The new normal

Jan 05 2015 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

An interesting comment from Anonymous :

A friend of mine is getting his PhD this year. His mentor was awarded tenure last year. She had an RO1 and an R21 and enough pubs, reputation, etc., so that she was a "slam dunk," according to some of her colleagues in the field, at least. When my friend joined her lab, she had 7 students -- a mix of masters and doctoral students. When he graduates this year, there will be only 1 doctoral student left in the lab. His mentor hasn't succeeded in getting more grants, so I guess she hasn't hired anyone else because of that?

What I'm wondering is this: given the current climate, is this normal? Or is she really in trouble? Has she done it wrong? I always assumed that by the time you got tenure, your lab would be humming along.

 

I think this is pretty normal these days:

We are in an era of boom and bust instability when it comes to NIH funding. It is the very rare flower indeed, in my estimation, that will be completely free of the cycle in the coming decade or two.

As always, my view is quite possibly colored by my experiences. But I have seen the boom and bust cycle play out across a large number of labs. Some of my close acquaintance. Some labs that I know only through the grant review process. Some labs that happen to make it to the scuttlebutt news channel for some reason or other.

It usually plays out like this. "Yeah, Dr. So-and-so is really well funded.....what? What do you mean they are on the ropes? [checks RePORTER]..how in the hell did THAT happen". ....Two years later "Oh phew, glad to see So-and-so got another grant. ....what? TWO grants? and an R21? how in the hell did THAT happen?"...

Repeat.

Normal, but the PI is still in trouble. How could she not be? Has she done it wrong? Probably not. Most likely she's just experiencing the variance of grant fortune as it currently exists.

This part is painful though: " I always assumed that by the time you got tenure, your lab would be humming along."

Yeah, so did we. Because when people of my approximate scientific generation were coming up through postdoc we saw the generation of Assistant Professors just above us struggling. But then as we were finishing postdocs and starting our own Assistant Professor stints, we saw the next-older generation transition to a cruise mode. A time where they got their renewals without too much hassle*. They got their second or even third grants and maybe a few got an R37 extension. This made the struggles we went through as newbie applicants to the NIH a bit easier to stomach. Hazing ritual. Sure, we can stand this, and then we'll REALLY get stuff cranking in the lab later.

Instead the budget went stagnant just as we were reaching that stage of our careers. And then the powers that be went and invented the ESI boost to give affirmative action to those juuuuuust behind us.

So....we ride the roller coaster. And as things keep going in the wrong direction with NIH funding, more and more of us from all scientific cohorts/generations will experience the thrill.

__

*Yes, I realize it is all relative. I certainly had it easier than the kids these days. And the next-older generation did plenty of complaining about how hard they had it compared to the really established folks.

70 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    But how will this PI get more grants? Considering that she is no longer ESI, productivity in her lab is severely impacted (because only 2, and very soon 1 student left, and no $$ to hire more students), and now she has the additional responsibilities of an assoc. prof. Will future success w/grants be based on the stuff she managed to churn out before? How long can a newish lab go in "down time" mode before it becomes impossible to recover?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Jeremy Berg posted some graphs on the cumulative probability of re-funding after a PI loses all NIH funding, if you like data.

    http://datahound.scientopia.org/2014/05/15/mind-the-gap/

    More subjectively, well, it all depends on how hard this PI is flogging it trying to get another grant funded, in my opinion. You seem to be suggesting an inevitable death-knell or doom cycle. I don't believe in that. I think reviewers are able to see a funding dry spell and account for lowered productivity during that interval. I also think that a creative PI should have a lot of grant ideas and a decent amount of data in support after a run with an R01 and an R21.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Kill the youngs oldes everyone but me!

  • rs says:

    The another aspect of this story could be that the PI wants some down time after tenure. I have seen this scenario in a case where the PI had hired many students including a cheap postdoc before the tenure to shows off his big growing group to the department. It was a basic science department with big mandatory classes for many majors so he could maintain students on TA positions. As soon as he got tenure, he fired all the people keeping couple of students who were hard working and whom he liked. Now his group is of moderate size and he is a full professor. Managing people is a job in itself and many people do not enjoy this.

  • rxnm says:

    there was a downtick in apps and an uptick in success rates. within noise range but maybe the Cull is working as planned.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I was trying hard to ignore that, rxnm. Thanks a bunch.

