Repost: The Big Bucks

For some reason or other the recent discussions around here on the way we should view NIH grant money (largesse, fee-for-service) made me think this issue was worth raising again. While we're looking all....entitled you know. This post originally appeared Jan 15, 2008 on the old blog.


A recent reader discussion touching on scientist compensation has blown up on a prior post. Bill (no, not that Bill) and whimple have been leading the charge. To add another data point we have the current NIH Notice on Salary Limitation on Grants, etc. The money quote is as follows:

Every year since 1990 Congress has legislatively mandated a provision limiting the direct salary that an individual may receive under an NIH grant. For FY 2008, Public Law 110-161: Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 restricts the amount of direct salary to Executive Level I of the Federal Executive Pay scale. The Executive Level I annual salary rate was $186,600 for the period January 1 through December 31, 2007. Effective January 1, 2008, the Executive Level I salary level increased to $191,300.

In case translation is necessary, this means that the most annual salary that one may be paid from NIH grant/contract/etc sources is $191,300. There are two usual responses.

  1. Dude, this science gig is schweeeet!
  2. This is outrageous, compared to similarly educated, productive and responsible professionals this is peanuts!

There is a little truth in both of these although as you can see from the aforementioned comment thread the eye of the beholder is everything. To the struggling postdoc making under $50K per year, an upgrade to $65 as junior faculty looks pretty good. How do you see it Dear Reader?
There was also a discussion a bit ago on clarifying the usual imprecise analogy of the science lab with business. Is the PI a CEO with the postdocs as middle management? or is the typical PI really only low-middle level management her/himself?
One way we might get at this is to ask about budgetary responsibility. In the business world, what level of management oversees annual budgets of $250K (starting bid PI), $500K (good jr. ok mid-career PI), $1M (good mid-career PI) or $5M (Med-BigCheez PI)?
[Update 1/16/08: the Incoherent Ponderer has more on academic salaries, h/t Dynamics of Cats]

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