Tag Archives: university science

HUGE ADDITIONAL MONEY FOR RESEARCH WILL BE BAD FOR UNIVERSITIES AND THEIR SCIENCE!

 

There is never enough money for scientific research! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
There is never enough money for scientific research! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Universities have a long tradition as being repositories of knowledge, and, centers for advanced education, scholarly studies, and scientific research.  Modern universities in  the U.S. have had vexing problems paying for their many programs and diverse activities, so tuition is raised year after year.  Faculty in science departments and medical schools conduct studies financed by research grants issued from governmental science agencies.  That external source of money now also pays for very many non-science operations and activities.  The end result is that scientific research at universities has been converted into a business venture providing extensive profits for money-hungry universities.

What has this recent change done to faculty scientists, science departments, and science education at universities?  My answer is that any giant increase in research grant funding will make many current problems for university science get worse!  My last dispatch covered the bad effects of a huge increase in research funding upon faculty scientists and their research efforts (see: “Huge Additional Research Money Will Be Bad for Faculty Scientists and Their Investigations!” ) [1].   Today’s essay presents my reasoning about its bad effects upon universities!

Background: What causes the perennial shortage of  money for university research? 

The direct causes of the shortage of money for research are known and were explicitly listed in the preceding article [1].  The ultimate causes are the bad policies and destructive activities of: (1) modern universities, and (2) the federal science agencies.  While these very large institutions have generated many research advances in basic and applied science, they also have created very difficult unsolved problems in university science (see:  “The Biggest Problems Killing University Science Still Prevail in 2016!” ).

Foreground: How do these ultimate causes presently operate? 

Money collected from taxpayers is awarded by the U.S. governmental science agencies as research grants to academic institutions (i.e., universities, medical schools, and research institutes).  Faculty scientists at universities must win a research grant, or they are unable to conduct any research investigations.  Every year, more and more doctoral scientists compete to acquire research grants; the intense struggle to win federal support for research is so enormous that it must be termed a hyper-competition (see:  “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants!” ).  This battle to get research grants means that most faculty scientists today spend more time working on grant applications than working on experiments in their lab.

Granting agencies of the U.S. national government have a certain pool of taxpayer dollars available to disperse every year for a large slate of administrative and regulatory activities, as well as for support of scientific research.  Priorities and proposals for funding must be harshly evaluated.  Many requests cannot be funded; the National Institutes of Health, which  is the largest government agency providing grants for biomedical and hospital research, was able to fund only 18.3% of all applications for support of research projects in 2015 [2].

Three cyclic movements of money support scientific research and determine how modern U.S. universities organize faculty research and operate science departments (see:  “Three Money Cycles Support  Scientific Research!” ).  These mechanisms cause substantial changes from academic traditions.  In particular, they make research into strictly a business activity.  Universities then regard their faculty scientists as busness employees whose main job is to produce profits for their employer by acquiring research grants.  This changes the entire standard concept of what basic scientific research is for (i.e., generation of new knowledge and discovery of the truth), and, converts faculty scientists into businessmen and businesswomen.

How would adding big money for research grants affect science at universities? 

Some good effects for university science include: (1) a greater number of faculty scientists will receive research grants and thus be able to perform research investigations, (2) more faculty grantees will receive full funding instead of only partial funding (i.e., partial funding necessarily always restrains what can be done), and, (3) additional universities would be able to participate in new ‘big science’ projects.

Many negative effects also can be recognized: (1) universities, their science departments, and faculty scientists now all are business entities; (2) the total income acquired in each year becomes the standard measure for quality of faculty scientists, science departments, and entire universities;  (3) since research results now are increasingly for sale (see:  “How Science Died on 9/11” by Kevin Ryan and Paul Craig Roberts ), there will be increased cheating at research and more frequent allegations of research misconduct by university faculty employees; (4) science departments will have many more involvements with companies and lawyers, and, will evolve to become either close partners or commercial competitors of businesses involving pharmaceutical products, engineering developments, and new technologies; (5) the number of science faculty holding an untenured soft-money appointment (i.e., their entire salary comes from their research grants) will increase since that change substantially decreases expenditures for hard-money salaries; (6) new buildings will be constructed to house shared research labs for all the new soft-money faculty; (7) teaching of science students in graduate schools will expand to include courses on running a business, business law, dealing with finances, and other subjects needed by doctoral scientists working in commerce and industry; and, (8) as a result of all these effects, many more students entering U.S. graduate schools to prepare for a career in science at universities will change their aim to working in industrial research.

