"Buh-bye soft-money faculty", says the NSF

Nov 13 2008 Published by under Careerism

Oi. The Quantum Pontiff points to a brand new NSF policy which contains this little gem:

The significant changes include:
...
* A major revision of NSF's faculty salary reimbursement policy, to limit compensation for senior personnel to no more than two months of their regular salary in any one year from all NSF-funded grants;

Gulp. The NIH has also been muttering about getting local institutions to start pulling more of the load lately. Think this is around the corner for NIH-funding as well?

35 responses so far

  • Becca says:

    That could... get ugly.
    Still, it would make going into academia ever so slightly less terrifying (although the thing that scares me the most is having a full lab worth of people who's jobs depend on my grant funding in a country without any annual inflation adjustments for grants. Anyone want to start taking bets on how long it is before NIH and NSF decide grad students must be funded by their departments? Yeah, didn't think so).

  • Orac says:

    The NIH has also been muttering about getting local institutions to start pulling more of the load lately. Think this is around the corner for NIH-funding as well?

    If it is, it could very well devastate translational research, because salary support for clinicians is basically all that persuades a department to grant that clinician "protected time" to do research. Without that salary support, a clinician would be expected to cover that part of his/her salary by doing clinical work.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well, the NIH might very well apply a selected version of this. Perhaps exempting clinician / researcher types for exactly that reason.
    And the NIH-funded enterprise may be just so far down the road that they can't reel it back anyway. All I'm saying is that a lot of stuff that started as trial-balloon muttering and sounded pretty radical changes from status quo (like 12 page apps) actually got put into practice.
    Probably too early to panic but I'd say soft-money types should be asking some questions of NIH folks...

  • Becca says:

    Orac- I was going to say something incredibly snarky. Instead, I'll just ask a question. Do you have any good numbers on the % of translational research actually done by practicing clinicians?
    DM- I would think they'd have to wean people off of soft money gradually, if they were going to do it at all.

  • Odyssey says:

    I believe this isn't an entirely new policy on NSF's part, but more of a clarification of an existing one. The salary guidelines in their old proposal guide more or less sort of stipulated this, but it was so poorly written that not only did most people ignore or not understand it, I'm not sure that all NSF program officers quite understood it. I'll have to go back and look at an old proposal guide to make sure, but I think the preceding is right.
    Either way, it does suck for those on soft money who are funded in part by the NSF.
    And Becca, NSF is very unlikely to stop funding grad students. Or any other kind of student. They have a much stronger education mandate than the NIH. Perhaps one day I'll write a post about Broader Impacts...

  • Odyssey says:

    Okay, a quick read of the new guidelines reveals it's not so cut and dried:
    As a general policy, NSF limits salary compensation for senior project personnel to no more than two months of their regular salary in any one year. This limit includes salary compensation received from all NSF-funded grants. This effort must be documented in accordance with the applicable cost principles. If anticipated, any compensation for such personnel in excess of two months must be disclosed in the proposal budget, justified in the budget justification, and must be specifically approved by NSF in the award notice.
    Apparently, if you can write a really, really good justification, and your program director really, really likes you, you might be able to get more than two months. It sounds more and more like a clarification of the old "sort of only two months" policy.

  • Eric Lund says:

    Anyone want to start taking bets on how long it is before NIH and NSF decide grad students must be funded by their departments?
    I don't know about NIH (being a physics type), but NSF specifically includes training and education as part of their "broader impacts" mandate--folklore has it that an NSF proposal which does not provide for some form of student involvement or public outreach has a negligible chance of being funded (there are a handful of exceptions, such as faculty development grants). Which means that grad students, and even postdocs, are still eligible for full NSF funding. However, once you're past the postdoc stage, you're on your own.
    NASA, like NIH, has traditionally supported a network of soft money faculty. Getting rid of that funding would be as devastating in my field as it would be in biomedical research.

  • DM - I think NSF is trying to avoid cases where faculty might have 9 month appointments that are paid by their schools, and supplement that salary with NSF grants.
    In other words, I think they are saying that if the school covers your salary during the school year, you can only cover your off-season salary via NSF, i.e. no double-dipping.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I think that we all let the academic institutions in America get away with washing their hands off funding their faculty members. I have witnessed throughout my career how research universities gradually shifted from being the entities that pay and guarantee their faculty members' salary (whether their faculty had a funded grant or not) to simply be clearing houses of federal money that pays the salary of lucky few scientists, of multitudes of university administrators and the cost of many new buildings. If universities would focus on raising money for research in a similar way to the one they perfected the money raising systems for their sports, most of them would not be as dependent on Federal funding and would be able to advance science much faster than the pace of advancement the NIH and NSF can claim.
    I am afraid that in the battle to win the limited funding the federal government is budgeting for scientific research, we have lost the real purpose of our academic institutions. The present system selects the best grant proposal writer who could be a mediocre scientist, a cheat, or just a lucky bastard, while frequently allows the best and the brightest to fall.