  • Anonymous says:

    @rs: "The another aspect of this story could be that the PI wants some down time after tenure."

    This makes no sense to me. What PI would intentionally arrange for all grant support to vanish shortly after getting tenure? In what universe is downsizing to n=1 the way to run a research group?

    @rxnm: "there was a downtick in apps..." What are you referring to?

  • rxnm says:

    Number of R01-equivalent grant applications:
    2011 29,627
    2012 28,044
    2013 27,502

    http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2014/12/31/2014-by-the-numbers/

  • olympiasepiriot says:

    US Citizen here. In the applied sciences (although given my day-to-day b.s. of management and scheduling and client-back-massaging, I'm probably over-stating my relationship to Science) and, generally, I complain about the shortsighted stupidity of lack of funding of infrastructure of the type that makes sure we can get to point Q from A without a bridge collapsing under us and killing people. Or allowing water delivery systems and combined sewers to decay to the point where some of us think it is shear luck that someone with cholera hasn't turned up in a location where s/he could contaminate a community.

    The more I read your blog post on funding of research and do my best to understand the academic shorthand for a process I am extremely ignorant about, I feel like I should be also writing demands to various representatives on the nitty-gritty of this. I mean, I've complained in a very general way about the percentage of funding of (for example) NASA, NIH, and CDC; but, this boom-and-bust cycle you're describing must be horrible for research -- especially the kind with living organisms.

  • olympiasepiriot says:

    Sorry, that should have been "blog posts" in the second paragraph.

    But, I'm posting again really to ask a question I should have asked above: How much of this do you think is a function of NIH management or of the scarcity of funds affecting the process of awarding funds?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Obviously if you had ever-increasing appropriations that would be better. But in the real world that can't be expected. So that places the blame at least partially on NIH management of their enterprise over the longer term.

  • olympiasepiriot says:

    Your writing "ever-increasing appropriations" implies that we have increasing appropriations. I guess I'm looking in the wrong places, because I was under the opposite impression. (But, my memory is of combined funding of non-war research...not just for NIH. I probably have to go away and find some numbers.)

  • Joe says:

    "Is this normal? Or is she really in trouble?"
    I would say that this is pretty normal, and she is likely not in trouble. With the last student just now graduating, she probably still has papers coming out or being submitted, so productivity may still look OK. In better times I would expect that her department or school would help her survive the slump, provide bridge funding or at least fund a single worker in the lab for 6-12 months. Now with state funding of education way down and the economy just recovering, I don't think you can expect such funds to be around. It may depend on her attitude. Will she keep submitting grants and trying to make them better, or will she give up and drift into deadwood status?

  • Dave says:

    The another aspect of this story could be that the PI wants some down time after tenure

    Exactly. The faux outrage and shock is puzzling here. Why in the world would she be 'in trouble'? She got tenure, decided to chill for a bit, and nobody can or will do anything about it. Isn't that why everybody chases TT jobs after all? For the security?

    Maybe she will recover, maybe she won't. I'm sure she is not all that worried about it, as long as the pay checks keep coming.

  • Grumble says:

    The Cull is most definitely happening. My department has lost several faculty because they could not maintain funding. It's especially obvious because they haven't been replaced. I'm guessing that the reduction in number of R01 apps is due, at least in part, to med schools starting to shrink their faculty a little. Investing in new faculty has become very expensive: you have to pay for several in order to get one or two who manage to attain subsistence levels of funding.

  • mytchondria says:

    The cull is on baby. Watched early labs with mid tier folks at high ranking U get shut out of internal grants as BSDs kept starter funds on program grants in their innner circle. After program grants dried up, many BSDs and high promise younguns packed up and headed to new Unis for startup packages as Ass'c professors.
    Then some former BSDs started filling in their gaps in salary with increasing their administrative stuff leading the clusterfuckken muffin that is putting a douchenoodle in charge of a graduate group when, um, all the students hate them.
    Where's that Jeremy Berg person....wondering if he's looked at funding apps from folks w primary appointments in medical school vs uni. I'm betting med center apps will be off in some way that the cull would be more apparent as those folks tend to be soft money.
    Thank God being hostess at PhysioProfs risotto restaurant is my backup plan. Y'all fend for yourselves.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I have observed a culling that is limited, for the most part, to nominal faculty that didn't really have much of an independent program. TBH, these types aren't very vigorous in submitting grants so not sure how big of an effect losing them would be.

