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The math of academic research grant support doesn’t add up


In last week’s blog post (“How lab managers hire for science“), Damien raised an interesting point regarding best hiring practices for new academic faculty that I felt should be highlighted here. Damien recommends that when screening research-scientist candidates for the lab, principal investigators should “identify individuals who lack skills that a new investigator can provide. A candidate applying to medical school or to grad school will be seeking research skills and recommendations. Eliminate all other candidates who don’t fall into these categories. It’ll save time by eliminating applicants who are seeking alternative limiting resources, like higher pay” (my emphasis).

This is an interesting perspective for our site because Dave and I spend so much time advocating in favor of higher salaries for trainees, not lower. And still, Damien’s advice is not wrong. The reason is as follows, and I am using this year’s R00 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant as an example:

On a 2014 R00 independent research grant awarded by the NIH to qualifying recipients upon securing their first independent academic faculty position, total costs are limited to $249,000/year for three years. From this the institution subtracts its indirect cost rate, which varies between institutions but at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is currently set at ~77% of direct costs. Briefly, yearly costs are calculated as follows:

[total cost] = [direct cost] + [indirect cost] = $249,000.00

[direct cost] = [total cost]/[1.(indirect cost rate)] = $249,000/1.77 = $140,677.97

[indirect cost] = 0.77*[direct cost] = 0.77*$140,677.97 = $108,322.03

Research budgets for academic scientists are limited to their direct costs. A budget is calculated per year, and includes the following major line items to which I have attached conservative costs based on my own career experiences:

[salary] = $75,000

[fringe benefits] = [fringe benefits rate]*[salary] = 0.35*$75,000.00 = $26,250.00

[publication cost] = [cost of publication]*[# of publications per year] = $5,000.00*2 = $10,000.00

[research cost] = [direct cost] – [salary] – [fringe] – [publication cost] = $140,677.97 – $75,000.00 – $26,250.00 – $10,000.00 = $29,427.97

In many American institutions such as mine, salary for academic research faculty is not supported by their departments or institutions, and must therefore be derived entirely from their research grants. To sustain research funding, academic faculty must spend the greater part of their time writing academic grants. The percentile rank up to which academic research grant applications in the U.S. will receive funding currently averages 12%. As a result, performing actual research becomes nearly impossible without the help of a junior research scientist (trainee).

The NIH has set minimum yearly salaries for trainees for fiscal year 2014 at the following:

[predoctoral] = $22,476.00

[postdoctoral, 0 years of experience] = $42,000.00

Remember that this is base salary and does not include fringe benefits. Despite the fact that salaries for academic research scientists are already low and do not increase with inflation, new faculty cannot afford to hire help without further institutional support. Nevertheless, academic output is measured by the number of peer-reviewed scientific publications, and the expectation for academic faculty at top-tier American research institutes is to publish at least two papers per year.

Institutional support (when it is available) typically takes the form of a one-time start-up package that supplements grant funding for 1-3 years. More often than not, start-up funds are used to purchase necessary equipment, and at best provide new academic faculty a short-term solution to funding their academic research program. New academic faculty are therefore expected to apply for (and receive) continued grant funding while maintaining a successful independent research program without help on less than $30,000/year.

Increasing research salaries, while desirable, is therefore not possible without an accompanying cap on institutional indirect cost rates. Efforts to do this have been met with strong resistance by top-tier American research institutions. The alternative is to increase academic research funding, which is not likely in the near term.

At the end of the day the numbers need to add up, and despite the strongest possible track record of past funding and publications, research plan and drive, the current math of research funding does not support a successful academic career.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Damien / September 24, 2014 at 17:59

    Thanks, Jonathan, for running the numbers. I don’t think many investigators do their due diligence by adding up the numbers for their research goals. However, this should actually be the job of the host institutes. They should be advising their faculty on how to optimize the budget rather than maximizing the IDCs. Unfortunately, this just another example of misdirected philosophies on the process of scientific discovery.

  2. SC / October 3, 2014 at 15:39

    How relevant is this to early-career researchers in Canada? What are the corresponding/comparable figures for Canadian universities? Anyone knows?

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