SMBE Childcare Awards - an update by Aoife McLysaght

Just over a year ago, the SMBE Council decided to create childcare grants to help people with young children attend our conference [See previous blog post]. Childcare is just one of the many obstacles that can impede someone’s ability to attend a scientific meeting, but it was one that we felt we had the opportunity to mitigate.

We invited members of our Society with small children to apply for this no-restrictions, no-rules grant, and the responses were very interesting.

We gave out 23 grants, approximately two-thirds of them to female applicants. Three recipients were graduate students, ten postdoctoral researchers, seven non-tenured faculty, and three early-career tenured faculty.

Families were allowed to apply for up to $1000 dollars. We decided to work on an “honesty system” and not require receipts (we wanted to help people, not create an extra layer of administration). Nonetheless, only thirteen asked for the maximum amount, with one individual requesting $302, and another requesting $649.73. It was odd numbers like these that made me sure that our honesty system worked.

Applicants were given space to write a 300-word justification of their claim, which was intended to be used to prioritise cases for funding. As it turned out, this prioritisation wasn’t necessary as we had funds to support everyone who applied. However, it was very interesting to see what people wrote. Rather than pleading their case, some people used this small bit of space to thank us for the initiative, or to (gasp!) argue that others are probably more worthy.

“While this support would be a huge help to me, I imagine that it would be even more helpful to earlier stage folks. So while I hope that there are funds to help support me, I would be (almost) as happy to know that the funds are supporting other parents. I am confident that initiatives like this will help to continue to turn the tide.”

Our honesty system definitely worked!

The programme came about during discussions in our SMBE Council meeting last summer. A discussion that was kick-started by Ravinder Kanda (@ravinderkanda on Twitter) whispering in the ear of one of the Council that childcare issues remain a major hurdle. She was pushing on an unlocked door. Once we started talking about the issue we were unanimously enthusiastic to spend some of our Society funds in this way.

As far as we are aware, we are the first academic society or conference to award grants like these. We, and others, have provided subsidised childcare for several years, but this grant is different in that it is a cash award and is non-prescriptive in how it can be used. This flexibility is very important to families. Within the 23 applications there were probably 20 different strategies for managing childcare. Parents don’t necessarily want to bring their children with them, but even leaving them behind has associated costs. In other cases, the only option was to bring the child.

One of the childcare grant recipients was a nursing mother and she said that, as a postdoc, the extra airfare costs would have made her unable to attend the conference. For another family, both parents are academics who wanted to attend the conference, an issue that they have struggled with many times over the years. This grant had a big impact in making it possible for them to both attend the meeting.

While we are very happy with how things went for the first year, we are also looking for ways to improve the system. We had reserved $50,000 for this scheme, but ended up spending just under $20,000. This is partly because of some people who decided not to apply, presuming that others were more worthy. (I met a few people who said as much to me ... next time I hope they apply and let me prioritise the applications, should it come to that.) And partly because perhaps not enough people knew about it (so please spread the word!).

We want to encourage more people to apply for this so that we can get more participation in the meeting. For this first year we required that the children be five years old or younger. This was an arbitrary cut-off and of course childcare doesn’t suddenly become easy when your child is six. Because of this, we have decided to remove the age-restriction for applications. Additionally, some members of our community have children with long-term illnesses or disabilities which mean that even at older ages they will require care. These cases will always be eligible to apply, no matter if the child becomes an adult, and will be prioritised for funding.

The broad reaction to these childcare grants has been very gratifying. On social media such as Twitter and FaceBook, various people spoke about being unable to attend conferences because of childcare problems. Many people commended us for initiating this scheme. Plenty of others expressed a desire that other societies and conference organisers would do something similar.

I hope so too.

- Aoife McLysaght is PI of the Molecular Evolution laboratory at Trinity College Dublin ( )

  • Tuesday, August 04, 2015
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