    There have been a few people I've seen take new startup jobs elsewhere but I can't see a clear link to funding woes, except one PI who said as much.

  • Ola says:

    Some numbers......

    2005:
    - Newbie PI hires 2 new post-doc's, starting salary $32k (yeah yeah H1B immigrants, sue me!) plus $1000 health fee (same health care plan as grad students back in the day). $66k per year total.

    - Couple of grad students at $18k a pop, plus $1k health fee ($38k total)

    - Technician at $28k plus 28% fringe ($36k total)

    - Startup package with grace period, only 40% of PI salary expected from grants for first 3 years. Say Asst. Prof. new PI at private MRU in northeast pulled in $70k salary plus 30% fringe. $36.4k total.

    So, for a lab with 2 post-doc's, 2 students, a tech' and the expected amount of own salary coverage, our newbie PI's total salary costs are $176k. Easily do-able on a modular R01 budget with plenty of money left for actual science (animals, supplies etc.)

    2015:
    - A couple of 2-3 year experienced post-doc' fellows, earning $48k each with now mandatory 30% fringe benefits = $125k total.

    Grad student stipends now $28k and health fee up to $1500, so for 2 students = $59k total.

    Technician now at $34k plus 31% fringe (that fringe just keeps on getting bigger!), $44.5k total.

    PI promotion to assoc' prof' came with a nice little pay bump (say $120k), plus fringe at 35% (yes!), and the grace period is over, so now she's expected to cover 70% of salary from grants. $113.5k total.

    So, in the space of a decade, for the exact same lab with 2 post-doc's, 2 students and a tech', our mid-career PI's total salary costs are now $342k - double what they were before, and in no way possible on a single modular budget R01.

    If she ditched one student and both the post-doc's, running the whole show with a single student and a tech', the salaries still come in at $187k, which is still do-able on a single grant.

    And before y'all get nit-picky, those numbers are pretty close to my own situation. YMMV on the details, such as whether PI has to pay tuition fees for grad students, what benefits different employees get, and what PI salaries are like in different parts of the country. It's all the same in the end - the only way to keep afloat is do it with less people. Throw a few knockout mouse lines into the mix (can't just ditch and pick back up again at will) and you find some real hard decisions being made.

    FML!

  • zb says:

    So, is this prof in a place with "real" tenure (i.e. her salary is guaranteed independently of grants)? Or is she in a place where she must fund her salary, in spite of the tenure? Those two situations, with the second becoming more common have significant influence on trajectories.

    I have seen this happen with several post-tenure folks in med schools where they are guaranteed their salary, but who obtained tenure just as ARRA funds were disappearing and the severest funding woes were hitting. Their labs shrunk. They're ability to re-grow their labs depended on colleagues who thought well of them, both in and outside their home institution. People at home helped by giving training grant funds to their students to help the labs stay afloat; they gave the mid-career profs responsibility for training/resource/program grants (which gave them work, but also helped them build connections within the university, and, meant their name appeared in NIH reporter as a PI). They helped start collaborations (some of which included funding). Folks outside the university helped by starting collaborations (some of which included funding, but also publications that resulted from funding that was elsewhere). Many of these techniques depended on the PI's salary being supported, because funds to support PI salary is a lot less fungible, than money to support a student, or to support a student collecting data in your own lab, which might produce a paper with the unfunded prof and keep them in the loop.

    And, re-growing depends on continuing to submit grants, even when none of them seem to be getting funded. The funded-tenure folks who stop have danger of being deadwood (with no real labs, and lots of administrative duties), but, they'll still be there. Some of them might move on to administration as their main job.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ola-

    totally agree with that analysis. seeing the same picture from my viewpoint.

  • bashir says:

    wondering if he's looked at funding apps from folks w primary appointments in medical school vs uni. I'm betting med center apps will be off in some way that the cull would be more apparent as those folks tend to be soft money.

    I bet. I'm in Arts & Sciences land where the money is mostly hard. The cull mostly means smaller labs & lowering the Dean's expectations. That and, you know, more teaching.

  • rxnm says:

    1 R01 isn't nothing. It can still run a reasonable hard-money faculty lab, or get a junior scientist tenure.

    There are well over 2000 additional R01s held by people who already have 2 R01s. Whatever percentage share that is, it's a lot of people who could use 1 R01 to do great science, and a lot of tenure dossiers.

