Federal and foundation research funding stopped growing and has stayed flat year after year, not even keeping up with inflation. Yet pressures on biomedical research faculty to continue supporting themselves remains relentless, and has even increased as university administrations find themselves strapped with all those big buildings to maintain.
As everyone knows, these last four years have been even more difficult. Now, with the $14 trillion national debt and pressures to cut budgets stronger than ever, what can we do? Two cultures.
Today, the system that supports some faculty with hard money while many of their colleagues depend on soft money creates a two-tiered structure inimical to the idea of creating a collegial community of scholars. Soft culture and community
: Soft-money faculty spend almost all their time writing grant proposals (my lab has submitted four just since the beginning of this year). Almost no grant application now gets funded the first or even second time around. Each time an application is turned down, it takes about nine months to a year to go through the same review process again. And now at the NIH and other federal agencies it's “two strikes and you’re out!”
Faculty caught in this cycle have little time for teaching or mentoring. In fact, government effort-reporting requirements prevent
researchers from engaging in such activities unless they take a reduction in time from the grant support and make up the difference from university funds. In many top-level research institutions, having a grant is not enough—now if one does not have at least two federal grants (with those important indirects) and lots of publications and presentations, the possibility of tenure becomes pretty remote.
Government regulations prohibit even writing a grant proposal using grant funds because such time is not being spent on the research per se. Even tenured faculty in the health sciences who lose their grant support may soon find themselves out on the street, because the tenure applies to the position rather than their salary. This means that they can keep their title, but the office and lab will go to someone else.
Soft-money faculty can’t commit time to building the university “community” because that’s not what they’re paid to do. Where should their loyalties lie? With the federal agency that pays their salaries, or with a university which may provide some space (competitively based on how many grant dollars they generate), but offers neither means nor motive for collegial interaction with peers or students? Soft culture and courageous leadership:
When I was a member of the Advisory Council of one of the National Institutes of Health, my colleagues and I would often discuss the concern that so many biomedical scientists have to go where the money is rather than follow their passions and interests, or even the logic of their research trajectory, in designing and conducting research. Dependence on scarce federal money increases anxiety while systematically reducing
creativity as investigators apply for “safe projects.” In fact, the New York Times
recently quoted a Research Director at the National Institute of Aging as stating that “the NIH can only afford to fund ‘safe science’—it no longer has the capacity to support innovative research.”
"Without basic research, there can be no applications. … After all, electricity and the light bulb were not invented by incremental improvements to the candle.” --President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, addressing the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Paris. Sarkozy announced France's plan to increase spending on higher education and basic and applied research by €35 billion for the next 4 years as part of the country's bailout strategy.
In the face of ever-increasing budget restraints and with more and more people applying for grants to keep themselves working, the study sections on which I previously served have become very conservative and timid about supporting novel or controversial research. Worse, my impression is that these peer review groups have become adversaries rather than advocates of their fellow scientists, often looking every which way to find fault with a grant proposal.There was a time when study sections made suggestions, and if they were minor, the Program Officer would call the applicants and ask them to make the suggested changes--it was a much more collegial time. Now even the smallest flaw in a proposal, one easily fixed after a brief discussion, is used as excuse to give a weaker priority score. An applicant who proposes something innovative is very likely to be slammed as not having any “preliminary data" to support the idea or as not having any experience in the specific area, when the area may not yet exist. Think what this does to the spirit and the motivation to continue in a research career--and when your colleagues in the department (and the reviewers themselves) are competing for the same pot of shrinking research dollars.
Many of my colleagues across the country have simply quit because they no longer find their work enjoyable and personally or professionally rewarding.
The issues for the soft-money faculty themselves are clear, but what does it mean to the community
to have a high proportion of soft-money faculty? Trying to build and then sustain
a research community on such an unstable foundation does not seem like a good idea.Addressing the contemporary reality
. Sooner or later some great university is going to rise to the challenge of changing the status quo and really make a substantial commitment of its resources to the support of scholarship and research across the institution. If we don't do this, how can we get faculty to become more engaged in the life of the university at a time when higher education has become so important, in a global economy, to sustaining the economic and social competitiveness of the United States?
