The effect of the current funding climate on my university

Jul 11 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Every year the research office at my university distributes a summary and breakdown of the funding across the university over the last 5 years (FY09-FY13 in this case). There's numerous tables and graphs that allow people to take a bird's eye view or drill down to departments. I don't know if many people read it, but I find it fascinating. It's not just the perspective of how your college/department is doing in relation to others, but the time component is pretty meaty. I was able to dig into my email archives and find last year's report, giving me 2008 numbers as well.

I mentioned a few stats on twitter yesterday, but the report lays out plainly how devastating the current funding climate has been to science. I would love to see a ten year spread and look at the pre-2008 numbers, before the economy really shit the bed. Also 2009+2010 are a bit of an aberration because of the Stimulus Money (ARA) that got injected into granting agencies, which caused both # of applications and money received to go way up.

First, the good news:

From 2008 to 2010, award money nearly double at my university. In 2011 & 2012 those numbers dropped down a bit, but settled roughly 10% below the 2010 peak. 2012 was the university's strongest year in terms of the number of awards received, even if the total dollar amount was not the highest in this span.

From 2008-12, my college nearly tripled its "value of awards received" and my department has increased its take 400% between 2008 and 2013. In terms of award money, the department has gone from the bottom half of departments in the college to $10K out of first place. This change has been driven both by the success of newer investigators AND some more senior colleagues increasing their proposal effort.

Now the bad news:

As a whole, the university took it in the teeth in FY2013. Whereas my department has continued to surge, numbers at the university and college levels are ugly. Even though numbers for the month of June were not included in the analysis (the fiscal runs July-June), the university and college numbers have dropped below 2008 levels! Zoinks Scoob, like, run. University-wide FY13 brought in 11% less money than 2008 and my college took in 7% less. Meanwhile, expenditures are up 14% and 10% at the university and college, respectively. Of course, with our overhead rate ever increasing, F&A money received has not been hit nearly as hard as general funding levels. Imagine that.

Strangely, and likely correlated to fewer awards, the drop goes for proposals submitted, as well. Why there is a sharp decline in submitted proposals across the university this year is a mystery to me, but after a peak in FY2009 proposal numbers have declined every year and are now 15% BELOW 2008 levels. I don't know if the combination of the NSF Bio preproposals, implosion of USDA and elimination of the NIH A2 are slowly whittling away at proposal numbers, but I can't imagine that any of those factors would be enough to slow the tap as much as the numbers show. Maybe others have some thoughts.

In any case, it will be interesting to see if FY13 turns out to be an oddball or the start of an ugly trend. I don't anticipate a major budget shortfall, given the F&A money has not declined as substantially as the research money, but I do know that the university has committed to no increase in tuition for next year. Hopefully the rainy day fund isn't fully depleted and things pick back up in FY14.

14 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    I doubt your universities experience is at all atypical. There is a lag in budgets and funding and there's no way to efficiently build a clutch to keep the part all moving efficiently. It would be interesting to track the success rates of applications vs the departments. My bet is that there are different policies. In my experience, some are willing to throw everything at the wall and allow any grant to go forward. Others vet the applications and work with the applicants internally to ensure that the applications are well written and not premature. The success rate of the latter is usually higher but it takes a lot of effort and some applicants are pissed off by being forced to hold back - especially if they are renewing (although renewals tend to have a reasonably established structure). As funding gets tighter, there is a shift to the former approach as confidence in peer review in selecting the very best grants drops and a feeling of it becoming a lottery. This increases application pressure and decreases quality. It sounds, though, from your description of the drop-off of applications to below 2008 levels (albeit not inc. June #s) that there has been a significant drop-off in applications. Would be good to get to the bottom of that.

  • Geologist says:

    My university experienced enormous budget cuts after 2008, due to loss of state funds. Several entire departments were eliminated and people lost jobs right and left. Because of that, all of us who are left have to do the work of those who are no longer here - our support staff has been gutted. It would be interesting to see our numbers, but I know our department grant $ has decreased significantly and I think at least some of the reasons for this are that we are too overwhelmed with too much work at all other fronts.

    Also we received both a furlough and a pay cut, and our benefits have been decimated. As such, really the only pathway for increased salary is to work in administration. Often, some of the best researchers will take this path. It can be attractive when one sees a bleak future for grant $, or when Univ. support structures are removed and the demands of research are too much (e.g. purchasing anything is impossible, you have to do absolutely everything yourself - it is like running an enormous business with no other employees to help - meanwhile you are expected to do everything you did before this happened as well). So I suspect that some of our losses in funding may be due to good people moving into administration.

