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$how me the Money

Submitted by jdp on Fri, 07/10/2015 - 12:54 pm

This rant, lament, or diatribe will not be unfamiliar to those who know me, or to most academics, as there’s scarcely a unique complaint here. I reprise it in response to a couple of recent conversations. One concerned a very good geoscientist at another university who was recently promoted and tenured, but told by her dean that she would never make full professor if she didn’t start bringing in some grant money, regardless of the quantity and quality of her research output. The attitude and policy reflected by this is not only not atypical, it is standard in research universities. For a long time academic success (at least in material terms of money and status) in the sciences has depended more on how many external dollars you bring in than how much research you produce, and how good that research is.


The second conversation involved a young scientist venting a bit about what a royal pain in the ass it is putting together a joint proposal. I know from experience that many will agree with me when I say that the administrative details, budget, chain of internal and external approvals, and other miscellaneous hoop jumping is invariably a lot more work than the actual scientific part of a proposal.

I admire and respect my colleagues who are able to pull in research funding. I appreciate what they provide to their programs and institutions. I think they should be applauded and rewarded. The “carrot” bits; the reward structures, don’t bother me at all, except maybe for a bit of petty jealousy on account of my lackluster record in this arena over the past 30 years.

What bothers me is the “stick” part—the implicit punishment of non-promotion, lower raises, and such that are associated with low levels of external funding. To me, external funding is only one measure of research success, and not the most important one (the latter being actual outputs in the form of articles, books, and knowledge and tools put to use).  Thus I don’t think someone should be chastised for not getting a grant in a given review period, any more than they should be for not publishing a book, or an article in a specific journal. They key (to me) is the total quality and quantity of research as measured by any or all of the above, and more besides.

If Dr. Jane Doe can be a productive researcher without having to chase money, and given that chasing money eats up an enormous amount of time and energy (and sometimes getting the money eats up even more), why should she be expected to get on the grantsmanship hamster wheel? Given that some geoscience research is inherently more expensive than others (some of us need a ship, a satellite, or a large lab; others need a rock hammer, a soil auger, or a camera), within a given subfield, shouldn’t there be some reward for efficiency? If I, as an employee of a state university with most of the funding I’ve had coming from government agencies, can accomplish a given piece of research with, say, $1K out of pocket, shouldn’t that efficiency be rewarded, as opposed to doing the same work with a $50K grant. After all, I’m giving the taxpayer more bang for the buck.

But hell, you and I both know I’m living in the past, or maybe even some imaginary plane. For a variety of reasons, university funding has devolved to depend on indirect cost returns (“overhead”) from grants. Rather than that being used entirely to actually support the research or offset depreciation of university resources supporting the research, it has become folded into basic budgeting considerations. In some programs the only way you can mentor a graduate student is to get external funding to support them. Thus university administrators (UA) have come to depend on external funding rain-makers to bolster the budget. A brief digression—no matter what the specific funding model at a public university, the prof who teaches 100 or more students in an introductory class is actually bringing in more money than the grant-getter. But who gets the love from the UAs?

Another issue is the decline of independent, curiosity-driven scholarship, as opposed to the industrial model of the research group designed to maximize throughput of funding. Of course, not all science can be conducted by individuals, or by small ad hoc groups. But I worry that there is increasingly little space for that kind of work. You may have seem some of the arguments and essays that I have, indicating that we could not now produce a Charles Darwin or an Albert Einstein, because the institutional reward structures would not allow them to work they way they worked.

I was fortunate that, even though this trend was well underway when I started my career, I had a series of Department Chairs (Pat Gober at Arizona State, Leo Zonn at East Carolina, Karl Raitz at Kentucky) who, though they certainly valued and rewarded grantsmanship, felt that research productivity and quality is the bottom line. Thus they were happy when I was productive, regardless of how much or how little money it took to achieve that. My subsequent chairs at Kentucky (Sue Roberts, Anna Secor, Rich Schein) have the same attitude, but I wonder how long they’ll be able to maintain it in the face of current trends. Not everybody wants to, or should, build a career the way I did, but it makes me sad that few will even be able to try.

Anyhow, maybe this is just grousing by an old fart, passed over by the rest of the geoscientific world, and longing for a semi-imaginary past where purer motives based on curiosity and results prevailed. But to younger scholars who can, and wish to, get by without much external funding; who want to devote more time to science and discovery and less to chasing and handling money, I wish you well, and am sorry that you will have a harder time of it than I have.