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This is a follow-up question to How are junior professors evaluated for promotion? and probably an even more naive question. If I'm understanding the answer correct, professors need funding to do research, but once they get it, the university takes some of the grant as overheads (to pay for office space, electricity, etc), and the cut the university takes is substantial.

Given that then, why do professors need universities? One could just apply for the grant as per normal, and once one gets it, buy a slightly bigger house and convert one of the rooms into a lab. One loses nothing to overheads, gets to work from home, has zero teaching duties, can choose to settle anywhere (no two-body problem!), and can even monitor an experiment 24/7. This gets even easier if one works in a field that doesn't need a physical lab. Further, presumably the grant covers postdoc salaries, so one would still be able to pay for postdocs (although probably not PhD students since a professor without a university will not be able to award a degree).

The obvious answer is that one cannot apply for a grant without a university, but Google indicates that's not the case, e.g. NSA grants in mathematics only looks at one's previous accomplishments & potential applications of the research result, both of which are independent of the university. I suppose one could lose journal access, but there's always stuff like arXiv / ResearchGate, emailing the authors of the desired paper, or even Scihub (oops). It's conceivable that not working for a university loses one some prestige, since one can no longer claim to be a professor. However even then I'd expect at least some academics to choose this path, valuing the convenience & extra research funding over prestige.

If the answer to this varies from field to field, I'm most interested in the sciences.

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    What the OP suggests seems analogous to the job of a PI at a research institute. – FBolst Dec 25 '17 at 13:43
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    Do you mean why do researchers need universities? – aparente001 Dec 26 '17 at 2:23
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    Professor is an academic title. If they were not connectred to a university they wouldnt be professors – user85069 Dec 26 '17 at 14:25
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    To echo @DavidSchaich more strongly: Public funding agencies do not fund individual researchers; they fund institutions. Researchers submit proposals on behalf of their institutions; the agencies award grants to the institutions, who in turn give oversight of (most of) the grant money—but not the money itself—to the researchers. – JeffE Dec 26 '17 at 20:18
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    "...convert one of the rooms into a lab. One loses nothing to overheads..." The enormous cost of building the lab wouldn't be considered overhead in this scenario? That's some pretty creative word usage, IMHO. – Todd Wilcox Dec 27 '17 at 16:43

12 Answers 12

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If I'm understanding the answer correct, professors need funding to do research, but once they get it, the university takes some of the grant as overheads (to pay for office space, electricity, etc), and the cut the university takes is substantial

The number of services provided by a university is substantial, of which space and electricity are the least of them.

Maintenance, janitorial, and IT services - machines break, rooms get dirty, and technology has inexplicable problems. Universities have infrastructure in place to deal with all of this.

Access to literature - Universities maintain subscriptions to the journals, standards, and other references a researcher needs.

Laboratory equipment and specialists - Most scientific research requires specialized equipment, which can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several million. Universities can afford to maintain such equipment, and the expert technicians needed to run the equipment at maximum efficiency.

Other researchers - A university department provides ready access to and familiarity with other experts in your field for potential collaboration. Additionally, it provides a way to find potential collaborators from other fields for the times when you find your research leaving the bounds of your expertise.

Students - an unfortunate amount of research is tedious. A university provides a ready framework for delegating simple but time-consuming work to students so that a researcher can focus on the parts of the research that only they can do.

Contacts - Universities maintain contacts with businesses, governments, and other research institutions that can open more doors than any one researcher could do on their own.

Reputation - Being a member of a respected university means that people who trust that university will afford some measure of that trust as well.

Legal services and other expertise - While it would be nice if research could exist completely separate from the outside world, this is not the case. Universities have systems set up to support and advise their researchers when problems arise during their research.

Many of these things could be aquired by a solo researcher, of course. But doing so would cost time and money, likely amounting to more than a university takes in overhead. And things like contacts and reputation are difficult to purchase.

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    Tedious work and busywork are not quite the same thing! One can drop all busywork without any loss in productivity. – Luke Sawczak Dec 28 '17 at 4:45
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    I would say (or at least like to believe) that students do more than the tedious work. Students can really expand your reach as a researcher. A research project is usually composed of many moving parts and a single person only has so much bandwidth. Nice answer, btw. – Sasho Nikolov Dec 28 '17 at 16:45
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    I agree with everything here except maybe what you said about students. While it's true that some of the more tedious tasks can be meted out to students, it's also true that many students are up-and-coming researchers in their own right. They often make significant contributions and have groundbreaking ideas, thereby countering the notion that there may be parts of the research effort "that only" the primary researcher can do. Some students can be real catalysts – an advantage you've omitted here. – J.R. Dec 28 '17 at 22:22
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    You should also mention Access to funding: Some access to funding depends on association with a university (as well as universities' internal research funds). – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Dec 28 '17 at 22:35
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    I'm surprised not to see "Salary" on this list. Obviously researchers can (and do) get salaries from institutions that aren't universities, but the OP suggests "buying a larger house" and working there instead of at a university. My question: how would you pay the mortgage? – Theodore Norvell Dec 31 '17 at 15:54
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Another point is about the social environment. Research is a process with many needs, and one of them is contact with like-minded people to share insights, problems, day-to-day peer review, and so on. The lab is not only where the researcher does physical work, but a place where other researchers, students, and whole communities meet to have social exchanges. The university does this at a much larger scale. Even hard sciences like STEM need this social aspect.