Concluding remarks! 

The conversion of university science into a business solves financial problems for modern universities, but also creates some new and very destructive difficulties.  In particular, shifting scientific research into a profit-seeking business causes degradation of university science and degeneration of faculty scientists.

The entire system for supporting scientific research at universities needs to be changed!  If left untouched, today’s system problem in academic science is so grave that it even could result in the death of university research (see:  “Could Science and Research Now Be Dying?” )!  New ways to support research in academia are badly needed, and could stop the current decay, corruption, and waste of money and time in modern university science.

 

[1]  Dr.M, 2016.  “Huge Additional Research Money Will Be Bad for Faculty Scientists and Their Investigations!”  Available on the internet at:  http://dr-monsrs.net/2016/10/25/huge-additional-money-for-research-will-be-bad-for-faculty-scientists-and-their-investigations/ .

[2]  NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT), 2016.  “Research Project Success Rates by NIH Institute for 2015”  Available on the internet at:  https://report.nih.gov/success_rates/Success_ByIC.cfm .

 

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HUGE ADDITIONAL RESEARCH MONEY WILL BE BAD FOR FACULTY SCIENTISTS AND THEIR INVESTIGATIONS! 

 

There is never enough money for scientific research! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
There is never enough money for scientific research!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Liberals, and even many normal people, feel that the serious problems facing science at modern universities in the U.S. can all be resolved by providing much more money for research studies.  They claim that the total of $132,500,000,000 spent for research in 2014 [1] still is not enough!!  They imagine that dramatic discoveries then would produce cures for more diseases, develop robots to do everyone’s housework, lead to free electricity, etc., if only huge additional dollars would be given for research by university scientists!

I totally disagree!  More money for university research is not the answer to these problems!  Giant increases in research funding would only make the present problems for faculty scientists even worse!  This essay briefly presents my reasoning about its bad effects upon faculty scientists and their research!  The following dispatch will cover its bad effects upon U.S. universities!

Background: What causes the perennial shortage of  money for university research? 

The direct causes of the shortage of money for research are: (1) there now are too many scientists, (2) more new doctoral scientists are graduated every year, (3) more foreign scientists move here to work on research every year, (4) there is enormous wastage in research grants (see:  “Wastage of Research Grant Money in Modern University Science” ), (5) many purchases used for research are duplicates and/or are not justified, (6) the research grant system has no provision for trying to save money (i.e., the working rule is to never have any grant funds left over), and (7) university science now is just a  business where financial profits are everything.  All that is really necessary to greatly increase the funding for research in universities is to decrease or stop these causes!

The ultimate causes are the misguided policies and destructive activities of: (1) modern universities, and, (2) the federal agencies awarding research grants.  While both these very large institutions have been the basis for many research advances in basic and applied science, they also have created some very big problems for science at universities (see:  “The Biggest Problems Killing University Science Still Prevail in 2016! “ ).

Foreground: How do these ultimate causes presently operate? 

Money collected from taxpayers is awarded by the U.S. federal science agencies as research grants to academic institutions (i.e., universities, medical schools, and research institutes).  Faculty scientists researching at these institutions operate as major providers of scientific research.  Without winning a research grant, faculty scientists are unable to conduct any research investigations.  Every year, more and more doctoral scientists are seeking to acquire research grants; the intense struggle to win federal funding for research is so enormous that it must be termed a hyper-competition (see:  “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants!” ).  This vicious battle to get research grants means that most faculty scientists today spend more time working on grant applications than working on experiments in their lab.  The annual rise in the number of new applicants and seekers of multiple research grants makes hyper-competition get worse every year.

Granting agencies of the U.S. national government have a certain pool of taxpayer dollars available to disperse every year for a large slate of administrative and regulatory activities, as well as for support of scientific research.  Priorities and proposals for money must be harshly evaluated, and not every request can be funded.  The National Institutes of Health, which  is the largest government agency providing grants for biomedical and hospital research, was able to fund only 18.3% of all applications for support of research projects in 2015 [2].  The granting agencies thus have a strong influence and control over which research areas and which scientists get funded.  Many academic scientists believe that basic research, where practical usage is not a goal, is disfavored, while applied research, which aims to develop or improve commercial products, is promoted.

How would adding lots more money affect science faculty and their research? 

More money for scientificstudies at universities will have some good effects, but to completely solve the shortage of research support would require trillions of dollars!  The chief improvements would be that a greater number of university faculty scientists will be able to do research investigations, and more will receive full funding instead of only partial funding (i.e., partial funding necessarily always restrains what can be done).

