How The First VIRS lost its funding

Last May I put together this budget, and Dr. Adam Kampff, my advisor and group leader of the Intelligent Systems Lab, approved me to use 10,000 GBP of his lab funds to hire people to illustrate the graphic novel portion of my thesis. In academia, these kinds of budgets are often allocated autonomously by research group leaders, as the scientific merit of individual projects are often best known to the group leader. Thus, I made an open call for artists on Twitter, Facebook, on my personal website, and via mailing lists and online forums. By September 2018, with the administrative approval from the head of the lab secured, I hired an initial cohort of artists, based on submitted portfolios, artistic/scientific background, and face-to-face interviews, then contracted their work at a fixed rate based on standard industry rates. Excited to dive into the work of translating my story script and diagram descriptions into illustrations, my collaborators and I worked intensely to meet our first project deadline in December.

When I began the process of trying to pay my artists, the administrative staff at our host institute suddenly became very concerned about my advisor’s decision to support this project with his lab funds. On February 1, 2019, the directors of the institute stepped in to request a detailed justification of the use of Dr. Kampff’s lab budget to fund this project, asking us to “Please understand that all of our expenses are subject to audit and we have a responsibility to make sure that our funders would consider any expenses valid.” In addition, they told us that “given that risk that the expenses may not be justifiable, please advise the artists to stop any ongoing work.”

I immediately shared the project’s github repository where I had been writing the story script and documenting the project. I also linked the directors to the dropbox folders containing all of the illustrated content created thus far, which was already a substantial portion of the complete work. I wrote a detailed justification for every item listed in the budget, explaining why I chose to work with so many artists, and how this unusually large collaboration required extra design work in order to coordinate visual elements across so many artistic styles. My advisor also spoke to them in person, hoping to make clear how this project fits into his research vision and my thesis work of developing diverse tools and strategies for studying minds and making neuroscience reserach more accessible.

The directors came back to us with their verdict a few days later:

“In considering the justification you have provided, we have decided that:

  1. The funds for scientific illustrations used in your thesis and in any subsequent research publications are supportable (£480 in your recent budget request)
  2. The graphic novel work and related character and dream sequence development is not research activity and thus is not a valid research expense and cannot be provided via Adam’s budget.”

Given how much illustration work was already done (one artist had already completed all illustration and colouring work), and the rapidly approaching submission date for my PhD thesis, I tried to appeal the directors’ decision. I asked University College of London, our institute’s host university, for a letter of support. Helen Craig, a public engagement advisor whom I met when I was awarded a UCL Train and Engage fellowship last year, kindly wrote the following letter on behalf of the UCL Culture department:

“I have worked with Danbee supporting her projects, and I’m writing to express my own and UCL Culture’s support for public engagement projects such as her graphic novel thesis. I understand that this is a complex situation, but I hope I can set the policy context for the importance of public engagement within research.

We see work like this as essential to achieving UCL’s core mission of transforming how knowledge is created and shared– and in enhancing the university’s impact on society.

The new UCL Research Strategy for 2019 also highlights the importance of this area, with one of the three aims of the strategy being crossing boundaries to increase engagement between disciplines, communities and activities. Our own Public Engagement Strategy, accessible at this link, goes into more detail of our support for engagement as a team, and is strategy is supported by the principle theme of UCL 2034 - making UCL an accessible and publically engaged university.

Wellcome themselves are keen supporters of public engagement, and have previously funded graphic novel and comic book projects through their own Public Engagement funds. Just last week they published a blog post on their desire for a diverse and innovative public engagement practice. The Gatsby charitable foundation also believe that promoting public engagement with contemporary science plays an important part in ensuring that today’s scientific research has a healthy future.

I know that the decision is in your hands, but I hope that this can inform your thinking around justification for the expenses. I’m happy to discuss anything in more detail.

Many thanks for reading, and all my best

Dr. Kampff also made a written statement of his view of the project in the following email:

“Hi All,

I feel I should clarify my view. This project, as with all of the projects in my lab, have mixed both research and engagement components. For example, the lab (Danbee and Goncalo) developed a public science exhibit (now permanent) at the Brighton Sea Life centre, that was both a psycho-physics research experiment and an explanatory demonstration of how one’s eye movements interrogate a complex scene and respond to unexpected events. As another example, we have spent years gathering validation data for advanced CMOS electrodes, and have invested extensive resources in sharing this data with the broader scientific and non-scientific community (e.g. there was event at SWC dedicated to exploring these datasets with professional musicians, as well as number of VR projects in collaboration with groups at Central St. Martins and the Bartlett).

As you know, and as I discussed with [name redacted] on Friday, I have clearly understood my mandate as a group leader at the [institute name redacted] to pursue both neuroscience research and to explore new ways to do neuroscience research. With this understanding, I felt justified to pursuing these projects, many of which make up the bulk of Danbee’s thesis.

My personal view is that neuroscience has a unique, and largely untapped, potential relative to other domains of science. Unlike particle physics, for example, a lay person’s knowledge about the brain, its role in one’s own behaviour and the behaviour of others, is significant, as it is necessary for navigating the complexity of human society. Most of the research/engagement projects that my lab has pursued have focused on finding novel ways to “tap” this potential…both to aid neuroscience research, and to improve society.

Both Danbee and I have been intrigued by the power of “a good story”, and its impact on collective understanding in society, since the beginning of her PhD project. (…from why are (human) brains capable of such coordination? …to what aspects of a story are most effective?). Given my (and Danbee’s) interest in engaging the broad base of “lay expertise” in neuroscience research, it thus felt obvious to pursue this via an actual “story” that we could publish in a variety of formats and with a professional quality sufficient to attract a large audience (hence the need to recruit people who can actually draw).

I hope this helps explain where I was coming from, and my goals for this project and Danbee’s thesis. Thank you for highlighting the public engagement funding scheme; we are working on the application right now (but we would appreciate some clarification on the deadline for this current round of funding).

I still feel that this project, like the others in my lab, represents a mix of research and engagement, and that it should be possible to support this with lab funds, although I recognize that this may not be the view of our funders. Towards clarifying their goals, Danbee had already contacted Helen Craig from UCL Culture, cc’ed, to offer the UCL perspective, and she has very kindly provided the attached letter. I would be very happy to contact both Wellcome and Gatsby to explain my views on this (and the other projects in my lab), if you think this could help justify the use of lab budget given the funders’ goals.

Please let me know how to proceed, and thanks for your time,

After receiving these letters of support on February 5, 2019, the directors provided no official written response to Dr. Kampff’s email for more than 3 months.

Thanks to the staunch support of Helen Craig and our institute’s Communications Manager, the institute’s Public Engagement Fund was able to grant us a generous award on February 22, 2019, which could cover part of the contractualized payments; however, we are still 4,800 GBP short of the amount necessary to pay the artists in full.

Given the decision made by our host institution’s directors, and with the encouragement of our colleagues, friends, and family, Dr. Kampff and I decided to ask our wider community of collaborators and supporters for help. We will launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money necessary to pay our artist collaborators the full amount that was stipulated by contract when they first signed onto the project - a reasonable and fair compensation for their time and skills.

If you would like to help us meet this goal, please JOIN OUR CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN! And THANK YOU SO MUCH, from all of us working on The First VIRS!

Project Credits

Meet the artists and illustrators of The First VIRS!

Project License

Creative Commons Licence
Vigilante Intergalactic Roustabout Scholars (VIRS) by Danbee Kim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at
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