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Volume 36, Issue 4


Collaborative Research Funding

Markus Behnke / Laura McConnell / Chris Ober
Published Online: 2014-07-17 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ci.2014.36.4.4

Within a changing research world, international collaboration has become even more important in achieving scientific success. Given the increased need and desire for multinational research, the actors are forced to identify appropriate funding sources. Whereas, science knows no international boundaries, support for scientific research, including in chemical sciences, is mostly provided by the national funding organizations. This is particularly true for the chemical sciences, where most research projects are relatively small in size and with respect to the number of involved PIs. Traditionally, national organizations are reluctant to provide funds to non-domestic researchers, and in practice, funding truly international research projects can be a real challenge for a variety of technical and bureaucratic reasons. In an effort to change this, an international Committee on Chemistry Research Funding (CCRF)—backed by several leading funding organizations—was established by IUPAC in December 2007 to promote increased international collaboration and networking in the global chemistry community. The following report gives a short overview on the history of IUPAC’s involvement in service for chemistry research funding and on the most recent developments.

First IUPAC Projects on Research Funding

In the beginning of the millennium research funders were faced with an increasing number of questions concerning international and multilateral funding opportunities. In consequence, in 2004, a group of representatives of organizations from several countries that support research in chemistry met under the auspices of IUPAC. A first meeting gave the opportunity for an exchange of information and for fruitful discussions on the development of better mechanisms to encourage international research collaboration. In the following years IUPAC was the host of two projects that focused on “International research funding in the chemical sciences”1 and “IUPAC’s role in international research funding in the chemical sciences: a feasibility study.”2 Members have been representatives of major funding agencies from more than 16 countries that convened for meetings and workshops in London, Beijing, Budapest, Torino, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., between 2004 and 2008. The projects tackled a broad range of topics concerned with research funding. This includes a substantial analysis of the national research funding philosophies, conditions, and guidelines, an overview on trends and priorities in chemical research and methods for tracking chemical research and measuring its impact. The project members also discussed programs in chemical research that encourage international partnerships and they identified resources that can be shared through international partnerships. Special emphasis was given on a breakdown of the existing transnational funding programs. Quite a number of formal bilateral agreements between nations encourage scientific collaboration. Nevertheless, the implementation of joint research funding had been difficult so far, partly because the policies, fiscal years, procedures, application forms, and sometimes languages used varied from one country to another. The group members examined several successful funding arrangements that have been developed in the chemical sciences (CERC3, ERA-Chemistry,3 NSF/DFG bilateral call for proposals), with the overall goal to discuss funding schemes for the future that really serve the needs of the chemical community for international collaboration.

Committee on Chemistry Research Funding (CCRF)

Given the results of the previous projects that envisioned the need of a long-term involvement of research funders in the organizational structure of IUPAC, the Committee on Chemistry Research Funding (CCRF) was established in December 2007 as a body reporting directly to the IUPAC Bureau. The committee is meant to be a forum of representatives from research funders to improve communication among their organizations and to help develop best practices for international research collaboration.4 The CCRF operates in a rather flat hierarchy (figure 1). The immediate past president of IUPAC chairs the committee for two years. The mode for a temporary assignment to the post was chosen to ensure a smooth interaction of the CCRF members and the IUPAC committees, boards and divisions. Members of the CCRF are nominated by any national organization that provides substantial funding to research in the chemical sciences. Each participating organization is expected to maintain its principal representative as a current staff member engaged in chemistry research funding. At the moment, 14 national organizations are partnering within the committee, including Austria, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Portugal, Spain, UK, and USA. One of the nominated members is running a secretariat to support the chair and to ensure continuity of CCRF’s actions. Appointments are made formally by the president of IUPAC or his or her designee on nomination by appropriate organizations.