Many negative effects of adding a huge amount of dollars for the support of faculty research can be recognized: (1) there will be a large increase of foreign scientists seeking funding here, thereby causing the hyper-competition for research grants to become even worse; (2) the entire aim of scientists for making research discoveries and finding the truth will officially change to winning more dollars from research grant awards; (3) the identity of faculty scientists as businessmen and businesswomen dedicated to acquiring more profits for their employer will be solidified; (4) since research results now are increasingly for sale in the U.S. (see:  “How Science Died on 9/11” ), increased pressure will build to cheat in order to hasten production of pseudo-discoveries and published research reports; (5) the number of science faculty with a soft-money appointment (i.e., their entire salary comes from their research grants) will be greatly increased in order to get larger financial profits for the universities; (6) science faculty will be seen only as transient employees and renters of lab space, meaning that many will relocate soon after receiving a new research grant award; and, (7) the whole nature of evaluating faculty scientists for the quality of their research activities will be transformed into counting the quantity of dollars acquired from research grants.

A very brief discussion! 

Science at universities now is a money-hungry business!  The nature of science, research, and scientists has been changing and will shift further with any huge increase in research funding!

Concluding remarks! 

Providing much more money for research will make the current bad problems for academic scientists get even worse!  If left as they are, today’s problems in science are so grave that they even could result in the death of university research (see:  “Could Science and Research Now Be Dying?” )!

There is no simple or easy solution to these big difficulties because all the causes combine into a system problem.  Fixing only one or two parts of this system problem will not resolve anything!  The entire system for supporting scientific research needs to be changed in order to stop both the current degradation of faculty scientists and the degeneration of science at universities!

 

[1]  Sargent, J.F., for the Congressional Research Service, 2014.  The U.S. Science an Research Workforce: Recent, Current, and Projected Employment, Wages, and Unemployment.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43061.pdf .

[2]  NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT), 2016.  “Research Project Success Rates by NIH Institute for 2015”  Available on the internet at:   https://report.nih.gov/success_rates/Success_ByIC.cfm .

 

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BASIC VERSUS APPLIED SCIENCE: ARE THERE ALTERNATIVES TO FUNDING BASIC RESEARCH BY GRANTS?

Both basic research and applied research need to be supported by grant awards!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Two high school teachers discuss basic and applied research at universities!!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Basic science uses experimental research to seek new truths and test hypotheses.  Applied science seeks to improve or invent devices, methods, or processes so they have better output (e.g., faster or slower, lighter, more efficient, less expensive, more durable, etc.).  Research in basic and applied science at universities both need to be supported by external research grants.  At present, the large federal granting agencies increasingly seem to favor making awards for projects with applied research; awards to acquire knowledge for its own sake in basic research studies now are not considered as worthwhile for funding as formerly. 

What good is pure basic research? 

The classical work of the great pioneers in science, ranging from Galileo to Linus Pauling, all was pure basic science.  Nevertheless, research studies in modern basic science typically are seen as ridiculous or worthless by ordinary adults (e.g., What happens if entire chloroplasts isolated from plant cells are inserted into living animal cells?).  This viewpoint is very short-sighted because it ignores the simple fact that all research progress is part of a continuum of investigations by many different scientists.  Almost all new devices or items of practical use follow this general pathway of development; the final output of applied research can occur several decades after the original discovery by basic research.  Thus, esoteric new knowledge from basic science studies often becomes useful and important when it generates later research in applied science and engineering.  

The basis for all later developments in applied science is the open research in basic science. The number one example of this is the transistor.  When transistors were first made by Bardeen and others, they were viewed as “lab curiosities” that had no potential for practical usage [1].  No-one foresaw their eventual revolutionary significance for the myriad electronic devices and computers in today’s  world.   

How is it decided what research actually is conducted? 

In an ideal world, professional scientists with a Ph.D. decide what to investigate and how to carry out the needed experiments.  In the present world, faculty scientists at universities investigate only what can be supported by external research grant awards.  This necessity  influences and restricts university scientists right from their first job since applicants for a new research grant always very carefully inspect published announcements stating which topics and areas are currently being targeted by the governmental funding agencies; these agencies thereby have a very large influence on which research studies can be pursued.  Governmental officials at agencies awarding research grants can silently direct research efforts into chosen directions, and ensure that certain research topics receive more attention by university research scientists.  An analogous direction of work occurs for most industrial researchers, since they must work only on those research questions having significance for their commercial employer. 

