Research Grant Dollars

Over at Life as a Physicist Gordon Watts notes the email we received here at the University of Washington from our university president yesterday which told us that last year, for the first time, UW received over a billion dollars in research grants. Only John Hopkins receives more money. Of course the main reason for this is the UW’s school of medicine which brings in over half a billion dollars in funding every year. Holy moly that’s a lot of research grant dollars.
This got me thinking about research funding and I thought an incredibly stupid thought. Which is of course what this blog is for: sharing my incredibly stupid thoughts…in the public…so everyone can laugh at me. A big issue which comes up in physics graduate programs is the fact that the supply chain for academic jobs in physics is severely out of wack. The number of faculty positions versus the number of people who want these jobs is the source of an incredible amount of frustration and pain for the vast majority of graduate students and postdocs who will not obtain faculty positions. This is, of course, true across a multitude of fields, not just physics, but I’ll stick to physics as it is the field I know more about.
Of course part of the problem is that the incentive system for faculty members is askew: you get rewarded for bringing in money which supports graduate students. So in some form, the number of graduate students you mentor is a proxy for a measure of your success as a faculty member. Indeed there is very little incentive for a professor at a research institute to not add even more graduate students to the meat factory of the academic job market.
Now there are many things we can think about to fix this situation, almost none of them will probably ever come to fruition, simply because there isn’t much incentive to do so from the “winners”, who are also the ones who would be responsible to fix the system. From my own perspective I’m a big advocate of science departments owning up to the problem and providing a setting where, while research and the academic system is the core of graduate school experience, departments do a lot more to emphasize the general applicability of the degree they are earning. Physics, in particular, suffers greatly from the attitude that only a faculty position at a top research school is acceptible, ignoring the huge amount of success that physicists have had departing from this path (and yes, I think about this path myself, nearly every day, especially when my research isn’t working the way I want it to. Of course this is probably the reason I’m in my current position.) Of course, I’m sure there are those who don’t think there is a problem at all. If you’re one of those people you might as well stop reading now, since there ain’t no way what I’m going to say next is going to do anything beside cause an increase in your blood pressure.
So back to the stupid idea. My position at the University of Washington is as a research assistant professor. What this means is that I am supported entirely by grant money I raise. Of course one particular side effect of this is that it is much harder for me to take on a lot of graduate students. So my stupid idea was what would happen if this setup was much more widely in place. What if faculty were rewarded a lot more for paying their own salary than they currently are? What if the proportion of research faculty was much more in line with the proportion of funding coming in to a university? What if the proportion of research faculty to faculty rewarded more for teaching was more in line with the actual source of funding dollars? This would definitely change the ability to fund graduate students at the level they are currently funded.
But, of course it is a stupid idea. Increasing the number of research professors would cause all sorts of havoc with teaching. And really, do I want more people to have to raise their salaries like I do and the suffer the slings and arrows of funding fortunes? Maybe what I really need is someone to comiserate with 🙂 But it is an interesting model to consider: what happens if a university acknowledges the central nature of research in its endeavors and tries to accomidate this by more research positions, more teaching-emphasis positions, and a reduction in the number of traditional tenure positions? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I’d be curous to know if there are any examples of schools which have pushed in this direction and what the (probably insane) consequences of such a move have been.

9 Replies to “Research Grant Dollars”

  1. It’s a bad scene – our department (within an engineering college where post-graduate jobs are more numerous) was recently reprimanded by the dean because we didn’t have the same faculty to grad student ratio that other departments in the college had.

  2. since you mention medical schools, I should point out that medical school funding models are almost soft money positions, in the sense that if you don’t have grant money to run your lab, you cannot continue to even teach or remain at your position for much longer.

  3. Why not take it one further, and cut universities out of the research picture altogether, at least for theoretical research? I understand that New Zealand allows independent researchers (i.e., those not affiliated with a university) to get research funding. Universities take an enormous cut of research grants as “overhead”, and provide poor value on the dollar for that money.
    Academia would be a lot more attractive without the tenure crush, the inane bureaucracy, and the high housing prices in most university towns. The internet has made face-to-face communication relatively less important (there’s research showing that physical co-location has a much smaller correlation with co-authorship than it once did), and regular conference attendance would supply the necessary social and community connections.
    Government funding agencies could negotiate journal access for independent researchers, providing the equivalent of a university library’s online access.
    I suspect that this kind of arrangement could easily halve the cost of theory research, and make a lot of academics a lot happier (just think–the two-body problem would be a thing of the past, at least for couples where at least one person is a theorist).

  4. Indeed — we get pressure from the funding agencies to eliminate research professors that are long-term hires. So this problem goes further than a university. Also, as pointed, out, the medical model of funding means many people are 50% teaching time and the rest of the money has to come from grants. This is accepted by the NIH, but not be NSF and DOE (in my experience).
    So, much more than the university system needs to be changed in order to make some of this come true! 🙁

  5. Suresh is absolutely right that (essentially) all medical schools, and all medical research institutes, operate on exactly the model that you describe.
    When times are flush, this model works *great*! When growth slows or stops, not so great.
    In the physical sciences, times have been “hard” ever since 1974 or so. In the biomedical sciences, growth slowed only in the past three years or so.
    The remedy is obvious — put science to work to create flush economic times. But that’s not so easy to do, is it?

  6. John–that’s a very clever solution, but it really only solves half the problem. The most recent economic boom (the dot-com era) is in so many ways a product of (or at least enabled by) the physical sciences, and yet we haven’t seen a funding “reward”. Even if we did get a windfall, would it solve these problems, or just conceal them?
    Putting it another way, a lot of problems disappear for a while when everyone is flush with cash, but they’re not really gone.
    I don’t have any simple ideas on how how to fix that, so instead I thought it might be more fun to speculate on what scientific innovations would trigger the next economic boom. Practical and economic space flight? Genetic engineering? Nanotech? Quantum computing?

  7. The reason Johns Hopkins is perennially number one on that list (and has been for decades) is due to the Applied Physics Lab which is primarily funded by the DoD with some NASA money thrown in for good measure. The odd thing is that, if you take classes there and your professor happens to have an office there, you can get a visitor’s tag to wander around the place (mind you, I was there before September 11, so the rules may have changed). With the insanely top-secret stuff that goes on there I always thought that was a bit odd.

  8. Dave, as a research faculty member can you get tenure at UW? At my institution research faculty (such as myself) are not eligible for tenure. Anecdotally I have heard that in my field (biomedical research) the number of applicants per open, tenure track faculty position at a top tier institution can reach ~600.
    Johns Hopkins is also atop the list due to their ability to attract NIH dollars. See for example, $$$$$
    Finally, I think a significant flaw is that we assume students will want faculty jobs. There are plenty of rewarding, intellectually challenging problems being addressed in industrial and government settings. And then there are non-science based occupations where significant analytical skills are a boon.
    It does the student a huge disservice to assume they want a faculty position and to drive them toward that goal.

  9. Hey Jon,
    In my position, yes, I can get tenure. This seems to vary considerably across different universities for research professors. But anyway it is fun because I get to pretend I am John Schwarz who was a “research associate” and “senior research associate” for many years at Caltech before he made his great discoveries with Greene which jumpstarted the string theory revolution 🙂

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