Rubicons abroad under pressure

International exchanges for scientists are feeling the squeeze from the corona crisis. Specifically, from the international travel bans. This issue is giving rise to problematical situations, particularly for personal grants, like the Rubicon for newly qualified postdoctoral researchers. TU/e winners are equally affected. “Flexibility and resilience are very important qualities in these strange times.”

photo Shutterstock / Brigit Span

Every year some sixty young scientists travel abroad on a Rubicon grant provided by research funding body NWO. This grant, which is intended to enable postdocs to gain foreign experience, has been won by many TU/e applicants in recent years.

The corona crisis is raining on the parade of some Rubicon laureates; they are finding they cannot travel to the institutions where they plan to do their research.

“International exchanges for researchers are currently under huge pressure due to the travel restrictions,” says Gerard Verschuren, head of the Research Support Office at TU/e. “There are certain countries that you simply cannot enter. This is a big problem for researchers on a grant that relies on international mobility. Travel has resumed in Europe, but farther afield it's still difficult.”

Not in Boston but at home

Ivana Abramovic, a postdoc at Applied Physics, was supposed to travel this month to MIT on a Rubicon grant to do research into fusion as a source of energy. With the emphasis on 'supposed to' because corona has put paid to that. “The research group at MIT that I was supposed to join is having to work from home, until at least the end of this year,” she says. Following consultations with NWO, MIT and TU/e, it was decided that she should start her project remotely from Eindhoven..

“It is a great shame that I'm now working from home instead of being based in Boston. Fortunately, this has not jeopardized the timeline for my project. I have switched my working hours to suit the American time zone so that I can work with my colleagues there more easily.”

Abramovic hopes the situation will improve in 2021 and that she will still be able to go to the US for her research, albeit much later than intended. “The Rubicon is for 24 months. It would be great if I still had the chance to spent some time in Boston.”

Extension

TU/e is not the only university to have spent some time in lockdown, making lab work impossible. If researchers do not get their work finished in the allotted time due to the restrictions caused by the corona crisis, what then? “Who is going to pay for a possible extension?” says Verschuren of the Research Support Office. “I'm not yet picking up any signals within Europe that research funding bodies are offering to do so.”

Postdoc Mani Diba is stationed in Houston at Rice University, where he is doing research on materials that promote tissue regeneration. “The pandemic prompted them to close the university here temporarily,” says Diba. “Now things are slowly starting up again, but my research is progressing relatively slowly. I may not achieve all my project objectives, but I do expect to complete the majority of them on time.”

For his next step, Diba has been awarded a Marie Curie Global Fellowship, and does not expect, therefore, to be disadvantaged in any way if the Rubicon grants are not extended. “After this, I'm going to Harvard and after that I'll be coming back to TU/e. Still, I hope for the other Fellows that they get an extension. It would help many of them during this period of crisis.”

Similarly, Tommaso Ristori managed to convert his Rubicon grant, which is enabling him to research the formation of new blood vessels at Boston University, after one year into a different, two-year grant. “That was my good fortune and it means I won't have to ask for an extension. The lab in Boston was closed for three months and I was stuck in the Netherlands due to the travel ban for people from the Schengen region. Fortunately, I was able to run simulations and this allowed me to do my work remotely.”

Resilience

Postdoc Beatrice Adelizzi has for some time been working at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris on the development of light-sensitive molecules that can be switched on and off for the purposes of photoacoustic imaging. She was initially supposed to do this on a Rubicon grant, but for the same period she also received a Marie Curie grant, and she accepted this grant instead.

France spent two months in lockdown. “I spent this period working from home. I was able to do data analyses and write articles based on an earlier research project, but working from home is far from ideal for an experimentalist. Owing to the lockdown I was unable to complete my collaboration with another research group. They could not wait until May so that I could complete my experiment and submit the paper,” says Adelizzi.

She has organized her work and program in such a way that she is almost ready to submit two articles for publication based on her first 18 months as a postdoc. “The corona crisis has delayed my work considerably, but I fervently believe that flexibility and resilience are very important qualities in these strange times.”

At present, scientists are being allowed once again to work without restrictions in the labs at the École Normale Supérieure, says Adelizzi. “We are also allowed to visit other institutes in order to collaborate with them. But the number of COVID-19 infections is currently rising fast in France and it is difficult to predict the course of the trend over the coming months.”

Vici sacrifice

Over the summer, three Dutch Rubicon laureates made a study of the situation in which their fellow laureates find themselves. It revealed that many of them are concerned about their work and whether they will complete their work within the period covered by the grant. The three researchers calculated that providing all Rubicon laureates with a three-month extension would cost some 1.5 million euros.

No additional funding will be made available by NWO for an extension. The suggestion that a Vici grant be sacrificed - the value of which is 1.5 million euros - cannot be entertained. NWO cannot simply scrap a Vici grant, says a spokesperson. The research funding body cannot reallocate its budgets, because that money is earmarked for particular grants. Ruling coalition parties VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie have submitted written questions to the minister asking whether, nonetheless, something can be done.

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