The pressures on one who has opted for a research career-path can be quite daunting. Ask me. I have been there. 

It is not enough to be qualified with a masters or doctoral degree. One must strive to be current in the chosen research discipline, thus requiring much reading and engagement with one’s peers. You also need to possess critical skills for writing to persuade that will result in winning proposals. No one teaches you these skills during your research training. Foremost in proposal writing is being able to articulately defend your rationale and reasoning to find favor with funders.  You will soon discover that your university degrees do not guarantee you success in research. There is much more to it.

I was fortunate to be trained by top-notch research mentors and be integrated into proposal writing soon after my doctoral studies in New Zealand in 1989. The next 20 or so years as a bench scientist were a real hard struggle. We fought for each penny to support our research work. I must confess it was much easier in the earlier years of my evolution as a scientist, since there was plenty of unrestricted (core) funding coming to my home institution, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). The founding director, the late Professor Thomas Risely Odhiambo chose his research priorities with visionary precision and could convince the donors to provide funding. The man was very articulate and a good wordsmith who designed proposals with uttermost skill. Donors in the 70s and 80s were relatively easy to deal with and what most one did was to make personal contacts with key staff.  Odhiambo understood the very inner workings of donors, especially that their main business was to spend.  Thus, applying for funds was to the donors’ interest.  This is something that most grant seekers do not know up to this day. That is why Odhiambo was bold in his approach for funding. He never asked for small investments. Odhiambo would actively seek to meet one on one with donor representatives over a meal and discuss a project idea. Details would follow later as he would summon the members of the Planning and Development Unit (PDU) then ably led by Mrs. Rhoda Odingo with her lean team of Dr. Wellington Otieno, Jason Kapkirwok and Mary Bugembe. A full proposal would be submitted thereafter. In some cases, Odhiambo would constitute a planning working group that would thrash out and market a programme idea. I saw this firsthand when Prof. Ahmed Hassanali led and marketed the Desert Locust Programme to large organisations such as FAO and IFAD. It was like turning a ship in mid sea. Hitherto, pesticides had been sprayed as locust swarms invaded, totally in disregard of the environment. To market the programme idea and ICIPE’s projects, Odhiambo constituted mobile seminars to donor countries in Europe, US and the Far East. 

Relative ease in obtaining donor funding ended in the early 90s. Some say it had to do with Iraq war. Anyhow, ICIPE scientists were reduced to intensely scrapping for allocations of core funding. Many fell and had to be shown the gate if they were unable to convince management to allocate core funding. 

The scrapping could get quite intense. There was this tick scientist from Tanzania who bared his fangs. He orchestrated deadly Machiavelli moves that included threatening other fellow scientists. The fellow is alleged to be behind some macabre act of slashing experimental cows held at the Centre. I have narrated how I was a victim of the times when the breeding tsetse colony under my charge was roasted in an incubator, which had been deliberately turned up to almost 70 degrees centigrade. This cut-throat competition is not alien in many research institutions where the `publish or perish’ is a norm. Scientists have been known to plagiarize research findings to survive the harsh times. I tell you, it is not easy to be a research scientist. Things were not made simple for us since the institution was subject to external periodic reviews (EPERs). In response, Odhiambo kept his close watch on scientists’ performance. We had to annually undergo a performance evaluation. I saw eminent professors so rattled by the experience that they dithered like idiots.

Odhiambo paid his staff well but not to the same level as other international centres such as ILRAD (now ILRI). He argued that high salaries would encourage more brain drain. He urged that we work hard and salaries would be improved once funding was available. Professor Kwesi Prah from Ghana would hear none of it. He declared that he did not believe in messianic promises of live a good life on earth to be rewarded in heaven. He wanted his heaven here and now. Odhiambo face darkened. The room was silent. No one had ever seen Odhiambo confronted thus. It was at those times most of us wished we would cross over and become employed by donor agencies. We believed that we would finally come to enjoy our scientific careers where we were involved in making decisions on who to fund and for what activity.

Strategist Jason KapKirwok moved to COMESA in 1998 and later joned Kenya Airways in 2000. ICIPE trained entomologist Dr. Kenneth Kambona joined USAID in 2005 and provided an eye opener to crossing the divide. American-trained ICIPE Biochemist Dr. Ellie Onyango Osir soon after broke the ranks in 2005 and joined the prestigious Canadian funding organization known as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and was posted to Singapore. I followed in 2008 when I was competitively recruited to join a new collaboratively funded organization, the Consortium of National Health Research (CNHR) which provided funding for health research capacity strengthening. It is here that I deputized a great mind by the name of Professor Gilbert Kokwaro. I initially felt so thankful for being among the chosen few to cross the divide, no longer having to worry about writing grants. Hereafter, my life could only be brighter (you may need dark glasses) and less stressful, or so I thought.

How wrong I was!

The donor world is extremely complicated and bears tremendous pressure to the cogs in the wheel, the programme officers. You have funding targets that must be met. You must arrange for external review to select those most deserving to be funded. Having chosen grantees, oversight on milestone delivery as well as audit of spending become a must. Quality must not be compromised and so monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are regular activities. For each project funded, one must show how the research outputs are contributing to influencing policy and practice. You also soon discover that donors hate to have to report underspends and `save’ on budgeted funding. These are critical targets to meet or you will soon be declared as an `under-achiever’ and shown the door. Donors and funders can be quite fussy when their money is not utilized and they actively look for those to blame. Having crossed from grant-seeking to grant-giving, I realise that Odhiambo was right.  Funders tend to welcome grantees who are confident about their projects and ability to deliver. 

Somehow, somewhat I and my friends have crossed the delicate divide from being a researcher to being a donor agent. My daily plate consists of providing meticulous seminars on why researchers must write winning proposals that can attract funding. It includes the identification of experienced external merit peer reviewers to assess proposals as well as providing constructive comments to those who do not qualify for awards. In our parlance, we call this `research supplier market engagement’.

Young researchers look up to me with awe and eagerness believing that I can make their lives easier and provide them with some quick funding. I wish they could be made aware of my disposition and my daily struggles to avail them of the research funding they crave for!

Mahatma in the epic movie `Gandhi’ says this: 

I have travelled so far only to find myself back at home.


3 Comments on Reminiscing on being a Career Scientist – Part 2: Crossing the Divide

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