Hey Funding Agencies, Stop Scamming My Shit!

I have to be honest, I feel a little funny writing about the funding game, and what-not.  It’s not really my thing.  My thing is shoes and jams and hilarious science mommy stories.  But the truth is, although I don’t blog about it often, I spend some part of my time thinking about grants and what-not.  Recently I have gotten myself into a situation that has raised my ire.

The NIH still provides the meat and potatoes funding of our humble little group, but its cute to have additional side dish funding from private agencies and foundations.  Very, very often, however, I see requests for proposal come across my desk that announce grants with money for supplies, but specifically noting that the funds cannot be used to fund personnel.  I feel torn about applying for them.  It would be really nice to have the additional money for supplies, but how does one pay for the labor?  Especially when they are a small group or early in their career?

And I am not talking about cute little internal pilot awards of $10K here and $25K there.  I’m talking about national awards from places like the American [Insert Disease Name] Association or the National Council on [Insert Disease Name].  Today I received a request for proposal for an award that offers $100K+ for three years that specifically says:

These grants do not cover the recipient’s or other faculty salaries, but do provide salary support for technical help.

At least this one allows salary support for lab personnel, but how exactly is the PI supposed to fund their time? Surely a PI is not contributing 0% effort for 0% salary, so where else is the salary funding coming from?  Presumably from a department who generously lets said faculty member out of duties to administer a program that pays no salary support?  But, if you’re soft money faculty, forget about it.    It’s like having toilet paper that you can’t even use to wipe your own ass.  Only the asses of those around you.

This has especially raised my ire lately because I have found myself involved in a project that comes with no salary support for anyone involved.  I justify it to myself because my salary is covered elsewhere and my time sufficiently allocated for research for the duration of the project and the data should translate into some cute little papers, but I frequently think about what it would be like if the situation were different.

It’s a huge scam to not offer salary support because it means that someone else – another department or another funding agency (dare we discuss the ethics of that) foots the bill in part for the completion of a project.  Funding a project without entirely funding the labor is bullshittery at its finest.

It’s shady behavior and I suspect that funding agencies think it means that they are funding more project than they could if they also had to fund salaries.  But, it’s shady.  Damn, damn shady.

22 responses to “Hey Funding Agencies, Stop Scamming My Shit!

  1. Shane Caldwell

    Sounds similar to infrastructure grants put towards expensive instrumentation that then sits unused because there is no support for the tech staff to run it….

  2. Those grants could be intended for a different type of research group. Chemists often need access to really expensive equipment that might need a grant by itself: 700 MHz NMR with a cyroprobe and climate controlled room? $3 million. How did the prof I know with one of those pay for it? I haven’t a clue, but it is essential to his research and seems like the perfect thing for one of those grants you were describing.

  3. They are just stuck in a prior era in which “most” (hahaha) scientists had hard money jobs and the Uni extended the research time as their contribution….

  4. These entites want to be funding serious scientists with startup budgets or hard money to cover their salaries and who are gonna be there in ten years, not fly-by-night soft-money people who 99% of them are gonna be off the face of the earth in a few years at best.

  5. Isis the Scientist

    These entites want to be funding serious scientists with startup budgets or hard money to cover their salaries and who are gonna be there in ten years…


    Those grants could be intended for a different type of research group.

    No, these are research grants meant to fund hypothesis-testing studies,

  6. These are grants that had to pass the sniff test with a bunch of jerks who believe you scientists are just scamming them so you can get rich on the taxpayer’s dime. They figure the only way you get rich from this scheme is you sell the equipment after it depreciates 90%. They think they’re so smart.
    Anybody need a used accelerator?

  7. I agree that this type of funding system is shady. And i agree that these grants were useful at a time when a faculty member’s (hard money or not) salary was supported by the state or the department. Now, we have to have at least 75% of our salary covered, even though we teach both medical school and graduate students and do all that institutional activity that was required when all you had to do is bring in one grant. Writing a 12 page application for 70K that doesn’t cover much salary seems like a complete waste of time and annoys the crap out of me. But I am generally annoyed at the whole salary structure/NIH funding/etc etc. at this point. It is exhausting. and if one of my NIH grants gets funded soon, I will go back to that enthusiastic happy faculty member that actually gives a damn.

  8. money is money. take it from wherever it comes from, say “thank you,” and continue looking for more somewhere else.

  9. Sure, ‘money is money’. BUT, when you don’t have infinite amount of time, it’s hard to write for those grants that don’t cover at least staff salary. Money for consumables is no good if you have no one to consume them…..

  10. Amen Isis. As I was reading all this I was thinking, there may be 3M for funding the cute little magnet, or beamline or whatever, but are the stupid instruments and supplies maintain themselves/order themselves? WTFF? makes no sense. And like you said, how shady it is/would it be to “dump” the hot potato of one’s (or one’s minions’) salary on another little grant? Doesn’t make any sense.

  11. Some of us are on hard money. Really hard money. So hard that we teach 3 classes. If we can’t get salary from that grant, we can’t get release time to actually do the damn research.

  12. @Dr27 The NMR I referred to was bought in a deal with the uni, so that the existing NMR staff would take care of it in exchange for a certain amount of time on it each year that they could sell to external clients or other profs at the uni.

    I do agree salary is important. Where does the money to pay staff and grad students typically come from?

  13. On the one hand, I am all for any mechanism that puts the burden for supporting PI salaries back on the institution – where is belongs. For too long, Medical school (for example) have ridden the indirect cost gravy train and put up building after shiny building with the magic money that just appeared! FTS. Invest in what matters – scientists.

    On the other hand, I feel you pain. We have no choice but to dance to the beat of the song that is playing.

    On the last hand (yes, I have three, must be all the chemical exposure over the years). How to ethically spend the money is a NICE problem to have……

  14. cackleofradness

    If I could get another line of funding for my tech I’d be frickin ecstatic.

  15. “HAHAHHAHAHA!!!!!!!”

    Dunno why you think this is funny. It is actually true. You should take a look at the identities of the awardees of these things if you doubt me.

  16. Isis the Scientist

    It’s funny because I know some of the awardees of these grants. The lack of salary support for lab personnel is problematic even for these hard money folks. For hard money clinical faculty, a grant with no salary support for the PI means they can’t buy out of their clinical time. That’s also problematic.

  17. Of course the awardees don’t like it. Why do you think these granting entities give a fucken shitte?

  18. Isis the Scientist

    Did I say tHat they did?

  19. Our institution requires effort reporting – how do you account for the “time” spent on a 0% effort project? In our world, this is grounds for jailtime.

  20. anonymous neuroscientist

    Completely off topic, but Dr. Isis, I thought you should know about these charming anatomical heart-shaped items that came up on one of my time-killing blogs*. If these items were brain items, I would be plotting to purchase them all.


    *Your blog, of course, is of the non-time-killing, asynchronous e-mentoring type, of maximum importance, but the design blogs fill in the downtime in between your posts.

  21. I am at an institution that also requires effort reporting, and I simply could not get permission to apply for such a grant. We are expected to bring in 75% of our salaries through external funding, yet have significant teaching obligations, and are also expected (if we are being considered for tenure) to provide our expertise to supporting the relevant university core facilities. With a funding rate of 8-10% in my field, and a system riddled with cronyism and that favors the older more-established scientists (at least on the study sections that I’ve been involved in), it has gotten to the point where many of my colleagues (in their 40s, but still considered early-career) are giving up. What a waste of talent, expertise and enthusiasm

  22. Pingback: Links 2/26/12 | Mike the Mad Biologist

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