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I have observed two recurring trends in Academia, both in Europe and in North America. I don't have statistics in hand but I can present quite a few examples of budgets in which the investment for new infrastructure is 1000 fold what is invested in hiring permanent research staff. For example the French government has invested 4.6 billion euros in buildings and 680 million in researcher for a large research hub outside Paris. New infrastructure, most often new buildings, are filled with temporary staff, more than half of researchers are on temporary contracts. Some European countries even have limitations on the number of times a contract can be renewed, so researchers end up moving from one lab to another, which is also an inefficient use of (public) money.

A building is only paid once, while 20-30 years of salary definitely adds up, but considering the cost of a new building we could easily hire hundreds of researcher. I would rather have more permanent staff in an old building than being in a new building with 80% of temporary researchers.

So why this agenda and why is money not invested more in people? Is it just imposed by politicians? Why don't large recent centers ask for more permanent positions to be funded?

PS: I am not even sure what tags would be appropriate for this question.

  • I asked a similar question a few years ago. All the answers were not really convincing. In Europe, they argue that keeping a good researcher productive is only by putting him under pressure and stress. From one side it works because I know how it works in developing countries where the researchers enter into idle after obtaining their PhDs. The system adopted in Europe works somehow for some disciplines but not for others (e.g. CS), where industry attracts more people with PhD. The question now is whether there is another alternative to keep researchers productive if they are permanent? – Younes Sep 18 '18 at 10:00
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    I suspect one reason may be that organisations love to "show off". A building can still look impressive in 10 years time, but the people will have moved on due to stress/excessive hours/low pay/lack of security. (Unless you decided to keep them in a permanent contract because you need them - which is rare.) You arrive, get your PhD and then at the end have to leave - not even everybody is offered a post doc, yet fewer a permanent position. – DetlevCM Sep 18 '18 at 10:29
  • When I started in Leeds, we moved into a new building - a building built apparently purely to show off. I would have recommended razing it to the ground and starting anew... (Open atrium and 40+ plus people with open plan for PhD students...) - But when the industry paymasters (who like low cost work as done by cheap PhDs - where else do you get to pay about 14.000 pounds per year for full time work with free overtime...) drop by, you can impress them with your fancy building... – DetlevCM Sep 18 '18 at 10:30
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    I am not sure what you are asking. Hard-money faculty, soft-money staff (i.e., temporary contracts), and peripherals are usually funded from completely different types of funds. An university cannot decide to hire more hard-money faculty rather than temporary staff because for the former they need to guarantee funding long-term, while the latter comes from projects which may only exist for a few years. A new building is an investment that you have to do every so often, because at some point your old building just isn't good enough anymore. – xLeitix Sep 18 '18 at 12:33
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    Often public spending in infrastructure is a mean to subsidize the construction sector. – Cape Code Sep 18 '18 at 13:05
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You can have a reception when you open a building, cut the red ribbon, invite the queen...you can't do the same with new positions (as far as I know).

This is another example, but with philanthropy, it is often the case that the benefactor will want to put money towards a physical object that will stay in place with a name plate. I think equipment goes under the same category. Does the same go for politicians or whoever secures the funding for the building?

Funding research is like a big black hole. You invest and you get only a few percent back on your investment. To policy makers and philanthropists it must feel like investing in a building and getting an elevator shaft.

Just to give an example, recently a natural history museum was opened in my institution. A huge amount of funding went into the project, all donations, but the institution created basically zero new research positions for the facility.

I think the problem is well summarized in the Yes Minister episode "The Compassionate Society".

  • Also, the money you spend on the building goes to the construction company, whose owner will then donate to your election campaign in a few years... – Trusly Sep 19 '18 at 22:25
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    @Trusly How does that work? At least in the US, university presidents aren't elected by a vote of the people, usually by the regents, so I'm not sure what incentive they have to provide graft to construction companies. – Azor Ahai Sep 20 '18 at 18:10
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    In the US, the finance options for buildings are many. For instance, bonds can be used to finance buildings, parking decks, etc. They cannot be used to finance researchers. – Dawn Sep 25 '18 at 16:10
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Even though collaboration over distance has become more and more easy due to technology, it is that researchers like to meet. Really, they do. And especially, they like to meet at nice places. I am pretty sure that places like Princeton would not have attracted all these great minds over a long period of time if it has been an unpleasant and crammed place.

Similarly, researchers still like to have offices.

Besides this, there is also politics: It is much simpler to allocate a fixed amount of money for one greater expense than to allocate a yearly budget. This is what I observe in my country. We see a lot of programs where a fixed amount of money is given for a specific purpose which has to be spent in a limited amount of time ("Hochschulpakt", "Exzellenzinitiative", "1000-Professoren-Programm", "Digitalisierungsoffensive") and this is often used to fund temporary positions. but it is really rare that the government actually raises the base funding of and institute to hire more permanent researchers.

Finally, the number do not really add up. You can build a decent building for, say, 10,000,000 (Dollars, Euros,…), but considering that a researcher costs (very) roughly 100,000 a year, the building only pays 100 year of research, so can have enough money to pay about 3 or 4 young guys for the rest of their careers.

  • +1 I think you are right that the pot of money is different (one-time vs. permanent), but a building also has ongoing costs. I DO think you are right that the math is off in the original post – Dawn Sep 25 '18 at 16:08
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You are assuming that current buildings are enough to keep up with the rising number of students and staff. It simply isn't true. One just needs to look at how many babies were born in 2000, and a few other known factors, to know approximately how many students there will be in 2018. (This task sadly appears to be out of reach for many politicians when they decide on the budget for higher education and research.) Simply put, it's more than last year, which was more than the previous year, which was more than the year before, and so on. Meanwhile, buildings have a mostly fixed capacity. You can do the math.

You mention Paris in your question. I work in a Parisian university. There isn't enough room. Period. There is an immense pressure on available rooms to conduct teaching, organize seminars or conferences, etc. It disorganizes everything. Some tasks that should be trivial become impossible. Even opening up new classes (a decision that should be purely academic!) is potentially in jeopardy because it's not clear that there will be enough room to accommodate it.

All this, despite the fact that we are in a brand new campus (2012) built from the ground up... because there wasn't enough room in the previous one! And this breaks down another one of the implicit statements in your question: the old campus isn't just demolished or left unused to rot. It's now used by another university (it used to be shared by the two). The "old building" is, in fact, also full...

Another example: where I got my doctorate, some doctoral students had to wait weeks or months for an office to be free. Until then, they had to work at home or in the library. I also had to give classes to 40 students in a room fit for 30. Not because of bad administration or lack of foresight; simply due to lack of space. Students stole chairs from nearby rooms or sat on the floor. I hope you realize that this does not foster a healthy learning environment. After a few weeks, many cut their losses and stopped coming to class, "fortunately".

You might complain that not enough permanent faculty/researchers are hired, and I would be the first to agree. One just needs to look at the trends in student vs faculty numbers to reach a conclusion. (Sadly, another task out of reach for politicians.) Or the rising amount of researchers working precarious contracts. But infrastructure is vital too. If you hire 50 researchers and you have 3 empty offices to put them in, something will explode.

  • Maybe I should have specified that I was referring to buildings for research staff not building dedicated to student. You have a good point regarding students but population growth rate is not that high in Western Europe. My point is exactly that instead of hiring 50 temporary researchers and make 1 new building, hire less temporary researchers more permanent ones and spend less on buildings. It's just different distribution of the budget. – Herman Toothrot Sep 27 '18 at 8:06

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