The folly of expecting institutionalized funding


When a child is raised, we provide them with a home, food, education, love and encouragement. Within a couple decades, give or take, the kid grows up and is expected to care for itself.

You can’t really expect the same of federally funded ventures.

Yes, sometimes research and education ventures support themselves after the funding runs out. But it doesn’t often work like that. Organizations are not people. (Even if Mitt Romney and the Supreme Court attempt to claim otherwise.)

If an agency wants something, then they can fund it. But when they stop funding it, then they’re saying that they don’t want it anymore. But it’s a grandiose hope that a funded venture can somehow exist in perpetuity because it was funded for a while.

NESCent, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, was funded for ten years.

NCEAS, the National Center for Ecological Synthesis and Analysis, had fifteen years of federal funding. NCEAS continues to exist, in a reduced and altered form, on the basis of philanthropic donors.

And nowadays there’s the SYSYNC, the national Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, a more recent creation.

Even if these centers are ephemeral, then I think their existence is still worth the cost.

But expecting research centers like these to persist after NSF funds run out is overly optimistic. For example, NSF has funded a bunch of CRESTs (Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology). At least to some extent, they expected these centers to continue bringing in funds after federal funding runs out:

The ability of CREST Centers to leverage funding from federal, state and local agencies, as well as to foster industrial and academic collaborations, as part of a sustainable research enterprise, is an important outcome.

Of all the CREST-funded centers out there, how many have kept going when the dollars ran out?

I’m also thinking about LS-AMP. Students from underrepresented groups have long enjoyed support of the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LS-AMP). The individual amount of funding that students receive to do projects under AMP isn’t huge, but at least on our campus has a huge positive effect on participants. I’ve heard grumblings that there are expectations that our AMP programs need to find a way to continue running without federal support. Ummm. That’s somehow among me and my students and my university and our provost and our development office. Whenever the feds decide to stop funding our students., I don’t foresee the cash rolling in to support AMP from anywhere. Just sayin’.

AMP Alliance proposals are “expected to develop project sustainability plans for Alliance continuity without NSF funding.” How, exactly, are we supposed to do this?

Of course, it’s good to plan a strategy for continued success once funding runs out. It’s another thing to expect continuity without external support!

Let’s face it, ventures in science research and education aren’t built to attract enough donor support to continue as normal after federal funding expires. At least, that’s definitely the case for those operating in non-prestigious institutions with programs serving disadvantages students.

This notion has played out badly for the financial future of biological field stations. Stations can ramp up with external funds, but then have trouble persisting. It might be harder to work at field stations because of changes in our families and the rush-to-publish for new PhD students — but also, stations are getting more expensive as it’s getting harder to land federal funds for operations and large projects. If our country wants field stations, then it can fund them. If it doesn’t, then it won’t.

To fund something for a while, and then expect fiscal independence on the basis of philanthropy and the schmoozing ability of university personnel, is a little, um, overly hopeful.

4 thoughts on “The folly of expecting institutionalized funding

  1. Yep. Everything you said is true…with one possible exception. If a center can tap into DARPA monies, the possibility exists for continuity of funding. Still, those dollars need to be well-attended. I recently learned many DARPA projects go untapped, or unfinished, and opportunities to “help” exist. But, yes, Americans truly lack the full appreciation for being educated found elsewhere.

  2. It’s the same in other countries. Over here, the state and the county invested millions in a research center in the STEM area, let it run for 15years and then decided to not renew it’s funding. It’s shutting down end of the year, after having been in limbo the last 5 years because the initial funding was only 10 years and the last 5 were only barely funded anyway.

    Even just as a taxpayer (not to mention scientist), it really angers me because running things like that is a waste of money. The state/country invests a lot to build up a center and then just when it starts to really run and produce results it has to be shut down again – the people disperse, many disappear into industry jobs and and the competence is lost. But well, to the general population we’re only those aloof people doing useless stuff in the ivory tower anyway, so to hell with it.

  3. Completely on target. The whole logic of something is basic research so it needs funding to start, but then it will some how not be basic research so it will self fund is deeply flawed. Maybe in engineering or medicine where there is a realistic chance of commercialization. But not in ecology/evolution.

    The same issue exists on the software/database side. I know dozens of stories where a neat, useful software product or database got built with NSF funding but then got cut off because funders only want to fund shiny new things.

    On my list of issues with the funding system in the US, this issue is 2nd only to the low accept rates.

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