If universities were to acknowledge that the circumstances that brought about the soft money bonanza no longer prevail, and reassume their responsibility to support faculty salaries, grants could be substantially smaller, leaving the funding agencies more capital to spread around.
This idea is not far-fetched. It happens in Canada and most of the European Union.
Daniel Greenberg, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education
(March 2, 2007 http://chronicle.com/article/A-New-Source-of-Research-Money/36474/
) points out that in 2004 Harvard (with a $25.4 billion endowment) and Yale (with $15.2 billion) spent virtually none (Harvard $0.00, Yale $26 million) of their own money on research and development. It’s possible that even in today’s economic climate, these two institutions are so successful in attracting and retaining faculty with major grants that they don’t need to worry about the difficult times facing everyone else.
As Greenberg writes, “Even while deploring the declines in federal research spending, major universities demonstrate no willingness to make up even some of the difference.” The situation is exactly the same today—if not worse. Some data points: (1) The recent Emory Capital Campaign boasts of raising over $1.3B; (2) Emory University faculty bring in well over $300m in external funding, most of which goes to the biomedical sciences, but (3) the university itself only gives about $1m to the University Research Council to support faculty research across the entire institution. As an institution, I think we can do a lot better to support novel and innovative projects.
- Do we continue to throw up research buildings in the hopes of attracting well-heeled faculty with big grants, or do we begin to put more money into faculty development and support over the long haul? I especially believe that the well-endowed universities like mine are morally obligated to support, materially and not just rhetorically, the scholarly mission(s) they claim as essential to their identity.
- If a university sees itself as a major player in research and scholarship, a good part of its mission should be to fund creative and risk-taking research to a much greater extent than it is now doing.
- It might start by providing several years of full funding for interdisciplinary, collaborative, high-risk, and innovative projects. This would require dismantling some of the academic silos we take for granted.
- Before conducting external searches, departments and programs should turn to Health Sciences and other science faculty, offering opportunities for grant-funded researchers to redirect some of their efforts to teaching. In the long run, doing good science is also all about teaching. And the long run needs a lot more attention than it's getting.
- The medical schools and health sciences could create jointly paid appointments with faculty from the Arts and Sciences—strengthening all parts of the university at a lower cost than duplicating expertise on both sides of the street.
- One way to attract outstanding scholars and researchers is to provide essential salary support in return for greater engagement with the university’s teaching and service mission. This is nothing new. A lot of state universities have a salary base that can be supplemented with external grant support.
- When faculty do get external funding, it would be an exciting idea for the university to allow their departments to bank the salary savings and apply those funds for faculty and student research, bridging support, recruitment packages and other resources.
- Do deans and chairs really have to take everything? Some universities even give bonuses for faculty members who bring in grants, or simply give them research funding to try out far-fetched and innovative ideas. Such a program might not work for every area, and not every soft-money scholar would choose these options, but having such choices could do much to bridge the two cultures.
- Fund some hard-money positions where soft money now predominates. This would allow department chairs and program directors to engage more of their faculty in teaching needed or innovative courses rather than farming these assignments out to graduate assistants or adjuncts.
- Hard-money rotating slots could be offered to soft-money faculty every third or fourth year, freeing them to teach something they might like to teach and perhaps to launch research not fundable through traditional grant mechanisms.
- Granting paid sabbaticals to research faculty could also have major benefits in helping to retrain and reinvigorate people who have been tied to their laboratory benches year in and year out without any break. Is this any different than giving senior administrators a year off at full salary when they step down from their posts?
- In sum, the two-tier system as it stands weakens rather than strengthens the goal of being a community of scholars. It also commodifies scientific research, diminishes creativity, and weakens the spirit.
The choices are there. It will take courageous leadership to make the good ones.
This post is an updated version of an article I wrote for the Emory University “Academic Exchange” newsletter for faculty in May 2007. Permission for this adaptation was given by the Editor of the publication.