  • becca says:

    *extreme snark alert*
    To be blunt, I find most older faculty to be out-of-touch whiners who are not willing to work hard, especially under pressure, to achieve their scientific goals. Some of them aren't even willing to carry their own weight and actually earn a salary through their grant support, but think that tenure magically means they deserve to be paid for sitting on their butts complaining about students.
    Now back to your regularly scheduled education on grant drama, already in progress...

  • whimple says:

    Unfortunately, the recent economic meltdown also means that since the investment portfolios of the semi-retired tenured faculty are in the tank, these people are going to stick around cashing the salary checks until they die. It's bad: junior faculty that can't properly get off the ground and get pushed out, and senior faculty that should go quietly, but won't.

  • Lorax says:

    The idea of NIH reducing salary support would devastate "academic" researchers as well. My university, which I consider to be the norm covers my salary, but expects me to cover as much as possible through grant support. If my grant support is reduced, I have to do more teaching to justify my salary (makes sense). If I am doing more teaching, I can do less research so it is a spiraling circle. Universities are not paying faculty salaries for scientists to conduct research, it seems that some people think universities do.

  • juniorprof says:

    Let's not harsh on senior faculty quite so much 🙂
    It is worth remembering that heavy teaching loads taken on by more senior faculty often reduce this burden on junior types allowing us more time to more fully develop funding opportunities for our newish labs. We have many such faculty and while they may not pull weight in terms of bringing in indirect costs, they are providing a valuable service to those of us that would otherwise be teaching all the time.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    This whole idea gives me the willies.
    I am a tenured hard-money type but I am still expected to bring in the majority of my salary. I am annual (AN=12 months) rather than academic year (AY=9 months) because I am part of an academic medical center. These limits may make sense for AY types, but what about AN people? If such salary limits were to occur from NIH, it would be titanic-like in the panic potential. It would also cost universities billions at a time when they dont have it.
    If they wanted to do this responsibly, they need to phase in such limits over perhaps 10 years so that universities could work on building their endowments etc to support faculty the way are supposed to.
    I like the concept, but the feds usually tend to screw up the implementation so as usual, I am dubious.
    So lets get drunk at SFN instead of worrying!
    Dr. F

  • Dr G says:

    DrugMonkey, I wonder if you wouldn't mind giving us an overview of soft vs hard money in scientific funding?

  • I'll volunteer for that one, Dr. G.
    Hard money = a contract with a salary. You get paid by your employer whether you have a grant or not.
    Soft money = money from grant funding. You only get paid if there is grant money to pay you.

  • jc says:

    Since most women are making less salary than men, some of us use the summer support to "catch up" while getting our cans kicked by our field research - limiting us to 2 months of salary from our grants really blows (and pays us less than our male counterparts!)
    My fellow full prof crusties absolutely do not pull their weights for teaching loads... I agree with whimple. Their 403b accts are tanked, they are raking in 80-100k salary, and refuse to teach more classes (above the required 1 per sem) and have no fed grants. We have a hiring freeze - but we need a forced retirement. That would provide starting salaries to newbies and eliminate ridiculous salaries for dead weight.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Wow, the generalization about older faculty members here sounds like Sarah Palin talking about Barack Obama's association with terrorists. Soon young scientists will demand term limits, although such demands could quickly sour when the young ones reach their limit.
    Blaming tenured, full professors for the economic problems of academia, again, is like blaming Obama for the recession.
    Even more surprising is how young scientists who see themselves as the future of science are willing to make such generalizations.

  • Unhappy postdoc says:

    Soft money positions suck.

  • whimple says:

    Blaming tenured, full professors for the economic problems of academia, again, is like blaming Obama for the recession.
    We're not blaming ALL the tenured, full professors, just the parasitic ones. 🙂

  • S. Rivlin says:

    whimple,
    If you believe that senior faculty should go out quietly because you are not good enough to secure a tenured position, what's science is to gain by replacing them with losers like you?

  • Dave says:

    I think policies that limit salary support for PIs are right on target. Biomedical research has increasingly become a business enterprise rather than a scientific endeavor. As long as NIH and NSF provide full salary support, there is a strong incentive for institutions to hire investigators with no salary support, hoping those investigators will get grants and therefore bring in indirect/facilities & administrative (F&A) money. Basically, soft money investigators are suckers who volunteer to write grants for the benefit of an employer unwilling to make any real investment in the researcher. This is terrible, because it abuses taxpayer money and creates a population of desperate scientists. Take a look at the Office of Research Affairs misconduct case list some time. Most fraudulent science is done by soft-money workers misrepresenting results to get grants. And who can blame them? Their ability to buy groceries and pay the rent is at stake.
    As taxpayers, we need to demand that NIH and NSF use their money wisely and efficiently -- which means demanding that institutional recipients of that money make REAL investments in the scientists who work there. As scientists, we need to stop thinking that scientific slave labor is acceptable.

