“Academia’s Crooked Money Trail”
The troubles plaguing academic science — including fierce competition for funding, dismal career opportunities for young scientists, overdependence on soft money, excessive time spent applying for grants, and many more — do not arise, Stephan suggests, from a shortage of funds. In 2009, she notes, the United States spent nearly $55 billion on university- and medical school–based research and development, far more than any other nation.
The problems arise, Stephan argues, from how that money is allocated: who gets to spend it, where, and on what. Unlike a number of other countries, the United States structures university-based research around short-term competitive grants to faculty members. The incentives built into this system lead universities to behave “as though they are high-end shopping centers,” she writes. “They turn around and lease the facilities to faculty in [exchange for] indirect costs on grants and buyout of salary. In many instances, faculty ‘pay’ for the opportunity of working at the university, receiving no guarantee of income if they fail to bring in a grant.” Those who land funding staff their labs with students enrolled in their department’s graduate program, or with postdocs. Paid out of the faculty member’s grant, both types of workers depend on the primary investigator’s (PI’s) continued success in the tournament.
Universities, however, also face considerable risks. They must, for example, provide large start-up packages to outfit new faculty members for the competition. Newcomers generally have about 3 years to establish a revenue stream — to start winning “the funding to stay in business,” Stephan says. The need to reduce risk explains universities’ growing penchant for hiring faculty members off the tenure track and using adjuncts for teaching. “Medical schools have gone a step further,” Stephan notes, “employing people, whether tenured or nontenured, with minimal guarantees of salary.” Where tenure once constituted a pledge to pay a person’s salary for life, it now constitutes, in the acerbic definition I’ve heard from some medical school professors, a mere “license to go out and fund your own salary.”
Risk avoidance has scientific as well as financial consequences. “The system … discourages faculty from pursuing research with uncertain outcomes,” which may endanger future grants or renewals. This peril is “particularly acute for those on soft money.” Experimental timidity produces “little chance that transformative research will occur and that the economy will reap significant returns from investments in research and development.”
As in all financial ventures, cost determines much of what goes on in the laboratory. “Cost plays a role in determining whether researchers work with male mice or female mice (females, it turns out, can be more expensive), whether principal investigators staff their labs with postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) or graduate students, and why faculty members prefer to staff labs with ‘temporary’ workers, be they graduate students, postdocs, or staff scientists, rather than with permanent staff.” Postdocs often are a PI’s best staffing buy, Stephan writes, because their excellent skills come with no requirement to pay tuition, which at top private institutions can run $30,000 a year or more. Overall, the need to reduce risk and cost in the grant-based system produces “incentives … to get bigger and bigger” by winning the maximum number of grants and, because grad students and postdocs do the actual bench work, to “produce more scientists and engineers than can possibly find jobs as independent researchers.”Although one topflight report described this setup as “ ‘incredibly successful’ from the perspective of faculty,” Stephan observes, “it is the Ph.D. students and postdocs who are bearing the cost of the system — and the U.S. taxpayers — not the principal investigators.”
Read more of this piece by Beryl Lieff Benderly over at Science Careers