Day: November 1, 2022

The Money Needed to Not Need Money

Welcome to daily blogging in November! In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, there’s an old blogging tradition known as NaBloPoMo, national blog posting month.

I will start with a question from Profdirector, originally posted here:

Navel-gazing subject: what amount of yearly money could your research survive on? I.e. what annual budget would allow you to stop writing grants and just do science?

This is a question with a very subfield-dependent answer. I do theory and computation, so my grants generally cover some travel, minimal supplies (including computer upgrades every few years), but the vast majority of expenses are personnel salaries. As long as I could somehow pay my people, I’d be pretty much set. Most experimentalists cannot say this. Also, my nine-month salary is paid on hard money (university operating budget). Soft-money scientists can’t really envision not raising grants.

My ideal group would be one postdoc and four PhD students (actually, one research scientist and six PhD students, but let’s not be greedy for the purpose of this exercise). Given the current fringe benefits, overhead, and graduate-student tuition at my institution, that means that just for the salary for one postdoc and four grad students funded as RAs, I currently have to raise roughly $95k+4*$65k=$355k per year. That’s three concurrent NSF grants or similar, and I am not paying myself any summer salary, or have any money for travel. (Going to a research scientist and six PhD students would raise it to about $550k per year, which is about 4.6 concurrently funded NSF grants or similar.)

No endowed professorships I know provide this level of support. It’s usually in the low tens of thousands per year. Those discretionary funds do help bridge funding gaps and help pay for travel and such, but aren’t a long-term solution because they’re small and they don’t last that long (usually five-year increments), even thought the professorship title is forever.

If I were to go to completely bare bones, with no external money whatsoever, I think I could go down to 2-3 grad students on TA-ships and me with no summer salary ever, and that would probably enable me to do more science that I am actually interested in rather than optimizing for fundability. I could do more challenging long-term stuff, rather than always being under deadlines and having to produce at a steady rate because reports are due and I’m always planning for new and renewal grants.


With no research money, I couldn’t recruit the students I’d like to recruit. It would be very, very hard given we as a school guarantee funding to PhD students.

I would be required to teach more, and with more teaching, the research time and available headspace and energy all get reduced.

The loss of standing” in the department would probably be quite demoralizing (in my department and college, money is king; if you’re well funded, you’re OK; if you run out of money, you are considered a has-been and peers do look down on you; I wish it weren’t so, but it totally is), as would be the inability to recruit people.

I don’t actually hate writing grants. Writing grants is a creative process that forces you to distill your ideas and think in advance about what you want to do and what issues you will likely face. It’s the necessity of raising grants to be able to do virtually anything, the enormity of time that has to be spent to be successful, and everything grinding to a halt if you are not successful that make the grant game so stressful.

So being without grant money is really not an option. People have funding highs and lows, but everyone’s aware that writing and submitting are a must. Those who don’t take to the grant game hard and early tend not to get tenure in my and similar fields. This criterion for tenure and promotion has only been getting more prominent over time.

However, if I could somehow magically be awarded a small grant that would support my group forever, where I’d be able to bring on a new student every so often and supplement with TAs, I’d say $100k per year would be awesome. It would give me the ability to get people on and off TAs, recruit new students, etc. So if some STEM benefactor wants to throw some funding my way over the remaining 20 years of so of my career, I will not turn up my nose at that gift.

For experimentalists, the funds are actually much greater, depending on the type of lab, user fees at shared facilities, etc. However, there are, at least in my field, many more opportunities for long-term funding from DoD available to experimentalists than they are to me.

Academic blogosphere, what do you say? How much hypothetically would you need (from some hypothetical patron of scholars) to stop writing grants and just do science?