The Secret(?) Lives of Science Profs

I’ve been toiling all week over a post about what science professors actually do and where our salary comes from… when what do I see on the New York Times site? An article that pretty much fits the bill. In a post on the NYT “Wild Side” blog, guest columnist Steve Quake writes about how university professors spend their time, and the very strange (and sometimes counterproductive) system that funds them. From Quake’s post:

Where does the money come from to pay for our science? Mostly from the federal government — your tax dollars at work — and non-profit foundations. Income from grants written by professors is the single largest contribution to the Stanford University budget (the second largest is endowment income, and student tuition is a distant third). Stanford has an enormous endowment ($17 billion before the market crash) but applies it in a heavily leveraged manner — in other words, they tend to use it to prime the pump and not to support ongoing research programs.

(I think this is more or less true for UW, too. We are one of the largest recipients of NSF funding….)

Quake tells the story of a soft money faculty member: one who has to pull in outside funds to pay for his or her salary. When I was a college student, I didn’t know that this was how it worked. I doubt most of our students now do, either. I’d be willing to bet that most of the public would find it inconceivable that science faculty, in addition to teaching, doing research, serving on committees, etc., have essentially to go out and look for venture capital constantly. Imagine working at a startup your entire life, and you pretty much have the life of a soft-money faculty member. This is why I find it frustrating when, in a recent piece for Slate, Farhad Manjoo wrote:

[Obama] should use the stimulus money to set up something like a government-sponsored venture capital fund. The administration could give out a little bit of money to give a boost to a lot of great ideas, then continue to fund only those ideas that succeed.

Wait – isn’t that the granting process?

Actually, when I was a college student, my science profs probably weren’t funded like this: I went to a small liberal-arts school, where (I’m pretty sure) most instructors were on hard money, paid out of endowments, tuition, and school-wide funds. I’m on hard money now, at least for 9 months out of the year. But I’m at a public institution, without the kind of giant endowment that my alma mater has. (Had?) Certainly, we get a large amount of money from the state to pay for our salaries. But the school also gets some funding from overhead (also known as indirect costs) on grants. When I apply for money from the National Science Foundation, I might need to apply for nearly half again as much as I need. That extra half is the overhead. This isn’t because I want to inflate my earnings: it’s because the school takes that amount and distributes it around for other things. In part, overhead is what “keeps the lights on” – pays for power, facilities, Internet, administrator and staff salaries, etc. In some institutions, part of this money comes back to the grant recipients’ departments. Sometimes it might pay for equipment (usually small stuff – computers, copiers, new GPS units, etc.) that funding agencies aren’t likely to buy. One of the more altruistic uses of overhead is to cover the salaries of faculty whose grants weren’t funded in a particular cycle. UW Tacoma is developing this kind of system, but it’s not here yet.

I do sometimes wonder: if people knew about things like soft money and overhead, would they feel the same way as they do now about the cuts in the stimulus package that just went through Congress? Some might (see here for example), but I’d like to see more discussion of it outside the scientific community. Certainly there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation in the “outside world” of how hard it is to keep a lab funded.

By the way: along these same lines, I’ve been meaning to direct people to Sciencewomen‘s guest post by Kim Hannula about the life of teaching faculty. It is a really wonderful thing to read for we people whose friends/relatives think we only work during our classroom hours. I am in the same boat as Kim in that I teach at a primarily undergraduate public college. I have a heavier teaching load than an R01 (research) professor, but am still expected to find external funding to keep up a “cutting edge” research program. However, my teaching load is nowhere near as heavy as Dr. Hannula’s, and my wife and I have both benefited from a UW program that allows us a quater of teaching release each after the birth of our son. Also, I’m a guy, which means I don’t have to overcome some of the problems Dr. Hannula has had to deal with. But in any case, read her post (and her own blog, All My Faults are Stress-Related).

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