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Usually in industry, we are either employed (in which case our company pays us), or founders (in which case we go look for funding). To the extent that we need to spend the company's money, or hire people, we deal with the company. If we are our own bosses, we co-founders can consult each other for expenses (similar to "peer review"?) if it's important.

It seems like academics are not only employed by an institution, and have to deal with the institution, but also deal directly with e.g. the NSF. This seems to me like being employed as a research lead at e.g. Google, but still having to pitch VCs. Or like the big boss micromanaging skip-level reports. Are these bad analogies?

Why not do one or the other of:

  1. NSF only funds institutions (lower volume of decisions), which make their own choices (e.g. internal peer-review) regarding projects, hiring/resourcing, etc (possibly more informed decisions?)?
  2. PIs have independent labs (no institution)
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    One way to look at this is that the institution hires the academic to get grants.
    – Allure
    Sep 14, 2022 at 13:39
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    What's a "skip-level report"? Sep 14, 2022 at 15:00
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    @Azor: a "direct report" is someone who reports to you directly (i.e., you are their immediate supervisor); a "skip-level report" is someone who reports to someone (who reports to someone, who reports to someone, ...) who reports to you. University research group hierarchies begin and end with the professor, but skip-levels are more important when there is no tenure and so "the boss" might be gone in a month but the project has to continue.
    – cag51
    Sep 14, 2022 at 17:27
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    I feel like - probably because many of the answers come from academics who have to write such grant proposals regularly - the answers are soberly answering you with a straight face, when what I want to say is: Yes! The system really is just that bad! It's dumb and crazy that people put up with it at all! Allure's comment above^ is more than just tongue in cheek: Universities want money and grants are money, so the incentives for employing someone that you're supposed to pay in fact become 'can this person bring in grants'?.
    – SBK
    Sep 15, 2022 at 8:11
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    I think this is an excellent question that isn't asked enough. Being good at research, and being good at attracting funding, are two different things; and it follows that by insisting that academics do both, "the system" is potentially depriving itself of talented researchers.
    – cooperised
    Sep 15, 2022 at 10:48

7 Answers 7

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I believe this is a good question, but is mostly relevant to US, Canada, UK, and possibly other such HE systems.

Indeed, different systems exist: in France the government hires directly civil servants to serve as academic researchers. In central or East Europe the government funds national research institutions.

Therefore, the way the US HE system functions is mostly cultural/historical, or in other words, based on the business model taken by universities (in the US/Canada/UK and similar systems). I believe that this business model on the one hand maximizes "revenue" for the universities, allowing them to run as "businesses" based on student tuition fees (this is the teaching aspect), while on the other hand it provides options for research (which is deemed prestigious, but not essential to the financial functioning of the universities), for only a small part of the employees who are meant to compete on resources on a continuous basis. So that, when they fail to secure research grants, they need to teach more and vice versa.

EDIT: Comment: Although in France and East Europe there is a growing reliance on grant money for research, the extent of which research is reliant solely on grant money is much lower I believe, than in the US. We have to look at it like a spectrum between fully governmental funded researchers, on one extreme, and fully project-based, ad hoc, short-term grant-based researchers in the US (with a clear trade-off between teaching and research) on the other extreme.

