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The opportunity cost to doing scientific research at a university

Translational research should be scientist-driven and institutionally supported, not the other way around.


Most of us become scientists because of a fundamental desire to improve human health and well-being. We want to make the world better, but the premise that the only way to do this is through a university is mistaken. There is an opportunity cost to doing scientific research within the confines of the university that needs to be acknowledged. The alternative, of course, is seeking independent financing. Private enterprise are the shades of gray in between.

The major selling point for a tenure-track career trajectory is “academic freedom.” It’s an attractive concept, assumed to be attainable only within the hallowed halls of our ivory towers – but is it real? For starters, faculty positions being as limited as they are, means that universities are extremely selective in their candidates. Not only in their qualities, publication record, and drive, but also in their expertise, their field of study, and the research questions they asking. Universities have always been this way, and the idea that anyone would be recruited to join an academic department to study whatever they want to study is a false pretense. Recruitments are structured to fill a recognized gap in expertise in a department, and new candidates are expected to fill that need. As a junior faculty member recruited into your first tenure-track position, the pie has been narrowed down to just a slice.

Then come grants. Federal funding agencies are not in the business of blanket-supporting everyone’s ideas. Resources are limited, and so funding opportunities are structured to support very specific areas of research. For starters, one doesn’t apply to the larger federal funding agency, but rather to a participating institute or centre, which is focused on a particular area of study. Your research question may not fit clearly within their scope, so may need to be reconsidered or adjusted. Within each institute or centre are further scientific divisions. Research programs rarely fall cleanly into any one – particularly cross-disciplinary research, which is always a challenge to fit into its appropriate funding category. It is also rare for research institutes or centres to hold regular open rolling calls for research grants. Rather, there are specific funding opportunities structured around grants that have restrictions on scope, timeline and budget built in that become available for submission at select times in the year. Research programs must be made to fit within these. The slice is made more narrow.

And then there are grant review committees. These should be unbiased but put heavy emphasis on likelihood of success (determined in large part by reputation of institute, investigator track record, size of group, and existing funding), time to complete, and “value” of the proposed research. While these are all reasonable metrics, it is also worth acknowledging that they select against young faculty and large paradigm changing/transformative ideas that are generally the most risky, and have the longest time horizons to complete. Project “value” is arguably the most difficult to define and also the most restrictive. At different periods in time, certain areas of research get “hot” and (at least for the first few entrants in this space) are better supported over less exciting or “older” ideas. This guiding force helps direct research programs into fields that are receiving the most funding. If the concept of true academic freedom is the pie, we are now nibbling at the crust.

Ironically, the opportunity cost of pursuing research at a university is that there is less academic freedom than seeking independent funding for this work. Conversely, there are often more “strings” attached to pursuing research through independent funding than at a university – and we’ll discuss these in my next post.

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. Stewart Rood / August 14, 2018 at 11:04

    This is another interesting post but I think that some aspects deserve revision.

    Relative to recruitment, while some positions are intended to fill gaps such as in the teaching program, other positions are intended to complement established or emerging research groups. Most positions involve a blending of criteria, with substantial latitude. This broadens the applicant pool and excellence generally prevails.

    Faculty do apply directly to the federal funding agencies. NSERC provides the major funding source for scientists and the Discovery Grants program is the gold standard. There are components to benefit early career researchers and various other federal, provincial and private sector programs enable a blending of studies relative to duration and risk.

    The outcome is that academic positions generally provide greater research flexibility than within research institutes, government agencies or the private sector. There are some differences between science and medicine and also between Canada and the USA, but I believe that the outcome is fairly universal; faculty positions provide more, not less, academic freedom.