    The many-R01ed also tend to get bigger R01 (and tend to have other sources of support), so need more $ even less... 50% of NIH funds are spent by 15% of PIs, which cannot be explained just by them taking on another modular.

    The slow motion train-wreck fallout from decades of mismanaging the biomedical workforce by apathetic and ineffectual NIH leadership is going to go on for a long time. In this climate, what happens next is obvious: carve out protected status ("investigators not projects"--as if that means a fucking thing) and consolidate the grants of the 15% elite so that they won't be threatened by any attempts at wealth redistribution, and let Nature take its course for the herd fighting over the R01 trough.

    More funding won't help with the current structure, because it just fuels the cycle of soft-money expansion and training ever more PhD scientists (who get the soft money positions, who train more PhDs scientists, who...).

  • Dave says:

    We are getting to a point where there are not that many people left to cull tbh. The cull is reaching it's maximum, and there is zero talk of hiring. If you even mention TT hiring (or even soft-money hiring), you get confused looks, followed by bouts of hand-over-mouth giggling.

    But accountants and deanlets? Yeh, we still need more of those.

  • mytchondria says:

    "I have observed a culling that is limited, for the most part, to nominal faculty that didn't really have much of an independent program. "

    Yeah, I disagree. The view from across the hall is a PI who had 3 Ro1s now subsides on contracts w a single grad student; next door is a PI who has 50% admin time; another had 3 Ro1s and now, um, I don't know where he is but he stops by every now and then. Anyone who is in the med center who would be offered hard money would run to another uni to get it.

    We've had the 'name of the names of the labs you know have closed' conversation before Ted, but you think having closed a lab is a horrifying thing and their names shall not be spoken henceforth.

    Suffice to say you're wrong. All the wrong + full of wrongfulness. Also, not right. And wearing bad shoes.

  • Grumble says:

    "'investigators not projects'--as if that means a fucking thing"

    Sure it does. To paraphrase what DM has said before about the NIH's most likely implementation of this idea, it means that Karl Deisseroth gets millions of dollars and you get fucked in the ass.

    "I have observed a culling that is limited, for the most part, to nominal faculty that didn't really have much of an independent program."

    Those people are the first to go, but the people I'm thinking of had established research programs that gradually wound down because they couldn't get funding. Then they got a letter from the dean. Now they are teaching at community colleges.

    "More funding won't help with the current structure, because it just fuels the cycle of soft-money expansion and training ever more PhD scientists (who get the soft money positions, who train more PhDs scientists, who...)."

    Actually the problem, as I view it, is not training ever more PhDs. PhDs can go into lots of different fields; they don't need to stay in academia. A newly minted PhD does not automatically start applying for an R01; she needs to get a job first. So the problem is with the number of soft money faculty. When the NIH budget expands, med schools expand this number by going on a hiring binge. This means that getting an NIH grant will *always* be extremely competitive, except in those couple of years between a reasonably large increase in the NIH budget (ha!) and med schools' hiring reaction. The only way to make the system more balanced is by reducing the amount NIH is willing to spend on soft money salaries. This could be done either by a direct edict ("no more than 25% of an individual's salary may be funded by the NIH") or by reducing indirect costs (which would disincentivize med schools from expanding their faculty).

  • Philapodia says:

    Administrators see indirects as free play-money that they don't have to work for. They don't have to lure in students and them teach them something, or brown-nosing donors to get these sizable chunks of change. The PIs work their asses off writing grants because are expected to bring in part of their own salary (i.e. "incentivized") or else they can't pay their mortgage or feed their kids. If a PI is lucky enough to get a sizable grant funded then a new wad of indirect cash magically appears for the admins to hire more deanlets, propagating the species. Now that I'm thinking about it, it's actually sort of a parasitic relationship. Faculty are the host that are working to survive, and the deanlets are the parasites feeding off of the faculty. This would make a good PBS documentary...

  • drugmonkey says:

    MyT- I'm just supplying one viewpoint here. Not at all suggesting others aren't seeing a deeper cull. And I for damn sure can see that the trend is inevitable for most institutions unless something happens to avert it.

  • Anonymous says:

    Some added context for the specific situation that kicked off the discussion:

    1) This is someone whose salary is guaranteed independent of grants ("real" tenure, to quote zb). She is not at a med school.