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    Do you have sources for your claim that it's much different in the EU? French CNRS seems to be an exception, and the research in Germany seems to fit well OPs description, for example. "Publish or perish", and "Get grants or perish" Sep 15, 2022 at 6:36
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    Er, in France, people with a permanent position don't get fired if they don't have grants, but they may not be able to afford going to conferences, hiring postdocs, etc, so we are still strongly encouraged to get grants. Every year the proportion of the funding that goes directly to institutes becomes lower while the proportion that goes to grants increases. Sep 15, 2022 at 7:29
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    @EricDuminil, I haven't mentioned the EU. Of course, the Scandinavian countries are even more dependent on grant money than the US, probably. I'm talking about CNRS in France, and all sorts of Academy of Sciences in Eastern Europe, Russia, etc.
    – Dilworth
    Sep 15, 2022 at 13:47
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    @MarcGlisse, I guess things are changing slowly, but still you can be researcher in France without grants, while in the US you probably can't (increased teaching or unemployment).
    – Dilworth
    Sep 15, 2022 at 13:48
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    @Dilworth not really. Maybe if you do pure math, perhaps, where all you need is your salary and an office but even then, attending conferences and publishing papers takes money. French CNRS/Inserm etc researchers have a salary and don't rely on grants to pay that salary, but they still need to ask for research grants.
    – terdon
    Sep 15, 2022 at 16:40
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At least some research leads at Google and other similar companies certainly apply for federal and other grants. R&D in the US defense industry gets grants from the US DOD and mostly occurs outside academia. NIH funding is available for pharmaceutical companies for some aspects of research. I've known people that work in these areas and describe their work, and though every area has its own particular norms and procedures, there is far more similarity than the question here implies. Certainly the distinction between who pays the checks and where the money comes from is not unique to academia.

or founders (in which case we go look for funding)

Another way to look at it is that every professor is an entrepreneur running their own lab. In smaller labs, like in smaller companies, they may do almost all of the work themselves. In larger labs, they likely hire much of the work out and take on a more managerial role.

If the government funded institutions directly, it would take decisions about funding away from people who know what's going on in a field (e.g., experts in underwater basket weaving decide which underwater basket weaving grants are worth funding). A given institution is unlikely to have more than one or maybe two labs working in basket weaving, so they don't have the internal expertise to make those decisions.

If the government funded independent PIs, those PIs would have to handle all the administration themselves: accounting, HR, ethics committees, logistics, etc. In the current setup, researchers say "I have the expertise to do this research", but institutions have the clout to tell the government "We have our eye on this, and we'll make sure the money is spent on what you said it should be spent on". There are certainly flaws in this system, but it seems like it's more reasonable to try to fix those systems from within rather than replace them entirely.

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    They won’t have the internal expertise in the specific field, but it seems like they would clearly know better whether the applicant is honest, hard working, respectful, careful of financial matters, etc… Cumulatively these seem even more important than determining specific expertise.
    – M. Y. Zuo
    Sep 15, 2022 at 4:33
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    @M.Y.Zuo Who do you mean by "they"? "They" certainly can't know if an applicant is "honest, hard working, respectful". "They" use rules, oversight and controlling procedures to ensure that grant recipients are "careful of financial matters".
    – user9482
    Sep 15, 2022 at 5:18
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    @M.Y.Zuo No, I don't. But I believe they have a strong conflict of interest.
    – user9482
    Sep 16, 2022 at 4:44
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    @BryanKrause Presumably in such a case the university administration that already makes budget decisions will be the one with final responsibility. See my prior comment where I enumerate: 'university administration, staffs, department heads, staffs, etc... ' Where did you get the idea that it will be left up to the department head alone?
    – M. Y. Zuo
    Sep 16, 2022 at 16:22
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    @BryanKrause Presumably under a new system there will be more interaction between different departments. Not all of it personal of course. It's odd that you word it that way as I certainly won't be the one handing out money to anyone. Presumably the people responsible for such decisions will take it seriously and only grant money to those they know to be responsible stewards. If the university administrators turn out to be irresponsible then they have appropriate means to punish that kind of behaviour.
    – M. Y. Zuo
    Sep 16, 2022 at 19:01
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It's part cultural/historical and partly a hedging strategy.

When the university was initally invented as an institution, it was entirely an educational establishment, and its professors were employed for one thing: to teach. However the people they employed to teach were generally scholars of their field in their own right. Back in those days there was really only two ways to do research 1. Be independently wealthy or 2. Do it as a hobby in your own time alongside a job. Being a university professor was the ideal job to support your research hobby with. Over time universities would offer time off to do research. Around 100-150 years ago they started offering lab space to scientists as part of those scientists' renumeration packages. But if you needed anything costly for your experiments, or needed an assistant, you had to sort that out yourself.

Now if you are a government you might maintain government research labs (and more or less all governments still do, think the NIH labs in Bethesda, or NASA etc). But sometimes you'd want some research done that was outside their expertise. Or some researcher would write to you with an idea you think would be beneficial, so you issue them with a grant to cover their costs, but it's a rare thing.