The governmental control of funding for research investigations in science is problematic since the funding agencies increasingly seem to favor funding of research projects in applied science.  This is due in part to the understandable desire to obtain progress within their area of special interest (e.g., energy, fuels, health, military, etc.), and to show the tax-paying public that their support for research studies produces useful new devices or new processes with practical benefits to many.  The funding agencies unfortunately do not understand that basic studies almost always are the precursors for later developments by applied scientists and engineers.  Thus, these funding agencies have an inherent conflict between providing funding for the basic or applied categories of research. Decreasing the awards for basic science later will cause decreases in the output of applied science.  

What are the consequences of favored funding for applied science? 

Any favoring of applied science over basic science for receiving external funding awards inevitably has negative consequences on the progress of science.  First, it decreases the amount of research funds available to support pure basic research.  Second, it conflicts with the well-known fact that almost all important advances and engineering developments originate from some earlier finding(s) by pure basic researchers; decreased funding for basic research later will cause fewer results with applied research.  Third, all the research subjects not selected for targeted funding in applied science thereby are disfavored, and these consequently become less studied.  Fourth, the origin for most new ideas, new concepts, breakthrough developments, and new directions in science is the individual research scientist (see earlier discussions on “Individual Work versus Group Efforts in Scientific Research” and “Curiosity, Creativity, Inventiveness, and Individualism in Science” ).  Applied research tends to decrease the freedom to be creative; that also encourages formation of research groups and decreases the number of grant-holding scientists functioning as individual research workers. 

Are there alternatives in funding or support mechanisms for basic science?

Very small short-term research studies often can be supported by either personal funds or crowdfunding (see earlier discussion in: “Other Jobs for Scientists, Part III.  Unconventional Approaches to Find or Create Employment Opportunities” ).  Some granting agencies have programs offering small amounts of financial support for one year of work; these special opportunities are particularly valuable for scientists seeking to conduct pilot studies.  Where larger research expenses are needed, those mechanisms for support of small research are insufficient, and it is necessary to obtain a standard research grant from the external support agencies.  For subsequent investigations, most grant-holding scientists at universities choose to apply for renewal of their current award; once on the train, it seems easier to stay on board instead of trying to jump off to transfer onto a different train! 

It is not always recognized that a few organizations offer substantial cash prizes for certain targeted competitions (e.g., design a safe human-powered aircraft, develop an efficient system for producing bulk proteins from single-celled algae at special indoor or outdoor farms, construct a practical and inexpensive all-electric gasoline-free automobile, etc.).  Such projects are strongly involved with applied research, although they do involve whatever materials and directions the scientist-inventor wishes to utilize.  These special competitive prizes are retrospective awards given after the research studies and engineering developments are finished; that is totally the opposite of standard governmental research grants which give prospective awards for planned research work before it has been conducted. 

Retrospective research grant awards also are found in ongoing support programs of some other countries, but are not usual in the USA.  Those countries support their research scientists at universities and institutes by routinely awarding them general operating funds (e.g., $30,000/year); these funds provide support for such needed expenses as the work of graduate students, purchase of research supplies, unanticipated research costs (e.g., repair of a broken lab instrument), travel to a science meeting or to the lab of a collaborator, etc.  This supportive practice is a lifesaver whenever an active scientist’s research grant is not renewed. 

Support for basic research inside the current federal research grant system

The diminishing support for basic research necessitates looking for alternative funding sources.  It is not always recognized that normal federal research grants do allow some awarded funds to be utilized for new basic science investigations, so long as these have some relationship to the main subject of interest and do not require very large amounts of money.  This usage of research grant funds usually is considered as a justified expense when the Principal Investigator approves these expenditures.  Such side-projects often are labelled as being pilot studies, since they can produce enough important data to later be included in an application for a new separate research grant.  

Concluding remarks

Support by the research grant system for basic research studies now is decreasing while  support for applied research studies increases.  Knowledge for its own sake always will be important, and is the basis for subsequent developments in applied science and engineering.  Both the basic and applied types of research studies are valuable for the science enterprise and society.  The current disfavoring of basic research studies should be stopped, because that hurts the future promise of research studies in both basic and applied science; at present, basic science needs to be encouraged more.    University scientists must develop and use additional or unconventional means to enable them to conduct the needed basic science investigations. 

[1]  Mullis, K. B., 1987.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:      http://www.karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf .

 

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YOU WILL NEVER HEAR ABOUT THESE GOOD SCIENTISTS (PART I)!

