is always available regarding all inquiries”, and “the support that it provides to the researcher from the day of proposal submission, throughout the research project, until the completion of the final report is highly appreciated”, remarks another grantee. In addition to the Secretariat’s encouraging feedback, the constructive comments from the application reviewers and Scientific Advisory Committees promote confidence, self-belief and the can-do spirit which is the bedrock of science. Two examples illustrate grantees’ appreciation of how IFS operates:

I was awarded my first ever research grant even without prior experience in grant writing. Many other funders need a demonstration of grant management experience but IFS provided me my first grant, which I use today to justify this experience and to win other grants.

My defining moment in my experience with IFS began when I received the first grant supported by IFS. Unfortunately, the first project did not work quite out as I had originally envisioned. I did not deliver the tangible outcomes as promised and instead reported all the failed results. Unlike other funding agencies, IFS did not pressure for publication, but recognizes science, regardless of its outcome. With a renewal grant from IFS, I published two articles in international peer-reviewed journals, supervised graduate students and a post-doc in a lab. Looking back, these publications and capacity building would not be possible if IFS did not continue to support our research.

Other ways in which IFS support has personal meaning for early career scientists include:

  • Learning about grant applications, writing and administration as a principal investigator
  • Allowing me to assert myself as a researcher
  • Obtaining a certain legitimacy in my field
  • Establishing collaborations with other researchers
  • Learning how to work during the pandemic situation
  • Managing a project with little supervision, and hence, a high sense of accomplishment
  • Conducting, leading, managing and overseeing an entire project “that I conceptualized”, in other words, leadership, and
  • Applying for the position of Associate Professor this year, with the help of the grants and the papers emanating from them: “This will be a tremendous milestone for me personally and for other young women in STEM who look up to me as a role model.”

Grantee Group Photo

One of the intended impacts of IFS is to have a multiplier effect. By supporting early career scientists, IFS hopes that they will in turn support other scientists and contribute to scientific development at local (and potentially other) levels in various ways. Grantee experiences that exemplify this multiplier effect include:

  • Internships offered to students
  • IFS-funded equipment at my institution used for other research activities
  • Research assistants from my institution starting and their scientific careers
  • MSc and PhD students finding their own research themes during my research, often towards fields little-studied in my country
  • Students who get training through the IFS-funded project, who then have a multiplier effect in the national agriculture research and extension system
  • Based on the experience I obtained during my IFS-funded research project, GIZ awarding me a six-month contract to build the capacity of staff
  • A mentorship scheme where I supported students to develop grant proposals to become independent researchers
  • Giving training to undergraduate students on how to write a grant, drawing most of my points from IFS grant instructions and the experience I had with my own application
  • Organising GPS training seminars for local forest rangers and my colleagues
  • Local farmers, conservationists, and secondary school students trained on sustainable management practices to protect crops
  • Thirteen Bolivians – five women and eight men, between 20 and 40 years of age – directly involved with my raptor research and conservation initiatives in my country, with a growing community of 2000+ friends and followers on social media
  • Advice rendered to me by previous grantees in my home country, seeing first hand how the careers of former grantees took an upward turn through the IFS grants, and
  • Learned about IFS through an early career researcher at another university, he mentored, along with two other junior researchers receiving IFS funding, by a senior researcher who himself received IFS funding early in his career.

When asked about their visions for a future IFS, many grantees confirmed the relevance and need for a relatively small research grant, meaningful capacity-enhancement activities, and the right kind of support, and that this should not only continue but be expanded. In particular, IFS is “a place where it is possible for women and girls to have the essentials of STEM” and it is “a model in giving feedback on proposals and guiding early career scientists … this makes a world of a difference”.

Specific recommendations for change include:

  • Instead of individual small grants, medium-size group proposals with larger impacts, i.e., more comprehensive experiences, linking society and policy
  • Different types of grants: early career, mid-career and consolidation grants for experienced scientists
  • No age limits, larger grant amounts, scientific visits and residencies
  • Alumni working in synergy, while supporting younger scientists and helping their communities in sustainable development, with IFS support and guidance
  • Grants that will help communities with the effects of climate change, biodiversity and food security, and more generally, research themes that are flexible, up-to-date and cross-cutting
  • More collaboration between IFS and national research institutions and bodies to share their experiences in building policies and strategies to support early career scientists
  • More opportunities for researchers to share their work with local stakeholders and to advocate with decision-makers at national and international levels
  • Become more collaborative in its approach by bringing together scientists beyond national boundaries, a strong network of IFS-funded researchers to foster new collaborations across inter/multi-disciplinary boundaries.

What words come to mind when you think of IFS Cloud

Current grantees also expressed a range of views on IFS’s physical location and presence in the world. There were thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of having offices or representatives in the Global South, whether for liaison, communications, administration or any of the functions of a successful international organisation. Many of the grantees who responded to our 50th anniversary survey commented on the importance of the longevity, stability, efficiency and credibility of the Secretariat in Stockholm, IFS’s home for its first 50 years.


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