The lone and autonomous scientist is a romantic view. Some papers on fringe areas have more than a hundred co-authors today.

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    +1 Part way through my dissertation research, I found I needed to know more about a topic on which my advisor knew no more than I did. What he did know was which of his colleagues would be both able and willing to help me. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 25 '17 at 17:59
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    Fringe areas? Look at e.g. some of the papers out of e.g. CERN. Wouldn't be that surprised if you could find a few where the list of co-authors is longer than the paper :-) – jamesqf Dec 25 '17 at 17:59
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    5,154 seems to be the record so far. telescoper.wordpress.com/2015/05/17/… – Cochise Dec 25 '17 at 20:33
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    @Cochise: 24 of 33 pages listing names? Once again, my imagination fall short of reality :-( Maybe we need to introduce some folks to the concept of "et al". – jamesqf Dec 26 '17 at 1:17
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    @jamesqf give credit where it is due. the et al. is fine for citations, but some people would be less inclined to dedicate time to a project if there are going to be no credits on the other end. – Mindwin Dec 26 '17 at 14:22
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There are really two questions here. 1.Do researchers need support? and 2. Do researchers need support from an organization that also teaches?

The answer to the first question is: As arrogant as some researchers are, they need support, from any number of other people. From human resources, to accounting to janitorial. If any researcher honestly thinks they are capable of doing all of those things better than professionals they are either laughably naive or simply stupid. If those researchers think they don't need those things and believe they can work in a vacuum, the same statement applies.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated but comes down to a couple of ideas, on the concept of giving back. Those researchers learned somewhere, most often a university and want that system to continue because they recognize the value even if it does "cost" them some percentage of their funding. The other is that most people recognize the value of new ideas and having to explain yourself to those with less knowledge than oneself. Universities also provide for continuity of research, very few projects are one and done, the environment of constantly changing students provides a way for ideas to grow and evolve or be supplanted by better ideas.

Finally from a funding perspective, funding entities recognize the value that universities provide to researchers and society as a whole and probably include that in their calculation when choosing what projects to fund.

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    Most of the services provided by universities are available on the market, as small businesses and independent professionals also need them. Apart from library services (access to paywalled journals etc.), you can usually buy them cheaper than typical university overhead rates. – Jouni Sirén Dec 25 '17 at 17:05
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    @JouniSirén, and where would a researcher find these services? how much time would they spend picking the right one? How many resources would be wasted by researchers picking inefficient ones? Would the services have the specialties that the ones provided by the university have? – Sam Dec 25 '17 at 17:08
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    @JouniSirén, no most entrepreneurs don't "manage just fine" forbes.com/sites/ericwagner/2013/09/12/… – Sam Dec 25 '17 at 17:37
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    I am going to contend that "most" entrepreneurs don't manage just fine. Many new businesses fail. My husband works at a very small research institute (smaller than many departments) and is constantly frustrated by problems not related to science... accounting, record keeping, contracts, etc. – Dawn Dec 25 '17 at 17:37
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    80% of researchers already fail, because that's the way the academic job market is designed to function. There is plenty of funding for hiring people to entry-level jobs but relatively few permanent jobs. This has little to do with supporting services, just like businesses rarely fail because they cannot find appropriate services for a reasonable price. – Jouni Sirén Dec 25 '17 at 18:01
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It is true that research (even research funded by government grants) can be done elsewhere than at universities. But "professors" mainly do teaching, which is what the universities are set up for.

My answer: researchers do not need universities. Professors do. Even professors who also do research.

added
Maybe another way to make my point. If you are doing research but not teaching, then your title should be something other than "Professor".

A line in the musical The Music Man asserts that band leaders are called "Professor" by courtesy, and need not actually be attached to a university. That should not apply to non-teaching researchers.