 

You Will Never Hear About the Life of These Good Scientists!    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
You Will Never Hear About the Life of These Good Scientists! (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Not all university scientists are so blessed as to acquire multiple research grant awards, have dozens of research students and collaborators working in their laboratory, produce 5-10 new research publications every year, and easily advance right up the career ladder.  Most faculty researchers work hard to achieve some fame while dealing with the large problems involving time, money, and integrity.  To demonstrate the perverse atmosphere now commonly present at too many modern universities, I will describe here some eye-opening stories from the life of two fictitious members of the science faculty at some large state university in the USA.  I will not hold anything back, and do not exaggerate anything.  These stories are very realistic since they are based on actual faculty scientists I have known during my own career as a university scientist; although the stories will be difficult for many adults to believe, these episodes can be considered typical of the undeserved problems facing today’s modern academic scientists.

Joseph H. Smith, Ph.D.

Joe Smith is a 42 year-old tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.  Every year, he gives lectures and teaches laboratories for both the very large undergraduate chemistry course and the biochemistry course; he also presents an advanced graduate course in Environmental Biochemistry.  In addition, Joe serves as Director of Graduate Studies for his department.  He has a research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that provides salaries for 3 graduate students and one Postdoctoral Research Fellow; he has successfully renewed his grant one time.  Joe’s salary is quite decent and he manages to stay home on weekends to be with his family of 5.  Joe enjoys his research work immensely and is respected by other scientists in his very specialized field.  His departmental colleagues all consider Joe to be a successful scientist, a good teacher, and a friendly associate.  Joe feels confident that he has nearly achieved enough to merit promotion to become a Full Professor.  On the surface nobody has any reason at all to suspect that Joe is not fully successful or is troubled by anything in his career. 

Unexpected events occur (i.e., shit does happen!)

One day, to his enormous surprise, Joe is notified by an official letter that his application for the second renewal of his NIH research grant has been approved, but cannot be funded (i.e., his priority score is below the cutoff).  This means that his Postdoc must finish her work, get manuscripts submitted, and leave within 6 more months.  Two of his 3 graduate students are just  starting their training, and so decide to move out of his lab to start working with a different professor.  Joe therefore decides that he now must start working on weekends to compensate for his new much smaller research staff.  He also immediately begins work on a new research grant application; Joe is dismayed to see that there are only 5 more months before the next deadline for submission.  After changing his own work schedule, Joe comes to realize that he now is extraordinarily short on time in his new situation, since he also has upcoming deadlines for revising 2 manuscripts, submitting abstracts for a science meeting, finishing revision of the  Department’s graduate training booklet, mentoring a new Assistant Professor in his Department, and revising all the student handouts for his class lectures for the forthcoming semester.  To put it mildly, Joe now is extremely busy and begins to feel somewhat stressed. 

A new character enters this drama

The Chairman of Joe’s department is a famous old chemist who is well-liked by his entire faculty.  The old professor suddenly has a heart attack and must retire.  The search for a replacement succeeds in attracting a middle-aged bright and very ambitious polymer chemist.  This new Chair soon announces that his academic unit now will be renamed as the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science, and that the biochemistry course now will be listed only by the Department of Biological Science; Joe will continue working in that course despite these changes.  Nobody voices any dissent or concerns about these changes, and Joe initially does not perceive any bad consequences for himself. 

During his first interview, the new Chair explains to Joe that the Dean wants him to modernize and rejuvenate this old department, and so he must act vigorously to get this done.  Several distressing pronouncements then are given to Joe: (1) if he cannot win a new grant award within 6 months then Joe’s laboratory assignment will be terminated, (2) Joe will stop directing the graduate student training program, so as to give him more time to work on his new grant applications, and, (3) in recognition of his long service at this university, the new Chair is prepared to write a salutary letter of recommendation on Joe’s behalf should he ever need to apply for a new position elsewhere.  Joe is startled to hear all this, but does not comment.  The new Chair then continues that he wants to make room for several new faculty appointments in polymer chemistry, and so more lab space will soon be needed for those newcomers.  The new Chair ends the conference by smiling and telling Joe, “Please let me know if I can help you with anything!” 

Joe initially wonders what all of this means.  After discussions with other faculty in his department, he starts to realize what is going on and exactly what now is happening to him.  Through no fault of his own, Joe the biochemist suddenly has become an “odd man out” in the new regime.  Joe starts to feel increasingly uneasy and worried about his career. 

