This question is based off the following chain of reasoning:

  • Universities employ professors, who write funding applications and win grants. The university then takes some fraction of the grant as "overheads" which counts as part of its "income".
  • Therefore universities prefer professors who win big grants (the number of grants matter less than the total amount of money won).
  • Experimentalists need more money than theoreticians. I would expect that theoreticians only need some software & computers, but experimentalists would need the equipment itself (MRI machines, vacuum chambers, etc) which are orders of magnitude more expensive than mere desktop computers.
  • Therefore experimentalists win bigger grants.
  • Therefore universities prefer experimentalists.

I'm wondering if this chain of reasoning is robust. It looks pretty convincing to me. Conceivably the university could have separate grant targets for theoreticians and experimentalists, but presumably some professors aren't easily classified into either theoretician or experimentalist, which would make this an easily-gamed metric.

  • This isn't an answer to your question, but: a big part of where grant money goes is to pay salaries. Theorists have to pay postdocs and students the same way experimentalists do. That is much more expensive than computers and software.
    – Matt Reece
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 2:42
  • @MattReece: computers and software are nowhere near as expensive as chemistry, physics, and biology experiments. Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 3:18
  • 1
    Indirect cost recovery simply doesn’t work this way in the US, so the premise of your question is false. It’s important to understand that universities have to justify overhead rates by accounting for the indirect costs associated with federally sponsored research. Thus, in theory, the added money in overhead on experimentalist grants gets spent to provide support for that research. Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 4:47
  • FWIW, universities generally do not get indirects on capital equipment. Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 13:27

2 Answers 2


Potential for grants is surely something that universities consider, but I think your analysis is too simplistic to lead to the conclusion "universities prefer experimentalists".

For one thing, a department typically needs to offer a range of courses involving both theory and experiment, so they need faculty who are qualified to teach them. The decision to hire in a particular field is more likely to be driven by academic needs, and so the question of whether to hire a theoretician or an experimentalist probably doesn't often arise as such.

Another point is one you raised yourself: Experimentalists need more money than theoreticians. This cuts both ways.

Suppose they hire an experimentalist. First of all, she is going to need a big start-up package from the university in order to get her research to the point where she can get grants. There's a risk that she won't ever get to that point, in which case the university's investment doesn't pay off. And maybe she does bring in some big grant money for a while, but years down the road, maybe her funding dries up. Maybe her research area just isn't as hot anymore, or funding agencies are preferring to go in a different direction. Without major funding, she can't do her research at all, and now the university is stuck with an unproductive faculty member. So hiring an experimentalist may be high reward, but also high risk.

By contrast, a theoretician doesn't need a large short-term injection of funds, and they know that she will be able to be productive regardless of what happens to her funding.


Sorry, but the question seems to imply some misconceptions about the nature of (most) universities. The use of the word income, rather than revenue suggests that you think of them as businesses generating profits and that overhead represents profit. This is mistaken. Overhead is charged to cover costs, not to provide "profit". Universities have no owners or shareholders. Every bit of revenue generated by university activities gos back into current and future university activities, though there is some redistribution of funds between those activities.

There is no financial reason to prefer one activity over another. Universities like grants so that the kinds of things they want to actually do can be adequately funded. You can't run a cyclotron on no funds and those funds need to come from somewhere. If you can't find the funds, you can't do the research in those fields. And that cyclotron has to be in a building that has to be heated and maintained and it sits on valuable real estate. That is what "overhead" is about: covering costs, not generating profit. If that didn't happen, and grants had to cover all their costs, they would need to be hugely larger. Ok, you have three million Euro for your new chem lab. Now, where do you want to put it?

A university is a public service organization, not a business. It exists to provide an educated populace and to do research that, hopefully, will benefit society as we move toward the future.

For a (slightly) more direct answer to your question, note that theory drives experimentation, just as experimentation drives theory. Balance is needed, and, I think, recognized.

  • 4
    I think that sadly many universities behave like businesses, with academic considerations a far second. Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 14:20
  • Universities have no owners or shareholders - are you sure? I'd have guessed private universities are owned by something (hence they are "private", e.g. Harvard is owned by the Harvard corporation and the Board of Overseers); public universities are owned by the government. Also, do universities not have a rich-subsidize-poor arrangement where the fields with the biggest grants effectively subsidize smaller fields via their overheads?
    – Allure
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 22:46
  • There is always some "board" that has formal ownership, but not in the sense that they take "profits" from the corporation. Board members are typically elected by other board members. They don't "buy in" to the corporation. There is some internal transfer of revenues between departments but probably less than you imagine. Grant overhead mostly services the grant and others like it, not the philosophy department. However, in the US, the philosophy is that you can't educate a scientist without him/her also knowing some history, philosophy, etc. So it is a sharing of resources not "stealing".
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 23:55

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