Several years ago, I was asked by the editor of my university's faculty newsletter, The Academic Exchange, to write a short essay on “community" in the world of academic research. She wanted my perspective on how we build a sense of community when so many faculty members are required to generate some or all of their salary and fringes from sources outside the university. This is the “hard money/soft money” issue that continues to create so much tension among faculty at many research universities including my own. It’s gotten even worse in the last five years.

How can a young investigator hope to build a career in research at a research university if all the funding for her very survival must come from grants and contracts at a time when fewer than 8% of grant applications get funded?

Why would you even try to make close friends if most of your peers, or you, are not going to be around in the next couple of years? Why do people in the Business Office of a university have more job security than a seasoned biomedical researcher? What kind of “community” is this? What are the inducements to become involved in university affairs and community when your bills are paid by the NIH or some other federal funding agency, when everyone (except the Chair, of course) in a department is basically competing for the same funding with less than a 10% chance of success?

Picture a large open—"common"—space filled with laboratory benches and procedural rooms. Now picture what it must be like if the space you get depends on how many external grant dollars you can bring in. Your space gets better with bigger grants and is publicly rescinded when a grant ends or your federal dollars begin to shrink—a public humiliation like a scarlet letter or a dunce cap.

How much of a community spirit will be built under such conditions?

Faculty in the Arts and Sciences and the law and business schools are typically on hard money lines: all or most of their salary is covered by their school and, in return, they are expected to engage fully in teaching, research, and service throughout their careers. These faculty often supplement their income with grants or awards to cover teaching or scholarly work over the summer; many travel so they can work and reflect away from the day-to-day pressures of the school year. The protection of tenure and other benefits such as sabbaticals and paid leaves become “golden handcuffs” that make it hard to leave the institution. It's not surprising that many universities are top-heavy with senior faculty, often making replenishment and rejuvenation of departments difficult. 

In sharp contrast, almost all faculty in the medical and health sciences must generate a very substantial part, if not all, of their income through externally funded research grants. Sabbaticals and other opportunities for re-training outside their institutions are rare. A researcher on a grant is expected to be there all the time, and effort reporting is relentless as granting agencies demand to know exactly how many hours/week are actually spent on the research.  

This pressure can be unrelenting, and is one of the reasons most U.S. research labs are now staffed largely by young researchers from China and India. This doesn’t bode well for building a future research community  (We should discuss this issue in another blog).

If the faculty are also clinicians, they must generate their income through clinical practice or a combination of practice and research grants. Their income is wholly or largely dependent on vagaries of federal or philanthropic funding priorities that may have nothing to do with the priorities of their home institution.

Background. During the Cold War, federal agencies were mandated by Congress and by presidents of both parties to outperform and outspend anything that the Soviet Union or China might do. This resulted in a tremendous growth of federal spending for research—for the arts and humanities, but especially for the sciences.

When times were good, being on soft money had its rewards. A scholar who was successful in getting grants could focus exclusively on her research and enjoy all the advantages of being at a university—freedom to select what problems to work on, access to graduate, undergraduate and post-doctoral students to perform research tasks, library and ancillary facilities, and many other amenities not necessarily found in the corporate research sector. With their external  grants in hand they were asked to do no teaching or service. Undergraduate teaching was handled by TAs or unlucky assistant professors without grants. Undergraduate teaching was often disdained as taking away too much time from the research. In Arts and Sciences, faculty who got grants often put some salary on their grant so they could reduce their teaching loads (justifiably). 

Faculty with big federal grants became the darlings of the academic world (and still are, to some extent) because of their ability to generate income and status for the university as measured by the number of external dollars brought in.

Deans, too, were thrilled with this arrangement—not only were they spared the expense of paying salaries and fringes from their budgets, they received supplemental funding of from 30-100% of the grants in indirect cost returns from the granting agencies. Institutions raced to build new facilities to attract soft-money researchers, many of whom brought with them multiple grants paid for by someone else. They were the free agents of the academic world.

From the 1960s to the early 1990s was pretty much the golden age for research and development and there seemed to be no end in sight. Grant-supported faculty needed teams of students and post-docs to support their research while they were out applying for ever more grants. It was a never-ending cycle turning out more and more students as more and more graduate programs were created to capture a larger market share of mostly ONR, NIH and NSF dollars. New science facilities were built on campuses across the nation and the rising waters floated all boats, so even faculty less talented in grantsmanship had access to research laboratories, libraries and such, albeit at a lower level.

At one point there was a doubling of the NIH budget, but this bubble burst about ten years ago. 

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 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.
08/22/2013 5:04am

Worse, the impression is actually that these expert review groups are becoming adversaries rather than advocates with their many other researchers, usually hunting just about every which often approach to discover mistake using a scholarship estimate.

09/10/2013 2:15am

I am no longer sure the place you are getting your info, however good topic. I needs to spend a while learning more or working out more. Thank you

10/01/2013 10:41pm

This idea is not far-fetched. It happens in Canada and most of the European Union.

young scientist perspective
10/25/2013 3:52pm

This is a great post. I am a postdoctoral fellow (neuroscientist at a medical school) and recent recipient of a NIH K99/R00, which provides full salary and research support for one to two years of mentoring (K99 phase) to finish up the postdoc and transition into a tenure-track Assistant Professor position. Upon acceptance of a position, which will include space to perform my research, three years (R00 phase) of funding will be released to launch an independent research program, likely at a medical school. This grant provides some security now, but I am gravely concerned given the ever growing reliance at research institutes on investigators funding an ever growing portion of their salary from an ever shrinking pool of research dollars. I have been interviewing for a few faculty positions, and am a bit dismayed by the portion of my grant that will have to support my salary, which could be used to actually do the research. While there are many reasons to jump ship, passion for the job should trump all. At least, I am trying to convince myself of this, although it is becoming more and more difficult as more and more NIH dollars are being cut, resulting in even lower probabilities of actually getting R01 funding. Industry isn't even a viable option anymore as R&D is shrinking. I believe the longer term fix is to reduce the demand for the research dollars by reducing the number of BioMedical Phds granted. There is no practical reason to gain a PhD and compete (unsuccessfully by most) for funding, then in turn, do bench work on another PIs dime. I believe that it is time to grant more master's level degrees, and when (I hope) I land a faculty position, you can bet that I will only grant PhDs to those that I truly believe can successfully compete. To do otherwise is to devalue the degree and dilute the field.
Just a young(er) scientist's perspective.

11/30/2013 6:19am

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