As government funded scientific research exploded in the 20th century, it did so against this existing culture.

Even quite recently time and resources to do research was seen as a benefit due to the academic, not a duty or a job responsibility.

But grant income does present a good way for universities to hedge. Say you want to teach a genetics degree. You need someone who can teach human genetics, someone who can teach mathematical genetics, plant genetics, molecular genetics, microbial genetics, etc. but you probably don't have enough work to fill a full time contract for all these people. With grant income, tuition fees only have to cover a part of their salary. And vice versa: someone's research specialty might not always be in demand, but there will always be teaching for them to do.

Block funded research institutes do exist: places like the Sanger and Crick in the UK, CERN in Europe, or Los Alamos or Jenelia farm in the US. But they are few, tend to employ on the absolute crem de la crem, and have a relative narrow research focus, and not be around for that long.

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  • US National Labs like Los Alamos are different from universities, but they too have (internal) grant opportunities over and above their programmatic funding from their sponsors.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 15, 2022 at 14:25
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Science is expensive, and beyond the means of many universities. It is so expensive, that it's the traditional domain of governments and kingdoms to fund research. Tycho Brahe, for example, was funded by the Danish Crown.

When researchers are hired by universities, getting and maintaining funding to carry out their research is part of the job description.

As to the last parts of your question -- why not give the universities the money and let the universities decide who it goes to? Well, in fact, government grants do go to the university, and the PIs are the agents by which the work is carried out, but the review mechanisms usually lie within the govern agencies, and not the institution. I can't imagine that a university would be able to maintain the tight standards of review that the government can. Also, funding agencies often need to maintain tight control over how the money is spent. Different divisions within funding agencies have different mandates to fund different areas of research, and there is congressional oversight (in the US) over the whole process. The taxpayer's representatives in government need to have some control of how taxpayer money is spent. A school would not be able to meet these demands.

As to whether a private individual can apply for funding, yes they can, but it's probably unlikely that an individual can meet all the bookkeeping and supervisory tasks that the funding agencies demand.

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    Expensive, or just unprofitable? Sep 16, 2022 at 8:05
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    @user -- certainly the first. The second depends on many things. Big Pharma finds some biotech research to be extremely profitable. Most US universities are not for profit, though, so, at least semantically, not applicable. Sep 16, 2022 at 13:53
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    @user253751 It is probable that 80-90% of research is waste of money for real-life applications, but the other 10-20% very likely cover all costs and more... The issue with science is that most of the times you cannot tell in advance which 10-20% turn out to be the profitable ones...
    – Nick S
    Sep 18, 2022 at 19:15
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This answer is probably limited to the US. You have a misunderstanding about NSF and probably other funders, such as industrial organizations.

The NSF funds projects not institutions (except indirectly). NSF depends on the fact that it need not provide basic salary and benefits for those it funds; the universities (and such) provide that since such institutions have multiple goals, not only research. But the NSF will provide funds for specific things proposed to it by individual researchers provided those things seem to have scientific merit.

I question your "more informed decisions" statement. It is the individual researcher that knows what is needed both in terms of funding and in terms of what is likely valuable to attempt to explore. Someone up the chain (deans and such) have more general responsibilities and don't normally get involved in the nitty-gritty of actual research. So, if the NSF (etc.) depended on administration for proposals, then two bad things would occur. First, the proposers could likely only make general appeals (Trust us; we do good stuff), and an extra layer of separation would be placed between the people with the ideas and the people with the funds to support those ideas. The researchers would still need to "apply" for funds, but to the administration, rather than directly to NSF.

Your second proposal (independent labs) would require much more funding. MUCH more funding. Universities provide both basic salaries, and the buildings in which those researchers work. NSF funding covers quite specialized things that may be (in the current political environment) beyond the ability of universities to fun. The university provides the "general" funding. Foundations provide the specialization.

