I do not understand NSF grants.

Does the researcher make any money from them? I mean, if they spend 10 hours a week working on the project, are they compensated? Can they be compensated directly from NSF funds? Not to sound greedy, but let's say I'm a tenured professor who's perfectly capable of doing outstanding research on my own. What incentive would I have to try to get a NSF grant, if it's just for my department to distribute to other people to work with me? I want some money.

  • There seem to be two questions here: one about incentive for applying for funding, and one about funding independent researchers. I've edited out the second one because we ask for one question per post and the existing answer mainly addresses the first.
    – ff524
    Mar 28, 2018 at 23:01
  • Your second question seems to be, "Would the NSF support the research of someone who is in a purely teaching role?" and is better asked as a separate question in its own post. Can you ask it in a new post? If you don't agree, please engage in comments and explain why, or bring the issue to Academia Meta rather than just rolling back the edit.
    – ff524
    Mar 28, 2018 at 23:07
  • 3
    Not to sound greedy, but [...] I want some money. Hmmmmmm...
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 29, 2018 at 0:52

3 Answers 3


From a purely monetary standpoint, Principal Investigators benefit from grants in multiple ways: grants can be used to pay the PI's summer paychecks (faculty contracts usually mention that the salary is for 9 or rarely 10 months), grants can be used to travel to conferences, grants can be used to pay for hardware, including laptops, and so on.

Without grants, a faculty would have to pay for those things out of their own pocket (which, in the case of the summer paychecks, just means "do not get paid").

About the part of your question about the NSF "pitching in", here is a quote from the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (Part I, Chapter 1, E) :"Unaffiliated individuals in the US and US citizens rarely receive direct funding support from NSF".

  • 3
    And they can pay RAs and Postdocs!
    – Thomas
    Mar 28, 2018 at 22:22
  • yay for Summer pay! Mar 28, 2018 at 22:22
  • @Thomas: Yes! It seemed that that part was clear to the OP though =)
    – Matteo
    Mar 28, 2018 at 22:23
  • 5
    The other major incentive for trying to get NSF grants, is that generally at a major research university, bringing in external funding is required for tenure + promotion.
    – ff524
    Mar 28, 2018 at 23:00
  • (The thing about an unaffiliated individual doesn't seem to be relevant here, since the OP does have an academic affiliation - the OP is in a role that is primarily teaching and does not support research, though.)
    – ff524
    Mar 28, 2018 at 23:04

Under NSF rules, principal investigators (PIs) who supervise a grant are eligible for up to one month of support per grant, and two months per year total across all of their NSF-sponsored grants. Other US grant programs have similar rules: they're willing to provide some support for the PI's, but they want the majority of the funding to go to the people carrying out the research.


What incentives do researchers have for applying for NSF grants?

Some or all of the following may incentives may apply, depending on the field, institution, and individual:

  1. Summer salary.

  2. Support for professional travel.

  3. Money to pay for lab equipment and supplies, without which it may not be possible to do one's research.

  4. Support in various forms (salary, tuition, travel) for students and postdocs.

  5. Better chances of promotion/tenure. In some cases it may be a requirement to have gotten grants, in some cases it may only be required to have applied, in some cases neither is required but they are nevertheless a plus.

  6. In some departments, "research-active" faculty get lighter teaching loads. Having a grant is usually sufficient to be counted as research-active. (This is different from buying out teaching, which NSF doesn't normally do.)

  7. A warm, fuzzy feeling from helping support your institution via overhead.

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