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How do research funders audit where their money is going? Say they give some amount to a professor, after one year the professor didn't produce a thing in his research. How does it work?

It seems very unlikely to me that these funds are run by people who doesn't care if they throw their money like that.

The problem is that some professors are not active at all, they offer really low quality courses, they use the same material, same assignments, etc. You would suspect they are good at their research, but you hear similar things from their students. Still, they continue to receive grants and money from the government !

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    This is likely to be grant-specific. NSF requires annual reports, but, also grants are typically given for a 3 year period. If after 3 years nothing of value comes out, the person will not get a grant next time they apply. Also, grants are given to people with proven track record, so it's very unlikely that the research productivity goes to zero. Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 2:53
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    It's not really an answer to the question, but teaching is totally orthogonal to getting grants. Grant agencies don't know or care how good of an instructor you are (not that same material and assignments are bad ...). Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 4:15
  • I also doubt the students have seen the grant proposals and reports, and they may not even track professor's publications closely: it is with them the professor does not produce much, they may be very active otherwise. And that activity may even turn into mostly administrative at some point while still being grant-worthy, depending on the country, funding agency, university, and the lab.
    – Lodinn
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 18:17

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If the researcher has not produced anything after a year, they will find it difficult to obtain any grants after that, because recent publications are a factor in grant decisions. It would be a great way to stall your career. So researchers tend to try pretty hard to produce something once they receive a grant. Also, there's not that many sources of funding out there, so if you totally waste an agency's grant they might remember it when you apply to them again.

Some grants restrict what they may be used for. You cannot, for example, apply for a grant saying you will research X and then instead research a completely different topic Y. Everything you purchase or pay for with the grant money has to be tabulated and reported to the funding agency. If there's stuff that is obviously not related to the research, there may be various repercussions. It depends on the agency how closely they look at your expenses and how strict they are about judging them.

There are also some grants that are structured in installments. You don't get the whole money right away. You have to meet with the agency's officials periodically (for example yearly or every 6 months) and give them an update on your progress. If they don't like the update, you might not get the rest of the money.

Lastly, there is not necessarily an expectation that results must be produced. Science deals with the unknown, so it's inevitable that sometimes the hypothesis just turns out to be wrong. So many funders take broader view. They accept that there will always be some studies that fail, and it's not necessarily the researcher's fault. At the proposal stage, they try to pick applications that would still produce some useful results even if they failed.

The problem is that some professors are not active at all, they offer really low quality courses, they use the same material, same assignments, etc.

Research grants don't really care about the quality of your courses. They are primarily concerned with research. There are sometimes specialized grants that do also take teaching/outreach into account, and these will of course expect you to provide evidence that your courses are high quality.

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First, researchers have to request funds for specific purchases, budgets are usually provided as part of the grant proposal. Rarely can a researcher request substantive funds without a clear purpose. The most open-ended type of funds are "summer salary." This is literally pay for the summer, since most professors aren't paid over those months. If someone wants an academic to work during that period (typically research but could be otherwise), it's common for them to request payment. This is summer salary.

Most researchers don't get research funds deposited into their personal accounts. The funds typically go to the university they work at, and then are disbursed after receipts are shown or through the normal purchasing process at the university.

These processes tend to be extremely bureaucratic with great oversight. For example, timesheets might need to be shown for summer salary to be collected - even if the research has been created and published.

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  • I am not familiar with the 'normal purchase process' in universities, my understanding is that professors have fixed salary amount which they receive from the universities as private entities, no? Are you saying they receive their funds as well through the payroll system of their universities?
    – metaUser
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 2:56
  • @metaUser What do you mean "receive their funds"?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 2:58
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    @metaUser I'm saying the university will make purchases on the researcher's behalf. If I get a million dollars for a particular piece of machinery, I don't buy it myself - the university buys it using the grant money I've acquired. Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 2:58
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    @metaUser RegressForward is explaining that when you see that, it isn't money given to the professor, any more than if you hear that someone working for a company "had $15million in sales" means that person made $15million salary. When a professor receives a grant, it's their employer that gets the money. They may use some of the money to pay the professor a salary, some to pay for other costs like the building the professor has an office in, some for equipment the professor or their students need, some to pay students, etc, all depending on the type and purpose of grant.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 3:09
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    @metaUser They typically care genuinely about their research, and a successful research record is necessary for tenure and keeping a job. In most cases, they care about their work enough that they are giving up a substantially higher salary that they could earn in the private sector. Professor is not a good career option for someone primarily motivated by their own salary.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 3:17

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