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    I think this answers the question, but I feel that misses its purpose. Perhaps the OP could be better worded? – FBolst Dec 25 '17 at 13:37
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    I do not think it is accurate to state that professors mainly do teaching. In most large research universities they are compelled to teach, but their teaching volume/quality has negligible bearing on their tenure/promotion decisions. – wil3 Dec 25 '17 at 22:19
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    @wil3 maybe, but a professor (with or without tenure, assistant or associate or full) is expected to teach, unlike, say, a researcher at a dedicated lab not in an university. Even given an occasional semester off without teaching. Other factors may be decisive in determining what level a professor attains, but to be any kind of professor at all, teaching is expected. – muru Dec 26 '17 at 3:38
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    Even as a researcher, you want to be at an university or a research institute. The possibility to bounce ideas off of other people and get hints on how to tackle problems is invaluable. A considerable part of my research happens over lunch breaks. – Attila Kinali Dec 26 '17 at 12:44
  • Many (U.S. CS departments) have Research Faculty, similar to post-docs but with three ranks corresponding to the Teaching Faculty ranks of Assistant, Associate, and Full. Research Faculty do not normally teach but I know of a few cases when they occasionally taught a course that no teaching faculty member was qualified to teach. – E. Douglas Jensen Dec 26 '17 at 19:47
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A couple more reasons:

Job security. For a tenured professor, it's nice to know that if the next grant application falls through you will still be getting a regular income.

Economy of scale. Setting up a lab from scratch for the sole use of one researcher would be seriously expensive. But sharing a lab with another group, in an existing building, and reusing some equipment from a previous grant, that is more feasible.

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    Note that "job security" can be very illusory, depending on the type of position. "Soft money" faculty do not have a guaranteed salary, even after tenure; this type of position is more common in medical campuses. – AJK Dec 27 '17 at 23:25
  • Title edited at least once: Is your answer still the same? – BCLC Jan 5 '18 at 22:58
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    @BCLC thanks for pointing it out, but yes, the answer still stands. – user2390246 Jan 6 '18 at 3:55
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There are people who do research outside of the context of a university. I work for a government contractor that gets US government money to do AI research.

In the US we also have institutions called National Labs that do research (some are affiliated with a university though), private companies that fund research (especially in math/CS/stats and biology/chemistry/medicine). This is only a partial list, I’m sure there are much more.

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    The National Lab System is about equally split between corporate and academic control. That said, the overhead at the labs would make even the most jaded academician wince. – aeismail Dec 25 '17 at 16:02
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    what is jaded and what is wince? @aeismail – SSimon Dec 25 '17 at 16:47
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    @SSimon Jaded is the opposite of idealistic. A wince s a facial expression that usually expresses distaste, unhappiness, or pain. Point was that the national lab system had massive overheard and administration issues that make the issues at universities seem minimal. – Stella Biderman Dec 25 '17 at 20:04
  • @StellaBiderman YES, I can confirm that this is same in Europe, – SSimon Dec 27 '17 at 8:13
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    @Nat Super late to answer this, but I ended up looking through old answers of mine. No, it does not. Sometimes we’re even forbidden to do so by the client in question. Perhaps I was a little unclear; these are not NSF grants to advance the state of research, this is various government agencies paying for the answer to specific research questions that they have. – Stella Biderman Jul 15 '18 at 12:48
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In all these excellent replies and comments, no one appears to have mentioned a critical point about government funding. Even if you found a (U.S.) government agency or organization that was willing to fund a self-employed researcher, you would by Federal law be required to have a FAR-compliant (Google) accounting system. This applies also to corporations and any other recipient organizations.

I have personal experience taking a leave of absence from a university to join a start-up temporarily, to transition some of my research results to practice. One of my research sponsors at the university wanted to continue funding my work at the start-up. That required the start-up to install a FAR-compliant accounting system. Maybe there were or now are less painful ways to get that started and use it, but the start-up's experience was quite a hassle (but worth all the money from the Government sponsor). I hate to think what it would be like for a self-employed researcher.

  • Title edited at least once: Is your answer still the same? – BCLC Jan 5 '18 at 22:58
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Professors need to find students to do their research for/with them. To find good students, the best bet is to teach - it allows you to directly see them work and evaluate how they do in your subject. Being part of a university allows you access to students to use as a recruitment pool.

(Also, not everyone likes to have their co-workers know where their home is, and once you start renting office space elsewhere, you start running into all the administrative issues that a university also deals with and needs those overhead costs for...)

  • Title edited at least once: Is your answer still the same? – BCLC Jan 5 '18 at 22:58
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A few answers to this question, from the perspective of a junior faculty member in a U.S. state university. Let's assume for the moment that this is allowed by the grant in question, which is often (and I'd say nearly always) not the case. But indulging the hypothetical.

One could just apply for the grant as per normal, and once one gets it, buy a slightly bigger house and convert one of the rooms into a lab.