Also, peer review works in the current scheme, since people at other institutions are willing to review proposals in their own fields. This gives a variety of viewpoints. If the NSF funded institutions rather than projects, then that would be lost. Each university could, I suppose, develop its own project review system, but it is hard to see how it could attract the same breadth of view or be reasonable to fund itself. It would add to the cost since it is more balkanized.

Companies can fund projects internally since they have a much narrower view (often product based) than a university (the "universe" in "university") does.

Startup companies with a new perspective need a lot of funding if they are to have a chance and the failure rate is high. It is very risky for funders, especially those in the basic sciences.


Orthogonally, researchers being required to get their own grants imposes a certain discipline of thought on them: a good thing. They have to be clear early on about the goals and the requirements. Clear enough to convince their peers of the value. This is also present in other schemes, of course, but it keeps researchers on right path since it requires justification prior to the research and also reporting afterwards.

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    The NSF and, even more so the NIH, do fund institutions--but via the indirect/overhead costs on the project grants. Without indirects, huge chunks of universities (esp. med schools) would cease to exist, which is why their administration wants you to bring in grants!
    – Matt
    Sep 14, 2022 at 23:34
  • IDC funding is not "funding an institution." That's literally paying the bills for a project to exist. Yes you brought in $1M direct costs for your project. Good for you. Would you like to work in the dark? What about heat or cooling? Who is going to order supplies? Indirect costs are costs and not a profit for the institution. IDC rates are capped on administration and many organizations lose money on the deal. Without IDC no one would do research because it would be a total loss. Research is about prestige/gifts more than profit from grant funding. Oct 1, 2022 at 5:15
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I think these are not the right analogies because NSF doesn't give grant money to a university employee directly, via direct deposit into their bank account. Rather, the money is given to the university, to be spent based on certain rules that are enforced by the university.

A better analogy is this: Take Ford Motor Company as an example. It has people who produce stuff, people who manage and support those who produce stuff, and then it has sales people who pitch the product Ford makes (cars) to customers. But the subdivision of who does what in the company is by custom and convenience -- there is no inherent reason why a production person could not also have a 10-hours-a-week obligation to work in sales.

Universities are like this. They have a product (research conducted by faculty) and they pitch that product to customers (e.g., a government that wants research be done in certain areas, for example because it thinks that this is in the national interest). It just so happens that the people who produce the product (faculty) are also the ones who pitch the product to the customer (the government). If the customer thinks that the product is good, it pays the company (the university) some money for the company to make the product, and then the company's bean counters (the university's Office of Sponsored Projects) are responsible to using that money in ways necessary to make the product happen.


It is worth pointing out that this is not an uncommon business model outside universities as well. Governments pay many other entities (for-profit companies as well as non-profit organizations) for things that are not a tangible product such as a car. For example, there is a vast complex of companies that are paid for research -- say, the development of specific materials to be used by the military. And then there are entities that take care of building hiking trails in the mountains or forests, and they too often have people who both come up with ideas for where these trails are to be placed and pitch those to the government, and then are also responsible for actually doing the work or at least supervising the work when they land a grant for trail building -- people at many small outfits are jacks-of-all-trades, doing all jobs at once.

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  • I don't think that "it just so happens" that the responsibility lands on the academic faculty. The person who does the research knows and cares the most about it. Businesses can hire and train sales people, but developing a sales strategy that allows them to takes an enormous amount of work up front from those responsible for creating the product. Sep 16, 2022 at 22:07
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I think you're assumption that it's different in business is false. Getting a grant is a form of sales. The more complex the sale and the more sophisticated the audience, the greater the effort required to satisfy them.

What happens in business as well as academia is that very qualified people end up spending a lot of their time talking to customers, convincing others internally, or developing sales materials to allow it to be done by other employees. Like you said, the founders of a startup, who often know most about the product and business, focus primarily on raising money and hiring.

So, the academic question, is if you don't go off and convince people that you have great research, then who well? Who knows your research well and can explain to an audience and make them confident you can succeed? Of course, you can employ people to help you along the process, but you just can't outsource that.

The ultimate nerd dream is to go off in the corner and make cool stuff, but nobody will know about the value you produce.

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