I have read the term "soft-money research position" a few times.

E.g. Path of a postdoc.

Another consideration for interviewees is whether to pursue a "soft-money" position. A tenure-track university professor is typically paid a nine-month salary to teach one or more courses, conduct research and train graduate students. During the summer months, the professor can optionally pay his or her salary from grant money. In contrast, non-tenure-track research professors often hold soft-money positions, which require them to cover 100 percent of their salary from research grants, teaching and/or administrative responsibilities. Soft-money positions offer the advantage of few teaching responsibilities, which frees time for grant writing and conducting research, but at the expense of job security, since winning grants is a necessity. The Hutchinson Center and some other private institutions offer a compromise between these systems, covering up to half of a faculty member's salary from institutional funds, so research grants only have to cover the remainder.

Advice for stats students on the academic job market gives a clear distinction between soft and hard money:

Before listing the options I should explain the concept of hard versus soft money. Revenue in academia comes from tuition (in public schools the state kicks in some extra $), external funding (e.g. NIH grants), services (e.g. patient care), and philanthropy (endowment). The money that comes from tuition, services, and philanthropy is referred to as hard money. Every year roughly the same amount is available and the way its split among departments rarely changes. When it does, it’s because your chair has either lost or won a long hard-fought zero-sum battle. Research money comes from NIH, NSF, DoD, etc.. and one has to write grants to raise funding (which pay part or all of your salary). These days about 10% of grant applications are funded, so it is certainly not guaranteed. Although at the school level the law of large numbers kicks in, at the individual level it certainly doesn’t. Note that the break down of revenue varies widely from institution to institution. Liberal arts colleges are almost 100% hard money while research institutes are almost 100% soft money.

I'm still confused regarding the exact definition of a soft-money research position: what is the threshold soft-money : hard-money above which a position is regarded as a soft-money position?

Conversely, what is a hard-money research position? Is it any research position that is not a soft-money research position?

It's actually a little bit more complicated than "soft money" vs. "hard money," but the basic idea is that any scientific position can be categorized on the basis of where the money to support it comes from.

In general, "soft money" refers to positions where the funding source is based on external grants and contracts. As long as there is a sufficient supply of such money that a person can obtain or that somebody else is willing to devote to their support, they are employed. If that money dries up, however, the position dries up with it, becoming part time or disappearing entirely.

In contrast, "hard money" positions are not directly project-dependent, but instead are created for a purpose by an organization. Termination from a hard money position only comes either for cause or due to the organization deciding to remove the position and not shift the person to another position. They are often more secure (thus the notion of "hard"), but not necessarily. Tenure-track faculty posts are typically seen as the ultimate in "hard" money: they are ultimately supported by tuition, and even if the students stop signing up for a department, it is typically slow enough that universities tend to prefer to allow departments to age to extinction rather than fire faculty. A corporate research post is also often "hard money" because it is created by fiat in a company's strategic plan, rather than being dependent on external funds. It is much less secure, however, because it can be removed by fiat as well.

Where it gets complicated is that various different sorts of "hard" and "soft" positions have different levels of vulnerability. For example, some "soft" positions are effectively amortized over a large group or include bridge funding, such that they may be nearly as secure as a tenure-track position.

It's a good first-approximation, however, in talking about the challenges of academic fundraising and career management. The basic rule of thumb is: a PI in a "soft" position needs to raise money to pay their own salary, while a PI in a "hard" position does not. Thus a "soft" position has a hard time surviving on small grants while a "hard" position merely ends up with few students for a while.

It is a soft money position if the position goes away when the soft money is not available.

I prefer the term "contingent".

jakebeal is correct but i'll try to give a shortened version of this specifically to a position as a 'researcher' opposed to a position in which research is part of the job description (such as professor).

A soft-money position as a researcher means the PI is paying through a non-permanent funding source, such as a grant, almost always for a specific project. You can think of any project-based hiring as soft-money research position. Usually in research institutes, this is how a research assistant or intern is paid. Higher level research positions can also be payed this way for large grants (as their salary is probably higher).

Hard-money position is hired as a long term employee fundamental to the institute. In a research institute, this would be someone hired directly from the staff budget of the institute. If it is a government based institute, a hard-money position is funded from the budgeted salaries, in many ways similar to operations costs or administration, i.e. something that is a planned hiring independent of a specific project.

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    I'm afraid that you are incorrect about PI status. Being a PI means precisely and only that you are allowed to hold "final responsibility" on an application for funding. Even at universities, PI status and soft vs. hard funding are determined independently. Some soft-money positions can be PIs, some hard-money positions cannot. – jakebeal Oct 27 '14 at 12:36
  • @jakebeal I know a hard-money position may not be allowed to be a PI for other reasons. As I said, its just a speculation, do you have any example of soft-money research position which allows someone to be a PI on a grant knowing they may be leaving? – user1938107 Oct 27 '14 at 12:44
  • On another post, I just gave the example of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), whose tenure-track and tenured faculty are either mostly or entirely on soft money. They use a pooled-risk system with bridge funding to decrease the risk. Regarding the specific question of leaving: it happens often, and funding often follows the PI to their new institution. – jakebeal Oct 27 '14 at 12:49
  • @jakebeal to my knowledge, tenure refers to professors and teachers, not researchers. even so, i tried looking on their website for this information and could not find, searching their site for 'tenure' also did not produce usable results. For now, ill edit the question as I could imagine the situation you describe – user1938107 Oct 27 '14 at 13:05
  • Another example of soft-money PI: Dave Clark has been leading research at MIT, teaching, and supervising graduate students for over forty years. He is and has been a professor in all but title. – jakebeal Oct 27 '14 at 13:19

A soft money position usually means that the position is being funded by a grant. In colleges and universities, this generally means that the job may be capped to end after 1 year, 5 years, etc.; however long the lifespan of the grant. If you are accepting a position that is funded by soft money, you should know up front how long the grant lasts, and if the grant has a reasonable expectation to be extended after the ending date.

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