I am lucky enough to have a grant with a decent overhead rate - but it only lasts for three years. "Buying a bigger house" is an extremely aggressive investment that will obligate me for years in property taxes if nothing else for something that may go away.

gets to work from home

I already spend pretty much as much time as I want working from home.

has zero teaching duties

I already have zero teaching duties...

can even monitor an experiment 24/7

This really doesn't strike me as a positive thing from the perspective of work-life balance.

Further, presumably the grant covers postdoc salaries, so one would still be able to pay for postdocs (although probably not PhD students since a professor without a university will not be able to award a degree).

You are vastly underestimating the amount of staff I have access to. I have an HR person who handles things like payroll. I have departmental staff that keep track of my budgets. A person who helps with proposal development (getting things in the forms needed for submission, etc.) and budget prep. Someone else who will review the complex contracts that come with large grants, data use agreements, etc.

And that doesn't even touch on things like the techs who keep the HPC cluster running, the internet up, the parking lot plowed, etc.

My overhead pays for some of their time. The overhead on my grant cannot possibly hire all of those people.

I suppose one could lose journal access, but there's always stuff like arXiv / ResearchGate, emailing the authors of the desired paper, or even Scihub (oops).

This doesn't even get close to replacing proper access via a library

It's conceivable that not working for a university loses one some prestige, since one can no longer claim to be a professor. However even then I'd expect at least some academics to choose this path, valuing the convenience & extra research funding over prestige.

"Environment" is a major part of a grant being evaluated, at least on NIH grants, and not being at a university or research institute makes that a much harder sell. While some researchers undoubtedly choose that path, that depends very heavily on their own personal reputations, which many researchers cannot necessarily rely on.

  • Title edited at least once: Is your answer still the same? – BCLC Jan 5 '18 at 23:01
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    @BCLC Yep. <filler characters here> – Fomite Jan 6 '18 at 0:24
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Professors need universities because, by definition and etymology, a professor is transmitting knowledge by teaching it.

In some systems, you have professional researchers which are not professors and which are paid full time to do their research (since they belong to some other research institution than a University). For example, in France, we have the CNRS. See this answer.

Notice also that, as explained by all answers here, research is a social activity which needs teams to be done.

One could just apply for the grant as per normal, and once one gets it, buy a slightly bigger house and convert one of the rooms into a lab.

Then: how do you control that the grant is paying research? Notice also that management and administration require different skills and mindsets than doing research. Most researchers have to do some management & administration tasks (quite often too much of them) but are not happy and not very efficient at these tasks.

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    Some countries (e.g. Finland) have private grants that go directly to the researcher. Such grants are partially or fully tax exempt, and one of the conditions is that the funder has no control over how the grant is spent. In practice, this means that if you receive a multi-year grant, you have to demonstrate that you spent the year doing research in order to get funding for the next year. – Jouni Sirén Dec 26 '17 at 13:46
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    Interesting. Is it common in Finland, or is it very exceptional and only for happy few, nearly Nobel-class, researchers? – Basile Starynkevitch Dec 26 '17 at 13:47
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    It's mostly used by private foundations to fund early-career researchers. The total amount is comparable to the funding administered by the Academy of Finland, which is the main source of public funding for basic research. – Jouni Sirén Dec 26 '17 at 14:07
  • Title edited at least once: Is your answer still the same? – BCLC Jan 5 '18 at 23:01
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Your question contains the implicit assumption that the money that goes to the university for overhead would be available to the recipient for his/her use if not at a university. In the US, this assumption in general would not be true. In preparing a grant application the researcher lists the costs of the project, including salaries for the researchers, post-docs, travel costs, purchases,etc. Then the university overhead rate is applied to these costs. All costs must be justified in the grant application, so a professor couldn't just quit the university and double his/her salary for the purposes of the grant application. If somehow he/she could perform the research with no overhead costs, then none will be awarded. The independent researcher could claim overhead costs in the application, but these need to be real and have backup justification, so they can't just be diverted to more research funding.

  • Title edited at least once: Is your answer still the same? – BCLC Jan 5 '18 at 23:01
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    answer remains the same – Llaves Jan 7 '18 at 3:33
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  1. Some for economical reasons. Their research could cost money and require a lab / equipment that costs more than they could afford to raise individually. Maybe they enjoy having a stable income which being in the employ of a university brings. Usually professorship gives a quite high pay.

  2. Some for social reasons. They need the social connections at the university to find inspiration to do research and find collaborators for their research. Maybe they also enjoy teaching, in which case it is easier to find students to teach if you have a formal duty to do so. Also easier to get "padawans" / research students to inspire to carry your legacy forward once your time is over.

  3. Some for status reasons. They enjoy the social status that comes with a professor title.

There's probably even more, but these were the first that came to mind.

protected by Alexandros Dec 27 '17 at 19:50

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