About 6 weeks later, the new Chair calls Joe in for another private conference.  Joe has since gotten advice from several senior faculty members and feels fully prepared to protect his status.  However, he is utterly shocked when his Chair opens by announcing that Joe’s efforts with his new situation are progressing too slowly.  The Chair pauses and leans over to look very closely at Joe, and then continues in a somber voice, “I expect a lot from all my faculty, Joe, and I have been trying to help you.  However, I must tell you that if you cannot be more reasonable and accept all I suggest, then you might be officially investigated for insubordination!  We need to work together here!  I also am wondering if maybe you should now try to find a new job somewhere else?”  The new Chair then again ends the session by smiling and telling Joe, “Please let me know if I can help you with anything!” 

Joe becomes very upset.  All his actions to be a good member of the faculty now seem to count for nothing with his new Boss.  Joe cannot believe he really heard that last query and so  replies, “You are very wrong about me!  I have always done a good job here and am a successful faculty member!  I publish my research results in good journals, serve my employer, and receive good reviews from the students for my teaching!   Furthermore, I don’t have to take this crap from you, since I am tenured!  You can’t just push me out!”  The Chair smiles and calmly replies, “Yes indeed, but you now appear to be slowing down and deactivating.  Since I was hired to reform this moribund department, we have no use for slackers or dead wood.  I myself have several big research grants and publish many full articles every year.  I certainly expect my entire faculty to be as productive and successful as I am!  Please be more cooperative, Joe!  You must try harder to do much better!  ”  

My analysis of Dr. Joe Smith

Joe Smith certainly is a good person and a good faculty scientist.  He suddenly finds himself put into a very difficult situation in the reorganized department.  He clearly is at a disadvantage in resolving this  problem because he has always been sincere, honorable, and committed; unfortunately for Joe, this type of situation in academia involves another world that is based on power, deceit, personal politics, and aggressive actions.  Thankfully, not all universities have this type of situation occurring with aggressive leaders who are power-hungry and duplicitous, but some most certainly do so. 

Won’t academic tenure protect Joe Smith?  Achieving tenured rank in universities very often is taken by the public as the golden protector of an academic career.  In theory, academic tenure protects and enables faculty freedom (i.e., ability to hold and announce any conclusion or belief, no matter how controversial that is).  In practice, tenure only goes so far and really can be only an empty promise.  There are at least a dozen ways that academic tenure can be negated, ignored, superseded, or limited.  Like many other perfectly good academic scientists, Joe Smith learns about this aspect of faculty life only through his actual personal involvement in the new situation described above. 

New chairpersons often are given a mandate to reform and improve some dusty university department.  They seem to have a strong general tendency to hire and then favor “my new faculty”, instead of also putting effort into improving the activities of their inherited faculty.  Certainly, some older faculty members with high salaries often are not so modern or productive enough, but that does not mean that those employees should be booted out with no regard for their earlier accomplishments.  Truly good leaders in universities are able to deal with these issues in an effective manner without causing the undeserved problem that Joe Smith innocently ran into.  

It is very likely that the new Chair will try to remove Joe in one way or another.  I believe it is unlikely that Joe can win this conflict.  Even if he does manage to retain his position, he will be labelled as a troublemaker, his salary will be reduced, and any of his requests for assistance will be rejected.  A grievance or lawsuit is unexpected to help Joe.  He is too young to take early retirement.  Joe simply is trapped, and I see only 2 possible ways for him to escape doom.  One possibility is that Joe might be able to transfer his status and tenure into the Department of Biological Sciences; his ongoing major teaching role for their large biochemistry course provides strong support justifying moving Joe into that  department.  A second possibility for this innocent scientist is to seek a new position with a different employer where he and his work are not viewed with such hostility; this is not easy to do until he gets funded again, but is the only effective way to totally remove his very negative situation with his current employer. 

Concluding remarks for Part I

All readers are urged to accept that the very distressing situation encountered by Joe Smith actually does happen in modern universities.  Yes, university scientists live a dangerous life because unexpected changes can and do occur easily.  Being a good and hard-working research scientist at universities or being tenured does not offer much protection against such unanticipated predicaments.  Acquiring several research grant awards simultaneously now gives more protection to the career of a university scientist than does academic tenure.  I emphasize that Joe Smith is innocent of any wrongdoing, and is simply a victim of perverse circumstances. 

This disgusting situation is not unique to Joe Smith or to any of the hundreds of universities in the USA.  In the forthcoming Part II, I will relate a different fictional story that also is strongly based upon real university scientists I have known. 