CCRF meeting in Istanbul, August 2013: (from left to right) Guojun Zhang (China), Wenping Liang (China), Sidney Jose Lima Ribeiro (Brazil), Alexandre Roccatto (Brazil), Carol Bessel (USA), Chris Brett (Portugal), Nicole Moreau (France), George Horvai (Hungary), Werner Mormann (Germany), George Janini (USA), Steve Meyers (USA), Jung-Il Jin (Korea), and Markus Behnke (Germany).

Figure 1

Starting in 2008 the CCRF annual meetings take place as part of IUPAC’s General Assemblies, or on the occasion of international conferences. The annual meetings give the unique opportunity for the exchange of first-hand information. This is how the CCRF keeps track of ongoing and planned funding initiatives of the member organizations with special emphasis on international collaborations. Among the constant efforts of the members is the overall goal to catalyze the whole process of developing international funding mechanisms, with the objectives of increasing collaborative research projects and facilitating the international exchange of scientists. Coming back to one of the core activities of IUPAC, the committee helps with the standardization of the terminology in processing, reviewing, and funding. This includes clear recommendations of principles for grant applications for international projects and for the review of those applications. Irrespective the fact of an increasing number of collaborations in an international scientific world there is still room for improvement when it comes to internationally accepted definitions and guidelines for such topics as science-driven versus industry-related research, bottom-up versus top-down approaches, peer review, conflicts of interest, scientific misconduct, and so forth. As this area develops, CCRF is well positioned to provide shared guidance, especially on mechanisms for review and support of research in the chemical sciences. Most recently the CCRF was heavily engaged in the development of effective processes for multilateral funding programs on an international level. Nevertheless, discussions on topics that have been initially brought up by members of the two previous IUPAC projects will be continued. This includes open questions that are associated with the needs of small versus large countries and the needs of developed versus developing countries in an international scientific world with increasing interaction. Further topics are intellectual property issues, methods for tackling the “grand challenges” in the chemical sciences, ways to encourage greater participation and recognition of women in chemistry, and the enhancement of the dialogue between scientists and program officers.

Multilateral Research Funding: First Showcase in Polymer Chemistry

From the committee grew the idea for a first multilateral call for proposals in polymer chemistry, which was conducted from October 2009 through September 2010. The call was supported by the Polymer Division of IUPAC and seven national funding organizations that agreed to participate.5 This innovative first step in the development towards a sustainable international funding program was taken based on the intense discussions among the CCRF members but also with the previous experience on successful bilateral projects among the National Science Foundation (NSF), the German Research Foundation (DFG), and other organizations. The goal of this pilot call was to establish an efficient transnational funding program in chemistry, without national boundaries, with a minimum of bureaucracy for the applicants, and the establishment of best practices for future calls of this type. An important key for achieving this goal was the establishment of a call secretariat being the central contact point for applicants, for the Polymer Division, and for the funding organizations. A guarantor for success was also a clear division of labor among the actors during the whole process. As a result of this first call seven excellent joint projects out of 28 joint proposals were selected for support.6 Successful applicants reported on the results of their joint research efforts at a special session during the 44th IUPAC World Polymer Congress in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA in June 2012. Part of the session was dedicated to enhance the dialog between researchers and CCRF members, where the attendees shared their experience with this first multilateral call. With the aim to identify and to refine best practices, the CCRF and the Polymer Division initiated a new IUPAC project “Guidelines of Multinational Calls for research cooperation and funding through national funding agencies”. The project members published a comprehensive report.7 A concise set of documents, flowcharts, and time frames is available and it has also been the basis for the second and most recent call for proposals under the aegis of IUPAC.

Figure 2

Multilateral Research Funding for Sustainable Catalysis

The most recent call was conducted from October 2012 through September 2013. This was an initiative for joint proposals in the emerging field of novel molecular and supramolecular theory and synthesis approaches for sustainable catalysis. Four international funding agencies participated in the call: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) (German Research Foundation), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), and the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) (the Sao Paulo Research Foundation) of Brazil. All of them signed a memorandum of understanding on the joint review procedure and the subsequent joint funding decisions. Having four countries from four different continents involved also means a widely spread geographical distribution which led to new and to-date not existing collaborations among the scientists.