    2) She's still chasing grants. (Don't know specifics as she doesn't share all w/my friend, who is her grad student.)

    3) My impression of her is that this is *not* someone who is OK with no longer being able to run a lab and happy to just collect a paycheck. O.c., having a paycheck is infinitely better than the alternative, but still....

    Really folks, how many people do you know -- and I'm looking at you, Dave -- whose goal was to work really hard to set up a research program and then chuck it all out the window as soon as they got tenure?

  • jmz4 says:

    "Faculty are the host that are working to survive, and the deanlets are the parasites feeding off of the faculty."
    -It'd be interesting to do some comparisons on research dollar return at different institutions with different levels of bureaucracy. Do the institutes (e.g. Scripps) have less or more bureaucracy than the universities (my guess is less).
    Actually, has anyone ever done a comparison of research return plotted against indirect cost rates?

  • Dave says:

    Really folks, how many people do you know -- and I'm looking at you, Dave -- whose goal was to work really hard to set up a research program and then chuck it all out the window as soon as they got tenure?

    I don't work with anyone who has real tenure, so I can't really answer that I'm afraid. But I highly doubt anyone starts off with the intention of relaxing after tenure, but I can also understand why someone might take a few years 'off' (intentionally or otherwise) from the grant game, or wind down their lab temporarily, after getting tenure. Why not? After all...

    1) This is someone whose salary is guaranteed independent of grants ("real" tenure, to quote zb).

  • Dave says:

    <Actually, has anyone ever done a comparison of research return plotted against indirect cost rates?

    Define 'research return'.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Dave: "but I can also understand why someone might take a few years 'off' (intentionally or otherwise) from the grant game..."

    Seriously?! I'm guessing the people who manage to start back up again after a gap in funding are precisely not the ones who intentionally take "a few years off from the grant game." If they have no choice about it, then there's nothing to understand, o.c.

    In my hard money world, I see a few examples of folks who've been away to long to get back in. It's not pretty. It's one thing to "relax" a little after tenure; it's quite another to lose all of your students and your funding.

  • Dave says:

    I wouldn't judge anyone who just got tenure for stepping off the gas for a while. They have probably been through a lot to get there, so good for them, and they still get paid at the end of the month. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch to imagine a PI missing a few cycles safe in the knowledge that their livelihood literally is not on the line. I don't really see anything wrong with that, at least temporarily. Apparently the idea that someone might consider this is very shocking to you.

    But if job security wasn't a factor, why are TT jobs so sought after? For the prestige? For the love of science? For the money? Yeh, fucking right. I'm not a tenure hater by any means, and I would love a TT job. In my mind though, job security is the primary reason why so many people fight for TT/tenure these days. Maybe I'm unusual there.

  • Geo says:

    "She got tenure, decided to chill for a bit, and nobody can or will do anything about it. Isn't that why everybody chases TT jobs after all? For the security?"

    Only if you are small minded.

  • Geo says:

    Newbie PI hires 2 new post-doc's, starting salary $32k (yeah yeah H1B immigrants, sue me!) plus $1000 health fee (same health care plan as grad students back in the day). $66k per year total.

    Vampire?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Dave: What I find shocking is what I've said before: the idea that someone would work really hard to set up a research program and then chuck it all out the window as soon as they got tenure. Apparently in your world the only reason people do what they do is because they're scared of getting fired. I understand that many people have precisely such a relationship to their jobs. But believe it or not, there are people who aspire to more. Perhaps you should broaden your circle a bit and meet some of them -- it might be a refreshing change for you.

  • Dave says:

    In my arena, no grant really means no job, means no salary, means no money to pay the mortgage. It's real. So, yeh, that does tend to cloud ones relationship with the job, but clearly you have the luxury of not having to worry about that. That's great for you and truly I'm jelly, but don't fool yourself into thinking that we don't 'aspire to more', or are somehow less ambitious scientifically just because we have to be concerned with small minded things like keeping our jobs. If we are talking circles, perhaps you could broaden yours. It might change your perspective a little.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Meh...I've lived in both worlds (soft money R1 medical school, hard money R1 arts and sciences school). The only thing that was reduced when I switched to a hard money "real tenure" position was my blood pressure, not my desire to keep doing science.