 

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WASTAGE OF RESEARCH GRANT MONEY IN MODERN UNIVERSITY SCIENCE

 

Wastage of Research Grant Money Should be a No-No !!     (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Wastage of Research Grant Money Should be a No-No !!      (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            Money is required to conduct modern scientific research, and plays a very large role in determining exactly what gets done by scientists (see my earlier article in the Basic Introductions  category on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”).  To construct one new 3-4G synchrotron research facility costs billions of dollars, while a newly-appointed Assistant Professor might need only $150,000 for his or her first research project.  Research grant funds routinely are spent by professional scientists for many different kinds of direct costs and for all indirect costs (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Research Grants: What is Going on with the Indirect Costs of Doing Research?”.  Without money, no experimental scientific research can be conducted in modern universities. 

            All granting agencies carefully review the budgets proposed by applicants for a research grant, and seek to remove any unnecessary or excessive items.  They also have oversight and accounting controls in place to verify which expenses have been paid validly by the awarded grant funds.  Science faculty receiving research grants additionally have university accounting rules and regulations for all expenditures of their grant awards.  Faculty grantees do have the option to request rebudgeting of their awarded funds, so as to deal with unexpected contingencies and operational changes in their research plan; large changes must be approved by the granting agency, while smaller changes are reviewed and either approved or disapproved by the university financial office.  

            Despite all these regulatory mechanisms, some wastage of research grant funds still commonly occurs.  Wastage here is defined as any expenditures that are not required for the direct conduct of the experiments and activities within an approved research project.  This means that anything not bonafide (e.g., far outside the scope of the research project) or not necessary (e.g., purchase of an excessive number of laptop personal computers, travel to attend a dozen science meetings where no presentation is given, etc.) is a misuse of the awarded funds.  Any such expenditure constitutes wastage of the research grant funds. 

 

Different Types of Wastage of Research Grant Funds

 

            For individual grantees at universities, there are at least 5 different major kinds of wastage of research grant awards: (1) unneeded and duplicated ordinary purchases, (2) purchases and expenditures that are made just to use up some unspent awarded funds before a grant period ends, (3) payments for too many measurements and assays to be conducted at external commercial labs, rather than in the home laboratory of the grantee, (4) misuse of research grant awards due to policies of universities, and (5) misuse of research grant awards due to policies of the granting agencies.  Examples for each of these 5 are given below. 

 

            Some duplicated purchases are needed, but others are not so and must be categorized as being excessive.  Most biomedical research labs need to have extra micropipetters as backups for when those in use need to be taken out of service for repair or recalibration; however, there is no need to have several dozen extras.  This type of wastage constitutes an error by the individual scientist (i.e., Principal Investigator, Faculty-Co-Investigator, Collaborator, Lab Manager, etc.). 

 

            It is well-known amongst grant-holders that all awarded funds must be spent before the grant period ends.  Direct banking of any unspent research grant funds beyond the grant duration is not permitted, and there is no encouragement to ever try to save money; it is commonly rumored that unusual individuals who try to return some unspent grant funds to the funding agency have all future proposed budgets significantly reduced in size.  For this reason, it is commonplace for faculty researchers who have somehow underspent their award to buy additional research supplies during the last year of a grant just to use up any remaining funds.  These purchases really represent wastage of the awarded grant funds.   

 

            Small laboratory groups always are tempted to save precious time by purchasing research work from external commercial service labs, thereby permitting their research staff to work on other activities.  Typically, this involves payment to conduct data collection and analysis; the alternative is to train a graduate student or a research technician to conduct the needed operations in the home lab.  It always seems easier to buy something rather than do it in-house, but when a Principal Investigator lets this approach exceed a certain level, it is wasteful of the awarded grant funds. 

 

            Wastage for unnecessary purchases due to university policies can arise from an absence of regulation, as well as from over-regulation.  At some universities, old research equipment, ranging from ovens and chromatographs to microscopes and large centrifuges, is not reassigned and recycled for further use, but is simply dumped onto the refuse docks and picked up by garbage collectors, scrap metal dealers, or passersby.  The absence of official mechanisms for re-use of expensive research equipment that becomes unused, but still works quite well, causes wastage of funds for new purchases (e.g., why pass along a 5-10 year old research instrument belonging to the late Professor Katsam, when new faculty member Smith can use his first research grant award to buy a new one?). 