  • whimple says:

    Oh S. Rivlin... you stopped trying long ago, didn't you?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    whimple,
    Yo should internalize Dave's wise words. In essence, he and I agree on the problems science in acadmic instituions faces today. As to my scientific career, I have survived by being a first class scientist, having several breakthough discoveries on my record and never, not even once, did I whined about senior professors, like you do.

  • TreeFish says:

    Can we censor Sol? I think he's taking things a bit personally. I just got hired at a major place-- but their whole deal is that they are primarily soft-money for Asst Profs (things get considerably better after tenure). There are plenty of resource-sucking full profs who wouldn't be missed if they retired.
    My take? Get rid of them...and reduce my indirects...and maybe even pad my unrestricted funds. People like Sol just don't understand the #1 rule of eh-Vaude-eh-ville: "Better know when it's time to go."
    Love you for what you did, but now you're just kind of in the way. Get out, and go quietly, so I can do what you had the opportunity to do.
    Sure, it broke my heart to explain to my dad that he shouldn't drive anymore. But, in doing so, perhaps I saved some people's lives. It breaks my heart to tell the older/senior scientists that their time has come, but I like to think that it is giving life to other (and most importantly younger) scientists.
    Sorry, Sol!

  • Dave says:

    Whining about useless tenured faculty misses the point and suggests ignorance. Pruning faculty deadwood doesn't address the NIH funding problem (which is after all the subject here). Remember, the NIH budget DOUBLED recently. There is still a lot more money given out than there was 10-15 years ago, when things were jolly and money was easy. So what's the problem? The problem is that there is not enough money at NIH to pay all the new soft-money suckers hired by institutions who are getting rich from the indirect money skimmed from the grants those suckers have to get just to pay themselves.
    You think the government should increase the NIH budget to fix the problem? Keep in mind that the number of applications has doubled, so the budget would have to double again -- to about 60 Billion dollars. Good luck with that, given other pressures on congress. Think your research is more important than public schools? Defense? Universal health care? Bailing out the banking or auto industries? Highway reconstruction? And even if congress decides to double the NIH budget again, I guarantee there'll be another wave of soft-money hiring. F&A costs on research are fine things, but not too lucrative for institutions; after all it does cost money to keep a research building running. But F&A money off salary -- now THAT'S where the money is. Think about it: Does your employer really need $25,000-$50,000 per year to 'administrate' your salary? No, of course not. It's basically profit, at taxpayer expense. And researchers should stop being complicit in this scam.
    NIH and NSF are not supposed to be welfare for people who spent too much time in school. Stop whining and get a real job.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    TreeFish,
    You, like Whimple, should pay more attention to Dave's wise words. Blaming me for your failures will not save your sorry ass. Most universities have put together oversight plans that suppose to root out full professor parasites by reviewing their performance annually. Censoring me won't make you a better scientist just because the truth coming from Dave and me about yourself cannot be heard. Both you and Whimple are big losers and the real parasites, whining instead of realizing that their brains are not up to par where science is concerned. You probably could stay in science by becoming a super technician in one's lab or simply find yourself a different vocation, but please don't feel sorry for yourself or other losers like you - typical spoiled Americans who take their entitlements for granted.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    OMG this is so funny.
    In the mid 90s I was an angry assistant professor railing against the dead wood at the top. Now I am a full professor laughing at the whiny babies at the bottom. Just do you work, publish, have a coherent research plan and learn to kiss some federal ass. Then in 10 years, you can roll your eyes, just like me, at this ludicrous poopoo throwing contest.
    Baby needs a bottle!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    hey doc F, the fight is barely started. You gotta wait a bit before you come in all reasonable like...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    In many ways, these assistant professors on soft money remind me of Sarah Palin, who hung on John McCain for her new career, which she is, of course, unqualified for, while all along wishing that he will die so she could take his place at the top.

  • zowie says:

    sol, the geezeriat reminds me of Dole and McCain. Righteously convinced it is their turn when the works has so clearly moved on!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    zowie,
    I'm actually a geezerjock. I finished my scientific stint, not whining even once about those who went before me. On the contrary, I became a better scientist by working with and listening to them. I left my mark in my field and then retired. Young, spoiled bucks cannot blame me for preventing their advancement or success; they can only blame themselves. As emeritus professor I continue to contribute by reviewing manuscripts and grant proposals, some of which are written by young bucks who have a long way to go before they will be published or funded. In the process I do my best to help them achieve their goals by providing elaborate, constructive comments. I do all that without taking one stinking penny from your soft money. As a geezerjock, I compete in track & field with the hope that staying in good shape will allow me to watch you become a dead wood.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    DM,
    Was the reasonable? I didn't mean it, honest! You know I am an a-hole at heart.
    Dr F
    PS: Baby, your bottle is ready!

  • Becca says:

    Seems to me it's high time the internets spat forth a Godwin's law for Sarah Palin comparisons.
    On topic, @ Dave... isn't the "scientific slave labor = A-OK mindset" entrenched totally seperately from NIH/NSF policies on salary support?
    Remember, grad students read this blog.

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