  • qaz says:

    @Dave - How many scientists do you know who are motivated by cash income? Most of the scientist-types (talented, smart intellectuals) who I know who were motivated by cash income went on to other jobs that make a LOT (and by a lot, I mean a LOT) more money. Most scientists I know of are motivated by other things. I don't think there are a lot of scientists doing science because that's the only thing they know how to do.

    I know a lot of people who have "real tenure" (both in my own department [basic science in a med school at a BigStateResearchU] and in other departments [lots of examples of basic sciences in Arts and Science departments at several universities]). No one I know "quit" or "took a break" after getting tenure. I know of one person who became deadwood, but that was years before I got here and I don't know the whole story about that person. So figure the odds of quitting after real tenure are less than 1 in 100+... Most tenure processes are very good at selecting the crazy workaholic types who are motivated by other goals than salary.

    It is definitely a relief to get tenure. It's like walking a high-wire with a safety net if you fall. It doesn't mean you're going to dive off the high wire to the net. (Walking the high wire means doing good science.) The real goal of tenure is that it is supposed to allow you to take scientific risks. It's debatable how true this still is because of the cost of running a lab. But my anecdata is that people are actually more likely to take risks of new projects that might not pan out post-tenure than pre-tenure. You still need to balance the reliable projects with the high-risk/high-reward, but you can shift the balance more if you know that the roof over your kids' heads doesn't depend on slow and steady.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Anonymous, not sure if the same Anonymous as in the other thread, but it looks like Dave is talking about something similar as I was about tenure: job security. It's not the same to take your foot off the pedal, than dropping everything. However, in an all-or-nothing system, they may look the same but have different origins.

  • Dave says:

    How many scientists do you know who are motivated by cash income?

    I'm not talking about cash income qaz, rather job security, but I'll bite anyway.

    How many do I know that are 'motivated' purely by their salary? Very few, but not zero. How many do I know that are concerned about their compensation and benefits? A lot. Who at my work place is concerned about job security? Every....fucking.....body I work with (except US-licensed MDs and administrators).

    Why is it that academic scientists cannot talk about salary, benefits, job security etc without being accused of lacking passion for science? What is so wrong about discussing this shit? Does it make you less of a scientist to want to make a decent living for you and your family without the constant threat of unemployment?

    Going back to the PI in the OP, in my mind her current situation does not mean she has 'chuck(ed) it all out the window as soon as (she) got tenure', to quote the apocalyptic view of Anonymous. In my view, she is no less of a scientist if she decides to keep a one-R01 lab or a five R01 lab going forward. Everyone is different and every scientist is motivated by slightly different aspects of the job. Maybe she wants to focus on teaching for a year or two? There are many ways to be successful in academic research. Chasing 10 R01 apps at once is one way. Being content with one grad student and a tech is another way.

  • drugmonkey says:

    CPP made the most important point. At many places tenure is up-or-out. Not so much a choice.

  • qaz says:

    @Dave, you have the argument completely backwards.

    The question is not whether you would do science if you were getting no money for it (*). The question is whether you would continue to bust your a** for science if the money you were getting was no longer tied to it. Obviously, people are motivated by having enough money to pay for their needs. But the whole point of tenure is that you don't need to work anymore for your money. So why don't tenured professors just kick back and start relaxing? Because their science is motivated by something else, and the tenure process is particularly good at finding people who will continue to bust their a** even after they have solved their material needs.

    To misquote Bertolt Brecht: I've got bread. Now I can do science.

    Let's go back to the original post, which said that this person was collapsing their lab, was this normal or was this a sign of some other collapse? You argued that it was logical for someone to start relaxing after tenure. I'm telling you that practically no one relaxes their scientific process after tenure, but rather that most people ramp it up.

    * Whether one would continue to do science even if it meant starving is an interesting question, but irrelevant to the topic at hand. (My take on this is that we should make our every endeavor not to have to answer this question - people should be paid for their work, and they should be given the safety net they need so that they can achieve their goals and potential.)

  • Dave says:

    people should be paid for their work, and they should be given the safety net they need so that they can achieve their goals and potential.

    That I can agree with.

  • Grumble says:

    "Faculty are the host that are working to survive, and the deanlets are the parasites feeding off of the faculty. "

    My dean is fond of saying that even with indirect costs, research is a money-losing enterprise: his total costs of supporting it (mortgage, utilities, physical plant, support personnel, deanlets, retention packages, start-up packages, bridge funding, etc.) exceed the total amount that indirect costs bring in by quite a bit.

