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A win-win situation


Host and home labs should both benefit from international exchange

After two years of being stopped or severely curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Royal Society’s International Exchanges programme is back to full strength. 

As ever, its goal is to kick-start collaborations between scientists based in the UK and elsewhere in the world, via either one-off visits or bilateral travel.

Applications for collaborations with all countries outside the UK are accepted. The project leaders in both the UK and the partner country must have completed a PhD or have experience at an equivalent level.

The grants pay for travel from three months to two years to support collaborations in all the natural sciences except clinical medicine. The maximum amount available per application is £12,000, which includes up to £3,000 in research expenses. Applications close on 28 September.

Daniel Evans, a research fellow at Cranfield University’s Soil and Agrifood Institute, applied last year for an exchange and received notification this year that he had won. The process is not very onerous, he says, but there are a few key things to keep in mind.

What is your project about?

The project is looking at the release of ancient rock-derived carbon and the factors that might affect the release of this carbon into the soil system. When bedrock weathers, it releases all this carbon into soil. We want to know: how much carbon is being released from the bedrock into the soil and where does that carbon go—is it emitted back into the atmosphere, and how stable is it?

Where are you going to travel for your exchange and why?

There are rock types in the UK that contain ancient carbon, like shales. But these [geophysical] systems are usually cultivated or managed. What we really wanted was an unmanaged system. When glaciers retreat, they often leave a fresh surface of material and soils often form after that point. I’m going over to Switzerland to look at some glacial regions there and work with ETH Zürich. A big reason why I wanted to go there was that one of the most world-renowned scientists in this area, my collaborator Thomas Blattmann, has recently moved there.

How was the application?

It was straightforward: an online-based application with multiple sections. There were no surprises in what I was asked to write. A lot of the technical aspects of the project were the kind of thing that we would write for most applications. The one unique aspect of the system is the fact that it’s online, so multiple participants can access the dashboard at one time. This makes it very easy to manage versions of the proposal and share that around. Rather than sharing PDFs around by email, Blattmann was able to look at the application on this system.

What did you keep in mind when completing the application?

The application didn’t specifically ask for a breakdown of activities in each country, although it did ask for details of the research proposal. In that part of the application, we needed to write objectives for the work in Switzerland and the UK. A section of the application asked for benefits for both countries and territories. In this section, I was acutely aware that we would need to develop a proposal that would benefit both the UK and Switzerland.

How did you do that?

That’s where the comparative nature of the project comes in. One really needs to observe an unmanaged system for a natural baseline, which is why the work in Switzerland is so important. But it is true that a lot of soils are managed, so one of the great benefits of this project is that while we observe in natural systems, we can also observe the effects of land management on the process. That’s what we’re going to do here in the UK.

How did the review go?

It went well. It was slightly delayed. We submitted the application at the end of September. I hoped that it would be reviewed and we would receive the results after three to six months, but it ended up being towards the end of the six-month period and we didn’t really receive results until the end of March this year. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we obviously had not anticipated that in our time management of the project and we had to adjust some of the pipeline in the research to accommodate a later start.

Any last words of advice for future applicants?

For this particular scheme, it’s really important to think of a project that can take full advantage of an international exchange. Obviously, it needs to be a robust and sound scientific proposal but it also needs to provide benefits for both countries.

I’d also add that, whenever possible, working with someone just outside your normal discipline can potentially enhance the application. Blattmann would not call himself a soil scientist, I’m sure. One of the benefits of our research project is that we have multiple disciplines represented: he is a biogeochemist—more of a specialist in geology than soils—whereas I’m a trained soil scientist. 

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