 

            Another example of university policy-based wastage of grant funds is produced by some of the official rules for laboratory safety.  At many institutions, the purchase and use of very expensive explosion-proof refrigerators in laboratories is required; faculty grantees can need several of these and typically try to buy only the much less expensive ordinary household refrigerators, but are not always allowed to do that.  To whatever extent the special refrigerators are not actually required, this policy causes  unnecessary purchases and represents wastage. 

 

            Newly appointed university science faculty members furnish their laboratory by purchasing brand new research equipment.  It is not unusual that if there are 3 new Assistant Professors in one science department, that all 3 will mostly buy some of the same items.  It is quite unusual that a university will see that much of this duplication is unneeded and wasteful, since these necessities can be provided by establishment of a common service room where each basic item is available for all to use (e.g., a pH meter, a vacuum oven, an ultracold freezer, light microscope, etc.). 

 

            A different type of wastage of research grant funds involves misguided policies of the granting agencies.  These agencies all make extensive efforts to avoid any duplicate funding or overlapping of grant awards, but almost everyone knows of cases where this has happened anyway; there are so many research grants and so many scientists that it is extremely difficult to prevent this type of error and wastage.  As one illustration of the complex nature of this problem, consider the routine formation of a small research group with several other faculty colleagues.  The group project involves conducting 30 different experiments, with each of the 5 group members supervising 6 parts of the entire study; in actuality, some of the 5 work on 2-20 of these experiments, and some technicians work under several different supervisors.  One large research grant is acquired for the group project, and this provides an equal salary contribution for all 5 faculty co-investigators.  Some of these 5 scientists are successful enough to also have merited their own individual research grant(s), supporting projects that are described as being “related, but different” from that in the large grant awarded to the research group.  In this example, it often is extremely difficult to determine exactly who does what, what time and effort are spent by each person on each activity, and, which grant should pay for what.  In this complex situation there is a definite likelihood that some of the research expenses are being supported by more than one grant; any duplicated research support is redundant and unnecessary, and therefore is wastage. 

 

            A second example where policies of a granting agency create waste in their awards involves the fact that research grants often include a salary contribution for the Principal Investigator (e.g., 10-50%).  If doctoral scientists are soft-money appointees, they must get their entire salary (i.e., 100%) from research grants; this is perfectly usual and honest.   On the other hand, if a university scientist has a hard-money appointment (i.e., their full salary is guaranteed by some source, such as a state government), then any salary contribution by their research grant is unnecessary, makes no sense to me, and should be considered as being wastage.  In that situation, the funding agency in effect returns some of the guaranteed salary to the source or to the university; for universities, this transfer or refund can result in all sorts of manipulations involving provision of salary bonuses, raises, and semi-unrestricted private accounts. 

 

How Much Research Grant Money is Wasted? 

 

            The wastage problems described above initially might seem to be only minor in size and importance, and could even be thought to be somewhat unavoidable.  Many readers then will wonder exactly how much money is being wasted?  Since there are no official figures to cite, let us make estimates by considering the following simple and minimal theoretical examples.  If the amount of research grant money wasted by any one faculty scientist is given as $500/year, then to obtain the national figure this must be multiplied by the many thousands of scientists doing grant-supported research studies.  If the amount of grant funds wasted by any one university science department is given as only $5,000/year, then to get the national total this must be multiplied by the number of science departments at each university.  In addition, we can look at the minimal $15,000 spent by each new faculty appointee setting up their new laboratory; this figure must be multiplied first by all the many new science faculty appointees each year, and then by the number of years being considered.  From  these simple estimates, it is obvious that many millions of research grant dollars could be wasted each and every year.  The total amount of research grant dollars wasted must be described as being “substantial”!

 

Why does Wastage of Research Grant Funds Matter? 

 

            Any misuse and wastage of research grant awards necessarily represents taxpayer money that was misspent.  Due to the limited amount of dollars available for supporting scientific research via grants, too many faculty scientists with worthy projects now can receive only partial funding or no funding at all.  If the substantial amount of dollars in research grants now being wasted would be added to the pool of available funds, then (1) more scientists could get funded fully, and (2) more scientists could be able to have their approved projects funded.  This change will result in more research and better research being done, thereby benefitting all of us. 

 

            To stop this wastage or at least greatly decrease the amount of wastage of research grant funds, changes must be activated in 3 quite separate locations: (1) funded faculty scientists on hard-money salaries, (2) the universities, and (3) the granting agencies.  Like any other attempts to change the status quo, the several parties benefitting from the current substantial wastage of research grant funds will oppose any changes.  Nevertheless, I do not doubt that increased efforts both by scientists and by the public will be able to make these needed changes into a reality. 

 

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