Wastage of money, time, and effort is a very general practical problem for scientific researchers. Wasted money in modern academic science is widely known to scientists (see “Wastage of Research Grant Money in Modern University Science” ). In this age with hyper-competition to acquire research grants and the issuance of some grant awards which support only part of a proposed project, reducing wastage has a much increased importance.
In my experience, little attention by academic employers of faculty scientists is paid to this issue. Several nominally anti-wastage forces are built into the system supporting science investigations at modern academic institutions, but those do not act to really decrease wastage of research grant funds by professional scientists; in fact, they often have the opposite effect! This dispatch takes a look at several causes currently contributing to wastage of research grant money and of the time faculty scientists are forced to spend doing secretarial work.
Why is ‘unused research grant money’ not returnable to the granting agency, or able to be banked for future research expenditures?
Every faculty scientist knows about the unstated rule that all dollars in awarded research grants must be spent before the end of the grant period. Returning unused funds to the granting agency is frowned upon; for faculty scientists who are unusually thrifty, that rule actually encourages making unnecessary expenditures and promotes wastage of research grant money.
It also is forbidden to save any awarded research grant funds for use with research expenses after the funding period has ended, unless official approval is sought and granted for an extension of the grant period. Such approvals are frequently given, but they have a strict time limit to complete all the subsequent expenditures. The federal granting agencies would consider proposals to permit banking of unused grant funds to be outside their mandate, since those later experiments would not have been reviewed and approved, plus they might even be in a very different area of science.
Research grants are officially awarded to the employer of faculty scientists, and only nominally to the individual researchers. Academic employers (i.e., universities, medical schools, research institutes, large hospitals, etc.) all strongly support the policy of not being able to bank any unused research grant funds, because they are very eager to obtain their own grant-supplied dollars which pay for the indirect costs of funded projects; those dollars also serve to increase their business profit (see “Research Grants: What is Going On with the Indirect Costs of Doing Research?” .
Faculty scientists can try to get around these directives by using some research grant money during their final year of support to purchase extra supplies that can be utilized after the research grant has expired. Of course, even if many cases of essential research supplies are purchased (i.e., yes, I do know that this actually happens!), this strategy can work only for some limited period of time.
What are the consequences of these restrictive policies?
These restrictions encourage spending the entirety of awarded research grant funds, and totally ignore the lesson learned from everyday life that it is good to save money for later use. In other words, there is no encouragement to be thrifty. Instead, faculty scientists are directly encouraged to spend their research grant money as if there is no tomorrow. When all funds awarded for a given year are spent (i.e., during a multi-year grant period), many then go ahead to start spending funds awarded for the next year of support. This perverse mentality for ongoing wastage explains much of the endless wailing that “we need more money for our research!”
What would result from encouraging thrift and permitting unused grant funds to be saved for future use or returned to the granting agency?
If there were no pressures to spend every dollar before a grant period ends, then the grant funds left unspent by thrifty scientists could be used either for their future research experiments or returned to the granting agency. New rules would ensure that the saved funds were spent only for valid research costs and not for non-research expenses. One good use of such banked funds would be for the purchase of supplies and materials needed to conduct experiments in pilot projects being developed for new research grant applications. Alternatively, if unused research grant funds were returned to the granting agency, then those dollars could very usefully be utilized to reduce the number of grant awards for only partial support.
Why must so much time be wasted on typing by today’s faculty scientists?
Most academic institutions now provide either very limited or no secretarial assistance to their faculty scientists needing to submit applications for research grants, handouts of teaching materials, manuscripts for research publications, various required reports, etc. The Chairs and Deans all have at least one secretarial assistant, presumably because their written output is so important. When science faculty complain about that, academic officials typically assert that they cannot afford to pay for any more secretaries; the faculty are urged to include some salary for a typist on their next application for renewal of their research grant(s). This situation means that science faculty must do all their typing and word processing by themselves, or else their grants and research will stop.
Although trained for years to conduct research, many days, weeks, and months now are spent by professional faculty scientists doing secretarial work. It is not an exaggeration to state that typing often now becomes the major activity for many faculty scientists; this necessity prevents them from spending that time working on research experiments in their lab. The scientists enmeshed in this situation should ask themselves a savage question, “Did I got my Ph.D. just to be a typist?”!
If wastage of research grant funds by faculty scientists could be reduced, then more money would be available to fund research studies. If unused research grant money could be banked by thrifty scientists, then more pilot projects would be conducted after a grant period ends. If the time and previous research training now being wasted by faculty scientists working on word processing could be decreased, then more research results would be collected. Additional attention by federal granting agencies and academic employers is needed to stop encouraging wastage of research grant funds and of hands-on research time by faculty scientists.
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