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Time is of the essence


‘Why now?’ is a key question for potential Ernest Rutherford fellows

Ernest Rutherford Fellowships, the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s flagship awards for early career researchers, are open again. 

This year, the council will support up to 10 five-year fellowships in astronomy, solar and planetary science, particle physics, particle astrophysics, cosmology, nuclear physics and accelerator science.

There is no upper limit on funding, although the total available pot of £6 million—divided by the 10 fellowships on offer—gives an indication of the amount that scientists are expected to apply for. The deadline for applications is 13 September.

As Seshadri Nadathur, who started his Ernest Rutherford Fellowship this year at the University of Portsmouth, found out, competition is fierce, even at the pre-application stage. He recounts how he won through.

What does your project involve?

I will make use of very large datasets that we are currently or shall soon start collecting. These comprise measurements of the positions and redshifts of millions of galaxies, using the very latest state-of-the-art telescope surveys. 

It also involves analysing the data collected in these surveys using new techniques that I’m working on implementing. We’ll be using the statistics of regions without many galaxies to infer cosmological properties of the universe as a whole.

What did you keep in mind when writing the proposal?

The main thing was that everyone who’s applying will be doing good research but there’s not enough funding to go around. You’ve therefore got to build a very good case for not only why the research you’re going to do will be of high quality but also why it’s interesting to people outside your immediate subfield. 

And probably even more importantly, why it needs to be done now. If that bit is not clear, they might well give the money to somebody else who needs it more urgently.

Why did your research have to be done right now?

That comes down to a question of the timing coinciding with the surveys. I wrote the proposal back in 2019 and I was interviewed in the beginning of 2020. 

The survey that is most relevant to my proposal is called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, which has already measured about 12 or 13 million galaxies. That was just about coming online in the beginning of 2020. The commissioning phase got a little bit delayed by Covid, but it has been collecting data from 2021 onwards. That coincided with the timing of my fellowship, and I emphasised that I needed to work on it as the data came in. 

There’s also another survey based on a space telescope mission that I’m involved in which was due to be launched in 2022 when I wrote the bid. Unfortunately, that’s suffered some delays—but had that gone according to schedule, it would have been very timely as well.

How was the initial university selection process?

It wasn’t the first time I’ve tried to apply for this fellowship, but my previous attempt didn’t make it through the university selection. That process is quite competitive. This time I did get through, and in fact two universities offered to support me. From my perspective, the difficult bit was choosing whose offer to accept.

Did you do anything different this time around?

My application was just stronger all round. An extra year or two thinking about the shortcomings of the previous application obviously helped and I reflected on the feedback. 

That also meant I published more papers, which helped me to prove the case that I was trying to make, the quality of the research and feasibility of the research, and it also just meant the timeline coincided better with the starts of these surveys.

How did the proposal change?

The methods were different and research in the field had moved on in the intervening two or three years. Some of the things I said I would do in the first proposal, I had done, and I had new ideas in the meantime. It was a related proposal, not the same one.

What did you learn during the process that you’d like to pass on to other applicants?

You need to be at the table to play the game, so you should not be too selective in which universities you apply to in the initial round. That initial round is itself highly competitive and if you don’t have the support of a university department, you don’t get to apply at all.

Different university departments sometimes have a quota, where this year it’s the turn of a subgroup to select their candidate. It might be from astronomy this year and from particle physics the year after. Even a good application might simply not be supported by a particular university this year because they had someone from this field the previous year. So there’s a little bit of luck involved. To game that, apply to as many universities as you can for the internal round.

But then, if you get that support, you need to make a strong case for why you need to hold the fellowship at that particular university—don’t forget that. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com