    Now, this could be because he has too many deanlets and that his own salary is too high. Both are probably true, but with the amounts of money we are talking about here, I don't think that's the whole story.

  • Joe says:

    @Grumble
    "My dean is fond of saying that even with indirect costs, research is a money-losing enterprise..."
    If that is really true, then why do universities do it?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Every aspect of a modern research university, save perhaps parking, is a "money-losing enterprise" according to the Dean.

  • rxnm says:

    Buying groceries is a money-losing enterprise.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Grumble, no wonder the money is insufficient. It doesn't seem fair for those funded and generating indirects to also be responsible for all of those other things! Why should I take a cut in my grant to generate money for future startup packages, for deanlets, for retention packages and bridge funding?? I can see paying for the cost of the rent, electricity, Internet, library, etc. but all those other things? Where is the money for that to come from? Maybe their own grants, donations, foundations, etc. I don't care. Maybe there will not be enough money for those things. Sad, but why is it fair to take from my grant so that they can give it to someone else to convince them not to leave? Most people are barely making it with grants as it is. I am sorry, if given the option, I would use the money to keep the postdoc, and have Dr BigExpensiveProject leave.

    Grumble, I know you didn't say it was fair. It's probably not OK to use indirects that way.

    Drugmonkey, understood, it is up or out. But, then why do people seem to prefer tenure track? people want to believe that they will be the ones to make it and get tenure. I guess I do. But then, places with tenure and soft money are the worst of both worlds, without the true benefit of tenure (potential job security), and all the pressure and risk of being denied promotion and getting kicked out.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Why should I take a cut in my grant to generate money for future startup packages, for deanlets, for retention packages and bridge funding??

    Because it isn't actually "your" grant perhaps?

  • Juan Lopez says:

    DM- what do you mean? This thing of the grant being awarded to the institution?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yes

  • Grumble says:

    "If that is really true, then why do universities do it?"

    Because (a) research is part of the university's mission, and (b) having a faculty of world-class researchers attracts both tuition-paying students, big donors, and donations from alumni.

    "Every aspect of a modern research university, save perhaps parking, is a "money-losing enterprise" according to the Dean."

    Right. My point (actually, my dean's point) was just that overhead from grants doesn't cover the total amount of actual indirect costs incurred by the university. Other sources have to cover the rest.

    "Why should I take a cut in my grant to generate money for future startup packages, for deanlets, for retention packages and bridge funding??"

    Because YOU might need the bridge funding yourself at some point. Because if the dean doesn't recruit and retain excellent faculty, YOU will suffer the loss of excellent colleagues whose advice, discussions, and collaborations directly benefit you. Because if the dean doesn't have a bunch of assistants to handle the actual tasks of dean-ing (dealing with students, dealing with facilities and maintenance, dealing with finance, dealing with whiny faculty who need more space, etc etc etc) then she won't have time to go schmooze with wealthy people and hit them up for donations to the endowment, which means, in the end, that YOU will suffer.

    (And you aren't "taking a cut in your grant" to fund overhead - although one could argue that if NIH didn't pay overhead, there would be a lot more money available for direct costs.)

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Why should I take a cut in my grant to generate money for future startup packages, for deanlets, for retention packages and bridge funding??

    It always boggles my mind that motherfucken *scientists* can be this overwhelmingly oblivious to the institutional structures within which they work. (Although I know it shouldn't.)

  • Dave says:

    Our dean said in front of the whole school:

    research never pays

    His claim was that IDC do not cover the 'true cost of research', which DM will agree with. I'm willing to concede to that also, but I have never seen a fair calculation of what that number actually is. One thing I have learnt recently, which has given me some pause, is that typically institutions only actually recover a small proportion of the IDCs that request. I have seen numbers for our place indicating that their actual IDC recovery is closer to 30%, even though the IDC rate on federal grants is 50%. I literally have no clue what the fuck is going on there accounting wise, but there is a lot of money that just seems to go up in smoke.

    But, all that misses the point. Academic research should not be viewed as profit generating, in the traditional cash sense. It should be something that schools invest in for the prestige, as Grumble alludes to.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The weird thing about "research loses money even with IDCs" is that it leaves us to explain the eagerness of schools to expand their basic research operations. In every other aspect of running the university, administration is focused on penny pinching, but in this one area (basic research) they leap at every opportunity to lose more money.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yes, very odd, isn't it AL?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Hint: Money is fungible and Dean assertions are all confounded with accounting tricks.

