Practical problems following grant success

Success with grant applications leads to problems of an unexpected although pleasant kind. If your research team is almost doubled in size, where are all your colleagues supposed to work? And how are they to get access to laboratory equipment which is already fully booked?

Johan Jakobsson till snurran

Johan Jakobsson in an unusually empty lab (the rest of his group were at a conference). After major success with grants, his problem is how to find space for all his new colleagues. Photo: Gunnar Menander

This is the kind of thing Johan Jakobsson is pondering at the moment. He has been doubly successful during the autumn, having been awarded both a “young researchers” grant from the Swedish Research Council and a “future research leaders” grant from the Foundation for Strategic Research. The grants are worth SEK 2 million each annually for a period of five years.

Johan Jakobsson is a neuro-researcher studying microRNA. These small molecules have the ability to affect the expression of genes in the various cells of the body, and have recently generated growing interest within medical research. Johan Jakobsson hopes that increased knowledge about microRNA will lead to effective treatments for both dementia and depression.

Currently, his research team consists of eight people: himself and seven colleagues on levels from doctoral student to post-doc. All Johan’s colleagues are women, so a more equal gender distribution within the group is something he will be striving for:

“The most important thing is of course to recruit people who are really qualified. But it would also be good to get more men in the group, as a more equal gender distribution results in a better group dynamic”.

Johan Jakobsson has attended several leadership training courses during his time as an independent researcher. He is glad he did, both for the knowledge in itself and because the courses helped him to succeed in the interview he had with the Foundation for Strategic Research.

The interview included different scenarios which a research team leader might face. How would you tackle a conflict with another research team on the rights to certain contested research findings, for example? How do you deal with a new appointment which is underway but for which the necessary funding is not yet available? What happens if you are offered an attractive visiting professorship somewhere else – do you stay behind with a heavy heart or leave with a bad conscience?

“I think it was positive that they laid so much emphasis on leadership. It is a part of the researcher’s profession that is otherwise often ignored”, says Johan Jakobsson.

He sees himself as a person who likes to explore new things, so his heart is with curiosity-driven research. But this type of research is risky by definition, as curiosity can lead researchers into a dead end with no publishable result.

“That’s why there has to be a balance. I have a responsibility towards the doctoral students, who need articles to publish. Even if I don’t think it is much fun myself, we still have to dedicate some of our work to ‘safe bets’”, he says.

The large laboratory where he worked as a post-doc, at EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) in Switzerland, largely focused on unsafe bets. EPFL and its equivalents in other countries have such large grants that they can afford to take chances: even if nine out of ten projects never lead to anything, the tenth one can result in world-class findings.

“This can be considered a little unfair. One person succeeds, while his or her equally hard-working colleagues get stuck. But the research world is not always fair,” observes Johan Jakobsson.

Currently, his team meets as a group once a fortnight. In addition, there are ongoing discussions between colleagues within the various projects. With a team of eight people, Johan Jakobsson has a good insight into the state of all the projects, but this could become more difficult once the group has grown to include the planned 14-15 people. Then Johan expects to delegate responsibility for certain tasks to some of his colleagues.

In addition to the work meetings, the group has also got together quite often outside work. They have been hiking on Söderåsen, gone out to a pub, been to a bowling alley and sailed outside Mölle. Such activities will become even more important as new colleagues join the team.

And what about premises and equipment, what’s happening there?

“I don’t really know what we are going to do … but it will sort itself out somehow!” says Johan Jakobsson. Not getting overly worried in advance but trusting that things will eventually work out is probably a useful trait in a “future research leader”.