    Note that here as well as elsewhere, the trend to increase administrative jobs at the expense of tenure-track positions continues. So it is highly unlikely that the increased workload that has been placed upon us will ever be removed. This is the 'new normal', and meanwhile new 'necessary'(?) administrative positions are being created.

    Anyway, it is difficult to write new proposals when other workloads have been increased, often doubled. Also it is difficult to write new proposals when other research support has been removed. It is likely that there is also a psychological component involved, when one is utterly exhausted, depressed at the pay and benefit cuts, hearing and seeing how increasingly difficult it is to get grants funded, and seeing that if you do get something funded, you will have no support to help get the job done, why do it? (if you are tenured). It is much smarter to either move into administration or use what little time you have available to do consulting outside of the university and recoup your financial losses.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Jim, I agree that the decline in proposals is the most interesting bit of data here. Very curious about cause and a department by department breakdown, coupled with some of the factors Geologist brings up, would be illuminating.

    Geologist, you are currently in the lead for Most Depressing Comment of 2013. Congrats!

  • Casey says:

    I wonder if it's like the job market: sometimes people give up and stop looking for a job, and the unemployment rate actually decreases. This would have interesting repercussions on the depressingly low paylines: they would actually bounce back when enough people leave the "grant market".

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    There has been an increase in process and oversight in many countries that has necessitated increased administrative activities but it is incredibly short-sighted to convert active researchers into administrators. The administration is there solely to support the effort of the front line researchers and educators. Administration should be the place where cuts are first made, not where accrual occurs. While I'd hate to see poor scientists moving into administration, it's even more worrying that good scientists are doing so. I should say that I spend a lot of time doing administrative work, but I also run a lab supported by 4 research grants. I see both sides of the pressures but administration is there to assist and enable, not to make life harder or draw more overhead. Any organization (company, college, hospital, etc.) that adds to administration at the expense of their mainline staff is doomed to failure over the long term.

  • Lincoln says:

    I suspect the retirement of the A2 cycle is a factor for NIH funding. If you are so unfortunate to score poorly on the A1 submission then your pooch is screwed for the major thrust of the proposal - it must be revised significantly and it may entail significant new preliminary data. As you note it is hard to develop multiple lines of research when so much effort goes into being competitive in a single line.

    Research funding is like a complex organism that is being starved. It continues to stumble on and doesn't all die at once. But at smaller institutions without significant endowment (and will to use it) there will be a catastrophic break point. We aren't there yet but soon will be.

    And I think NIH is not too worried about it. If you think about it, why would they care where the top 8% of proposals come from? In their view they are still funding excellent science. So what if institute X folds?

    But what they should be worried about is the sustainability of the enterprise. No youngster in their right mind will choose a career with such a dismal and uncertain outlook. If they turn off the future biomedical workforce then we will truly be a nation in decline, IMO.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    For most faculty, the only way to make good money is to become an administrator above the department level. As said above, present practices in academia are doomed to failure over the long term. This is not new, it has been the case for many years.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    For most faculty, the only way to make good money is to become an administrator above the department level. As said above, present practices in academia are doomed to failure over the long term. This is not new, it has been the case for many years.

  • Busy says:

    But what they should be worried about is the sustainability of the enterprise. No youngster in their right mind will choose a career with such a dismal and uncertain outlook.

    My field has well paid positions in industry. While we have always lost a share of bright kids to the private sector this has only recently become the norm. Most bright undergrads do not pursue grad studies, and even among those who do, many of the brightest ones end up joining industry, some with a PhD, others just drop out half way.

    Having less graduate students is not necessarily bad, given the dearth of professorial positions, not being able to recruit the bright ones is truly alarming for the future of science.

  • Dave says:

    The administration is there solely to support the effort of the front line researchers and educators. Administration should be the place where cuts are first made, not where accrual occurs

    Exactly. We have seen a 25% reduction in f&a over the last 4 years, but the administration continues to grow. I can't believe that trend can continue.

  • Lincoln says:

    At my institution administration related to graduate education and research has been cut in half even as central admistration, related mainly to finance, has at least doubled. MBAs now make major academic decisions at my institution.

    We are broken I fear.

  • Dave says:

    MBAs now make major academic decisions at my institution.

    Ain't that the truth. The sad thing is that now faculty are getting MBAs so that they can sell out, jump ship, collect huge paychecks and basically settle in to an administration role. Sad, really. It doesn't need to be this way.............

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    RE: less proposals

    Don't forget that NSF went to once per year proposals from twice per year (at least in my area) in that time frame. That obviously cuts the number in half for those areas...

  • [...] discussed the university-wide declining funding rates (at least here) last week and I'm curious whether we have yet seen what people have been saying [...]

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