On the evolution of a research project

The BioORE Logo, designed by Lizz Score for the University of Plymouth Document Production Centre.

The BioORE Logo, designed by Lizz Score for the University of Plymouth Document Production Centre.

Last month, I got an email I had both been waiting for and dreading in equal measure - the email to tell me the outcome of a grant application to the Natural Environment Research Council for something called "Catalyst Funding". A Catalyst grant is a small grant - less than £125,000 in this case - that basically gives you time and assistance with getting together the people, the information and the resources to apply for a much bigger grant down the road. This particularly Catalyst is part of the Security of Supply of Mineral Resources call and is only available for work involving the so-called "E-tech" it happened, the email was good news - we had obtained funding and the project officially starts on 1st September 2013 and runs for 9 months. I thought it might be of use to undergraduates, postgraduates, early-career scientists and the taxpayer (who basically pays for this kind of research) to understand how these projects come about, evolve and get funded and so that is what I am exploring today.

I'm never completely sure what those outside of research management think the origin of projects is like - I think they picture either high-powered meetings in boardrooms with suits sometimes but it's more often than not the corner of a crowded pub, writing on the back of an old bus ticket! In the case of this project, known as BioORE [Biogeochemistry, Bioextraction & Biorecovery of Rare Earth Elements], it was mostly born by email but I guess the conception was sitting on some steps overlooking St Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, eating lunch, in February 2013. As is often the way in life, some plans fall through but they gain us valuable knowledge, experience and contacts and for me, that happened a few years ago now when I was trying to get a job at the University of Birmingham, which wasn't to be, but in the process, I met Prof Lynne Macaskie who I share a lot of research interests with and we're pretty much on the same wavelength. We'd discussed biogeochemical issues of the rare earths back when we first met but since I'd moved to Plymouth, I'd opened a programme of research dedicated to understanding and exploiting their biogeochemistry, so when we met for lunch several years later outside the Bull Ring Shopping Centre, sparks of ideas started to fly.

I was in Birmingham that day because Lynne had invited me to present some of my rare earth work at a meeting she had organised, funded by and attended by the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency as part of their REIMEI initiative. I managed to collar Lynne and ask if I could join her and others for lunch and once we got talking we realised a lot of what I was already doing and she was already doing could be put together and we started to discuss putting in a grant in December 2013. A few weeks later, I got an email from Lynne to say that NERC had a call for Catalyst projects in exactly the area we were already starting to think about and would I like to join her and others to form a consortium. Little did I know that when I said "yes", within a few weeks I would end up as Director of said consortium and end up writing the grant over a very hectic few weeks which, as luck would have it, marked Lynne's first holiday in a decade - some holiday - we were emailing at midnight as she was in Australia! But to cut a hectic, not-the-right-way-to-do-it-really story short, we got it in on time, thanks to some seriously hard work and patience on the part of the Research & Innovation teams at all of the institutions involved. These are the people who perform the thankless tasks of calculating grant finances, working out overheads, working out salaries and generally beavering away behind the scenes to pull it all together for us - like all Support Staff in all companies of any type, they're often amazing at what they do but seldom seem to get recognition for it.

Monazite from Østfold, Norway. A REE phosphate mineral that also contains thorium and uranium. (Image Copyright © 2010 Rob Lavinsky/iRocks.com CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Monazite from Østfold, Norway. A REE phosphate mineral that also contains thorium and uranium.

(Image Copyright © 2010 Rob Lavinsky/iRocks.com CC-BY-SA-3.0)

I should probably explain what the grant is all about really. The rare earth elements (REEs) are a group of metal from the f-block of the periodic table - that weird bit down the bottom where they all have stupid names or are radioactive or both. Only a few of the REEs are radioactive, however, and those that are release like one alpha particle a week so present no real hazard. The REEs comprise the lanthanide series along with yttrium and scandium from the d-block of metals, usually. They are very important metals and if you own a mobile phone, a modern car, have every had an MRI scan or x-ray or own a TV, you are pretty dependent on the REEs. They're used to make all sorts of things from car body alloys to MRI contrast fluids to x-ray detectors to LCD screens to electronic components and even ceramics. Irritatingly, for metals so useful, they're only found in decent amounts in a few places around the world, but, they are found in smaller amounts elsewhere. The essential goal of BioORE is to look at where REEs are found and in what form and to exploit several biotechnologies to extract and refine them in a clean, green manner.elements - those essential for environmental technologies. 

So what does research funding actually provide? In this case, it mostly pays for staffing costs - some of my time (and that of the other academics and researchers in the UK who are involved) is ring-fenced so that I can dedicate about 10% of the next 9 months to this project. We also have travel money for various meetings and some money to undertake a little bench research to get some pilot data for the bigger grant application downstream. Yes, by May 2014, I need to submit a longer, larger grant application for a much bigger project based on BioORE! Scary stuff...!