    Note: The accounting tricks are somewhat orthogonal to whether the Fed is paying the whole fee for what it desires.

  • Dave says:

    But that's the thing. I don't think I have ever seen an accounting of how much they are losing, or even if they really are losing money. What is also weird is that frequently we will get some IDC money returned when it hasn't all been spent.

  • JustAGrad says:

    The difference in your institutions IDC rate and the actual amount of IDC recovered might be explained by faculty receiving research funding from sources that do not allow IDC or cap it at a lower rate than the institutional amount.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    That, JAG, is something that Unis watch closely so as to avoid having the Fed renegotiate them downward. I can't say that I know anything about the accounting and the approving of rates but I do know that this can be an issue that extramural awardees have to watch closely.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Saw this in the late seventies when the money vanished from NSF. The survivors changed a few words in the proposal and got NIH grants. . . Oh wait.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Ahhh, so with indirect we are suddenly all socialist and we all pitch in for everyone, because we will all benefit. I don't think so. It's exactly the opposite. They want to do things, like hiring and bridge funding, and the only way they can get the money to do it is from the indirects. So they take it from there. If we all pitch in, does that mean that we automatically qualify for bridge funding? Exactly, I didn't think so. Some of those uses are awesome, but that's beside the point. The point is that expenses associated with one project should not be tied to giving perks to someone else on that institution to be convinced to stay.

    CPP - I am aware of it, and know some of the positive sides mentioned by grumble. And I have to say that it is a fun day when you call me a motherfucken scientist. I feel part of the group.

    Note something- indirects are often taken from grants. We received a grant last year, on which they would give us 100k total. So, we had to make a budget accordingly. Hence, the lower the indirects, the more we could spend. Same thing with some NIH grants. A colleague of mine was told explicitly that the award would be for a given amount, and that she had to make a new budget that would fit, including indirects. The directs are less than full modular. Is this common? I have seen it a couple of times recently, but people here tell me that they had not seen it.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    My significant other here, also *scientist* (as per CPP) thinks you are all right and there should be a huge pot of money to pay for all those things that are good for everyone.

    Maybe.

    In any case, I pay them and that's the end of it.

  • Dave says:

    @JAG: ah yes, of course. Makes sense. From the NIH perspective though, they must wonder if an institution is using the feds to recover costs incurred through non-fed activities (e.g clinical grants). Because, well, they can.......

  • JustAGrad says:

    My guess would be that grants without IDC are rare and/or small. I received a $5000 grant that did not allow IDC, for example. It was from a professional society, but I imagine some foundations might do the same. Maybe they can get away with it because would refuse to offer grants otherwise.

  • Grumble says:

    Private foundations, IME, limit indirect costs to 10% even for larger grants. There may be exceptions, but I've applied for several large-ish private foundation grants (>$100k/year) and in all cases IDCs were limited to 10%. Some smaller grants (e.g., NARSAD) do not allow IDCs at all. Generally, fellowships (from the NIH or other sources) do not provide IDCs either.

    Donors to private foundations want their money used for research, not to pay the college's electric bill.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrewshrew) says:

    Research in the short term *may* be a money losing proposition for the university, even with indirect costs. Who knows? This is shrouded in funny accounting and rhetoric.

    However, in the long term, research is the only method for producing delicious, nutritious, profitable, and patentable intellectual property.

    This may why they want as many people writing grants and papers under their aegis as possible - they are playing roulette for patents.

    The exception is MDs, who at my institution are now being actively discouraged from research - but then, clinical revenue is reliable workaday income for the institution. So their portfolio of daily income and potential big profit is more balanced if MDs just do what they're good at regardless of translational research potential, while simultaneously a portfolio of soft-money low-investment scientists compete viciously to hit it big.

  • jmz4 says:

    While we're talking about IDCs, does anyone know the reason that K awards don't pay indirect costs? Was it meant to incentivize some kind of behavior?

  • jmz4 says:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/01/02/1418761112

    This article by the President of John's Hopkins has a section with some references to cost shifting to universities. There seems to be surprising amount happening already. I'm not sure I buy it, but its a different perspective.

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