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I am a pure mathematician teaching a 2-2 load at a state research university in the United States. I know that many of my colleagues in applied math, engineering, and the laboratory sciences are able to buyout much of their teaching as long as they are successful in obtaining grant funding.

This doesn't seem to be the case in pure mathematics, however. In the US, most external funding for pure math comes from the NSF or the NSA. A program officer at the NSA explained to me that they don't allow buyouts, even in lieu of requesting summer salary. I e-mailed the same question to a program officer at the NSF, and my e-mail was not returned. I also asked my chair if I could pay for a buy-out (down to 2-1) from my own money, and he said no -- only grants or startup money are acceptable for this purpose.

I am curious -- are pure mathematicians ever able to secure course buy-outs, other than in their first few years (when this seems common)? Are there any funding agencies whose funding I might compete for that allow this? Alternatively, are buyouts from salary acceptable in other departments?

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    Some mathematics dept heads and deans are hesitant to put a price on what it would cost to buy out teaching: if the price is low, it's too easy to buy out (short of the authority's simply refusing), and if the price is high, this weakens the argument that "research is the primary job" (and rationalizations for giving lower raises...). It's a wanting-to-have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too deal, for some bureaucrats. It's also inconvenient to make last-minute staffing arrangements, certainly, especially if the amount of money freed up is small! And from whence the office space for those covering? :) – paul garrett Mar 22 '16 at 20:36
  • @paulgarrett wow, my departments have always figured out our teaching-research-admin ratio and priced the buyout accordingly. For example, if my ratio is 40-40-20 and I teach a 2-2 load, each class would be 10% of my salary. – StrongBad Mar 22 '16 at 20:53
  • @StrongBad, good that your dept is sensible. You can also imagine scenarios in which a "manager" prefers to make things easiest to manage, rather than most productive. :) (Fortunately, not the situation any more in my dept.) – paul garrett Mar 22 '16 at 21:03
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    @paulgarrett: My department has indeed put an exact price on it: we have applied mathematicians in the my mathematics department, and many of them write course buyouts into their grant budgets and subsequently buy out some of their teaching. – Anonymous Mar 22 '16 at 21:50
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    Not exactly a buy-out, but I know one department where you can just teach less for less money. Also some departments give teaching reductions for getting grants. – Kimball Mar 22 '16 at 22:51
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The NSF won't generally allow a faculty member to take more than 2 months of salary per year from NSF grants. Since you would typically want summer salary before buying out of teaching, this effectively makes it impossible to buy out of teaching on NSF funding alone.

However, if you combine your NSF funding with funding from other agencies (such as the Office of Naval Research, Army Research Office, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, DARPA, DOE, etc.), it's certainly possible to have enough months of grant support to buy out of teaching during the academic year. Whether your program manager will agree to pay for this and whether your institution will allow it are still questions that you'd have to answer.

  • I could imagine that some people are willing to use summer salary to buy out teaching and then work for free over the summer. – StrongBad Mar 22 '16 at 20:31
  • Thank you for your answer. That said, I am indeed asking whether the NSF or any other agency will let you buy out teaching before taking summer salary. (My circumstances are perhaps a little bit atypical, in that I am managing to live on much less than my salary.) – Anonymous Mar 22 '16 at 21:47
  • You'll have to start by finding out whether your institution would be willing to do this at all (some department chairs or deans might not be willing) and under what terms. Does a one course buyout cost 25% of your 9-month salary based on a 2-2 teaching load, or does it cost less (say 10%)? Then you'd have to find out whether your program manager is willing to do it under the terms set by your institution. A program manager might or might not agree that those terms are acceptable. There's really no general answer to this question. – Brian Borchers Mar 22 '16 at 23:53
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    I was under the impression that it was strictly impossible to use NSF (DMS) grants to buyout courses. I know it is impossible at my institution, but I had vaguely thought that the NSF itself views this as impossible. Do you happen to know? – Pete L. Clark Mar 23 '16 at 1:52
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    I have heard one mathematician say he has used his summer salary from NSF to buy out academic-year teaching (and that he then volunteers to teach an advanced course without compensation). – Mark Meckes Mar 23 '16 at 12:54

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