A hot opportunity for early-career scientists in wintry Finland

People planning wintertime travel often head for balmy temperatures and sunny skies. For a select handful of early-career Ph.D. holders, however, the destination of choice late next November will be Helsinki, where daylight lasts all of 7 hours per day and average temperatures are just above freezing. That may sound the opposite of enticing. But for at least one of those scientists, the trip to the world’s second most northerly national capital should mean a hotter career and much brighter funding prospects.

That’s because each of these scientists will have received one of 10 coveted invitations to compete in the final round of a scientific funding program unlike any I’ve heard of before: the Skolar Award contest. This competition offers a “lighter option” for seeking research support, its sponsors say. Instead of evaluating scientists’ ability to accumulate data and divide it into the maximum number of densely worded journal papers, it rewards those who create brief, cogent descriptions that vividly convey their research’s central idea and importance. Instead of measuring impact by how many experts refer to an applicant’s papers in papers of their own, it asks how a scientist’s work can help solve a significant real-world problem. And instead of selecting a winner in a study section composed of senior eminences in the applicants’ subfields, it makes the choice on the main stage of Slush, a flashy annual technology and innovation conference that attracts a large audience of innovators, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and journalists from many countries. (The gathering’s name, a knowledgeable Finn informs me, conveys both the ambient climate and the “gritty Finnish sense of humor.”) 

With its festival atmosphere and a panel of judges from the worlds of venture capital and communications as well as science, the Skolar Award contest also expresses a somewhat subversive notion: that researchers need not only to discover important new knowledge, but also to convey it beyond the lab and readers of scientific journals so that society at large can understand it, value it, benefit from it, and support it.

Putting the fun in funding

The winner gets €100,000 (approximately $122,000) to support a year or two of research. Though this amount may not be unusual among early-career grants, the process of competing for it certainly is. Anyone from any country or field who has an exciting research idea and has held a Ph.D. for 5 years or less, not counting time off for parental leave, can enter. (The award organizers call Skolar a contest for “postdocs,” but they use the term to mean any Ph.D. holder, not in the North American sense of a temporary trainee in a senior researcher’s laboratory).   

Rather than submitting a traditional grant proposal complete with budget, technical discussion of the intended research design, details of the work’s place in the relevant academic field, and a list of publications and impact factors, each applicant provides only a CV and answers (in English) to a series of questions about the proposed research’s nature and significance. Last year’s application specified that the six required answers could not exceed a total of 5000 characters, including spaces—the equivalent of about a page and a half of single-spaced typing. The goal is concision, cogency, and clarity rather than comprehensiveness.

The 10 finalists are chosen based on three criteria, according to the competition’s website: societal relevance, novelty and uniqueness, and scientific courage. In an era when prominent observers of the scientific scene have taken to a major journal to bemoan the prevalence of “conservative, short-term thinking in applicants, reviewers, and funders” within a system that “favors those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas,” the Skolar Award’s preference for “scientific courage” over incremental success is refreshing indeed. “We think scientific courage means investigational risk-taking, open-mindedness, outdoing yourself and believing in your own voice,” the competition website explains. “Failure is not something to be ashamed of either.”

At the finals, each contestant presents, to an assembly reminiscent of a TED talk, a 3-minute pitch in English explaining how their research meets the announced standards, followed by several minutes of questions from the judges. Once all the presentations are complete, the judges confer and announce the winner on the spot, even presenting a giant cardboard check.

The 2017 Skolar Award was presented to Johan Seijsing (center, in red).

Viya Pursiainen/Kaskas Media

To make this choice, the judges use an additional uncustomary criterion: presentation. “An impressive pitch,” the contest website explains, “manages to condense the main message into a stimulating presentation format of a few minutes [that] is understandable and motivates the listener. At its best, a successful pitch performance is an invitation: it arouses the listener's curiosity and gets them to ask for more.”

Big career benefits

Of course, giving a brief, clear, compelling lay-language synopsis of one’s research is not a skill that comes naturally to most scientists. The Skolar competition, which was founded by the Helsinki communications firm Kaskas Media and funded by prominent Finnish foundations, aims to remedy that. In the weeks before coming to Helsinki, each finalist must complete mandatory training—conducted primarily by Skype—in how to create and present an effective pitch. (You can watch all of the 2017 finals pitches here.) Beyond that, the entire contest aims to underline the value of scientists learning to communicate clearly about their work.

Such effective communication was both a challenge and a reward for Virpi Muhonen, who was part of the team that won the first Slush science pitching competition in 2015, when the prize purse was just €3000. “It was really educational, as a scientist, to force yourself to make a commercial-oriented presentation about your work,” she told Science Careers by email. “If you can't pitch it, why should anyone … care enough to finance your research?” adds Muhonen, who is currently CEO of a company developing methods to repair cartilage.

“Having won the Skolar Award changes a lot,” observes 2017 winner Johan Seijsing, a postdoctoral researcher at Stockholm University, in an email to Science Careers. He is using his €100,000 prize to study a novel approach to treating bacterial infections that he believes will short-circuit antibiotic resistance, and he expects that the communication skills the Skolar competition helped him develop will boost his chances of additional funding in the future. The prize “has also led to a lot of publicity,” in both lay and scientific magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals, raising his visibility in the scientific community. “Old colleagues have congratulated [me] and I’ve received at least one collaboration offer,” Seijsing says. 

Even for nonwinners, the experience “can be worth a jackpot,” writes Vincenzo Cerullo, a 2015 finalist, by email. After his pitch at the finals, an audience member representing an international investment group approached him, ultimately leading to Cerullo co-founding a company now working to bring a cancer immunotherapy to market. Beyond that, adds Cerullo, who is also a faculty member at the University of Helsinki, “the training that I got for my pitch has served me very well in all my speeches including the interview for big grants.” Overall, the experience “changed my mindset,” he says. Instead of thinking of his science only in terms of research, “now I know that if we really want to impact the society and make this a better world then we need to make sure that our discover[ies] do not only stay in our laboratories.”

So, any recent Ph.D. with an idea that could bring constructive change and a yen to share it might consider giving the Skolar competition a try. Even those who don’t get to the finals will benefit from the effort to craft short, vivid descriptions of their science and its potential impact. The application period opens in May this year, according to Annina Huhtala of Kaskas Media. Finalists will receive paid accommodation for the finals but must provide their own transportation to Helsinki—often upward of $1000 from North America. So, beyond deciding how to interest nonscientists in your research, it may be time to start collecting credit card air miles—just in case—and thinking warm thoughts about a dream trip next winter to slushy Finland.

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