The call was modeled after the first international call in polymer science and the layout followed the guidelines that were compiled and released under the IUPAC project for guidelines of multilateral calls.8 However, lessons learned and changing circumstances necessitated changes, especially in how the proposal review process was conducted. The call was coordinated by IUPAC Division of Chemistry and the Environment, and managed by a program manager through a Call Secretariat.

Researchers who work in the field of sustainable catalysis and are eligible to apply for financial support from their respective participating national funding agencies responded to the call. The program was intended to fund on the order of one graduate student or post-doctoral fellow in each laboratory for a three-year period. Funding also included travel expenses, consumables, and minor equipment. Small teams of three or four principal investigators representing at least three of the participating countries were formed, and each team coordinator submitted a letter of intent (LoI) to the Call Secretariat by 1 February 2013. The LoI turned out to be useful to clarify eligibility issues at this early stage. The secretariat received 27 joint proposals by 29 March 2013. All of them were checked for compliance and sufficiency of the documents before going into the review process. Following the standards from the first call the CCRF suggested implementing a two-stage procedure with mail reviews followed by a final panel meeting to assess the quality of the proposals and to give recommendations to the funding organizations. The review criteria included the track record and research environment of the applicants; significance, broader impact, and originality of the proposed research; and appropriateness of the experimental methodologies. Due to the nature of the intended collaborative research, special attention was given to the assessment of the expected synergies among collaborating scientists. In total 184 reviewers have been contacted at this stage and the secretariat received 91 mail reviews, which is a reasonable number compared to the reviewers’ response rate in national funding programs. All joint proposals were finally reviewed by an international panel of leading chemistry experts who gave the ultimate suggestions on funding priorities. The 12 panel members convened in conjunction with the 47th IUPAC General Assembly on August 10, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. As a result of the purely scientific discussions, the panel ranked the proposals in the order of competitiveness. The first seven proposals on the ranking list have been finally approved for funding and the involved scientists received funding letters from their national funding organization by the end of 2013.

Conclusions and Outlook

In total 30 letters of intent, followed by 27 joint proposals have been processed in this most recent international call in the chemical sciences. This is a similar result to the 38 letters of intent and 28 joint proposals in the previous IUPAC call. In total 21 grant letters have been issued by the national funders. This corresponds to seven PIs each from the USA and from China, five PIs from Germany and two PIs from Brazil. The overall success rate of 26% has been in the range of the usual rates for national funding programs. All seven projects involve the collaboration of researchers from at least three different continents. A list of projects that were funded including the PIs and institutions is published on the IUPAC website.9 Successful applicants have the opportunity to present their first results at the IUPAC World Chemistry Congress in South Korea in August 2015. Whereas a close interaction of the collaborators within the individual projects is given per se, the symposium will promote international collaboration at the next higher level to make use of the synergies among the top level groups in the field of sustainable catalysis research around the world.

The objectives of the present call to foster networking between international scientists with expertise in sustainable catalysis, and to further develop a flexible program with lessons learned from the pioneering call have been achieved. The initial experiment led to a robust and mature tool for managing multilateral calls on an international level as was proven in this second round. Key features are a central Call Secretariat for the call administration, the close interaction with one of the IUPAC divisions, and the willingness of the funding partners to overcome administrative hurdles to shape an international research area that strengthens collaborative research in the chemical sciences. The CCRF members are very much committed to further contribute to the international research area. The next steps and future directions will be subject of the discussions during the annual CCRF meeting.

Markus Behnke < > is Program Director at the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)German Research Foundation located in Bonn, Germany. Laura McConnell and Chris Ober are both member of the IUPAC Bureau and liaison with CCRF.


About the article

Published Online: 2014-07-17

Published in Print: 2014-07-01

Citation Information: Chemistry International, Volume 36, Issue 4, Pages 4–7, ISSN (Online) 1365-2192, ISSN (Print) 0193-6484, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ci.2014.36.4.4.

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