Paying for your science - OPM

I just read the original post that prompted a set of tweets that in turn prompted this one from me. Dr. Edward Hind is a postdoc who has spent a lot of his own money doing science. He's also someone who left a more lucrative career to do science. This says he is someone who has looked at the options and made a choice, choosing something he wants that produces less income.

I think the problems, nay implications to the field,  for paying for your own science are significant.  It begins to sound like an initiation fee. Or a system in which one can buy their way to the top. It may exclude people from the lower socioeconomic end of life, and make it much tougher for those in the middle.

But totally unaddressed in Edd's column is who can, let alone the slippery concept of should, pay for these "extras" (which aren't really extra) and where is the money going to come from?

I'm an olde farte. I've been faculty in a variety of departments. They all had money issues. They all had budget shortfall issues. Even the "rich" clinical department had money issues. While that department generated squillions of $$ in clinical income, the med school imposed a "tax" on the clinical departments, in the form of "if you do not bring in X$ in grant overhead, the amount we consider appropriate for your size, you need to give us the difference from your clinical income". Follow the logic and you can feel the leadership being squeezed. Actually, they just made the calculations as to the cost of research faculty and decided on the optimal (in their view) balance of faculty that generated income, and cost them money.

In A&S college departments the budgets were a joke. There is no money in those budgets to cover much of anything, including paper clips and pens, let alone meetings and publishing. When Xeroxing no longer was an issue because of teh interwebtubes, the pathetic allotment for teaching copying disappeared. The A&S Biology department I was in had a small endowment dedicated to graduate students. There were frequent debates as to whether that money should support grad students so they didn't have to teach in the summer and could do field work or whether it should send students to meetings or buy supplies so they could do research. The latter is important in a department where students are their own PI's and not working on their advisor's project.

And there's the problem. What should limited money be spent on? Yup, we pay for professional stuff. But who else should pay for it? The departments? They are making hard decisions about seed money for new hires, money to support grad student research, and how to support junior faculty who didn't get funded at N-3 years counting to tenure, but with a little more money might get enough papers out to get funded next round. They are debating spending money to hire someone to cover teaching (like the postdoc in the department who didn't get a job) for the dude going on sabbatical, so that somebody else doesn't double their teaching load to cover a critical course.

So, you say, the departments should ask for money from the College? Departments are doing this All The Fucking Time. And when they get the money, we just go back to the problems in the paragraph above. The colleges should dictate how the money they give to departments is spent, and  demand that the departments cover the extra costs of everyone from students through postdocs and faculty? Let me tell you how far that would get. Department budgets may be pitiful, but its one of the few tools a chair, a well meaning, hard working chair has to effect change. They are not going to be happy to accept either funded or unfunded mandates from above. This is independent of whether you think that covering a postdoc's meeting costs is a useful and optimal use of any extra money.

Now, Colleges have lots of money, you say. Tuition is going up. But where is that tuition money going? There is a lot of debate about what college budgets are  covering. I've not seen a single clear answer that explains what is happening. I do know that administrative staffing has risen far faster than academic staffing. But plush presidential suites and salaries don't really account for differences in college/university income. There are lots of things colleges spend money. Should they be going to central administration and asking for money? Colleges are doing this All The Fucking Time. Run through the argument above, but with  slightly higher numbers and change "department" to "college" and "college" to "central admin". Do you think Deans would be any more enthusiastic about unfunded mandates on their budgets than chairs? If so, you don't know any Deans. And they are far smoother, by and large, than chairs at arguing their way around budgets.

My current department (basic science in a medical school) has the same concerns and issues. I know some because my current chair (may his health and good attitude last for a very long time) is open and has discussed much of the issues with the faculty. He gives each faculty member an allotment for meetings, memberships and the like. Its on the order of $1000. This year, I spent my money sending two trainees to a national meeting airfare and registration. Yup, I kicked in the rest for them out of my pocket. I didn't go, but if I had I would have paid myself.

Do I want my chair to put in more money to this fund? Nope. This is not an MRU, but an almost MRU. We are not the first choice for really good young people looking for a tenure track job. We've had people scooped out from under us by MRU's that offer 30-60% more seed, even when we meet the request of the candidate. My department has a choice to make: what do we support with the limited money that we can allot? Its a hard decision. We make one choice, and actually some of the faculty don't agree (especially when the hire is in another area than their own). But what investment, and that's what this money is, an investment in the future of the department is going to maximize the life and careers and future of all the constituents? That is not an easy question to answer.

The bottom line comes down to something simple from Econ 101: there are unlimited needs, desires, wants, and limited resources with which to fill those needs. I too would love it someone gave me $20K year to pay for publication and meetings and students and taxis. But I want really good junior faculty in the department more than I want those things.

OPM? Other People's Money - what should pay for all the things we want.

4 responses so far

  • B. Kiddo says:

    As usual, you hit the nail on the head. Fundamentally, higher education in the US is close to broke. The pie is getting smaller as I type, and yet the price of doing research and promoting that research that the up-and-coming scientists doing it is (generally) increasing. In my opinion, we need to think about changing attitudes towards education and the value of education in the US. Tuition increases, in my state anyway, go almost exclusively to making up the shortfall from state and federal cuts to higher ed. I wish my head was open about his budgets the way your chair is, and that he supported at least some travel the way yours does, but like you said, I'd rather have major improvements to our research and teaching, largely through new hires, than a plush travel budget.

    Yes, paying for meetings and the like is problematic and it hurts the underprivileged much more than those who already have jobs. This is a Very Real problem. But how to change it is not at all trivial. Like Potty, I spend my own money to help people who are paid less get at least some of the professional development opportunities they need to thrive.

  • Arlenna says:

    I'm lucky to have grants with travel budgeted for meetings, and people paid by those grants get to use that travel money. I spend my own money out of pocket when necessary, but I do ask my folks to chip in for their food and drink (other than the fancy dinner I always take them out to on one of the nights) because we're all in this together.

  • Edd Hind says:

    Thank you for this response to my original blog, which takes the conversation in yet another direction.

    I hope by quantifying what people are spending on science (in the survey we will soon launch) we will offer some insight into who can pay to be a scientist, if being a scientist does indeed involve attending conferences, open access fees, etc.

    You are certainly correct to note that there is a trade-off, between doing these career enhancing things and allowing/supporting new hires. That's actually one of the personal reasons I and a colleague are about to conduct the survey. One of us wants to know how much "doing science' costs, so we can plan for how many new hires we can afford to engage.

    I too have paid for colleagues to attend conferences. My motive has not been the advancement of their careers (although I hope that has happened as a result), but to once help a symposium go ahead and another time to make sure a research poster was presented. As a result of the symposium at least, I think a lot more potentially impactful science will be done.

    What I think neither you or I address in our blogs (not a blog critique - just an example of how wide the conversation could become), is the cost of scientists not paying the costs of conference, attendance, etc. That cost is the potential slowing of science. If we cannot afford to disseminate our science at conferences and in widely read journals, will scientific endeavour be diminished? If we and undergrad students do not attend conferences, then how will future grad students meet their future supervisors? There are other avenues, sure, but even the closing of one avenue has the potential to harm future science.

    In summary, I don't think we are just talking about career trade-offs... I think we are talking about science trade-offs. I think anything that limits science is potentially harmful.

  • Edd Hind says:

    Dr. Brett Favaro and I have now set up a survey to try and quantify the personal spends of scientists on their work. We’d be very grateful if scientists could take the survey and share it with their professional networks. Here it is:

    Thanks, Edd Hind.

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