In the last few months, something has been on my mind. I’ve brought up the topic a few times, with some research scientists who hold tenured faculty positions. It would go along these lines:
I’m thinking of funding all of my research out of my salary. If I imagine a scenario in which…
- I take a 20% cut in salary
- I get that money in research support
- I don’t spend any more time writing grants
… it just makes me happy.
Every time I’ve brought it up, this was the response.
“I’ve been thinking about doing this, too.”
I was pretty much amazed. I thought it was just me. These interlocutors have well-funded operations with some combination of grad students, postdocs, and technicians, and on the face of things, don’t demonstrate the relative level of anxiety about funding that permeates my work on a regular basis.
Why aren’t any of us choosing this new strategy? The main reason is that we’re afraid of what people will think. They’ll think that we’re giving up, that we’re shameful losers, rather than making a sane choice in an effed up funding environment. There’s a reason I’m not naming these folks. It might make them look bad to their peers.
I understand I can only have this choice available from the privileged position of a full professorship with a decent (though well below market) salary, and a spouse who earns a professional wage from a federal agency. In my lab, certain kinds of projects and people would have to be cut, but on the other hand, I would end up being more productive and also way less stressed.
By a taking piece of my salary to pay for my research expenses, I’d be getting a lot less than I currently am with federal grants. If you ask anybody who’s had a 3-year NSF grant, pretty much as soon as you start one award, you’re already under the pressure to get the next one funded. In the budget I allow myself, I could travel wherever to do pretty much whatever I want, and as long as I do stuff that doesn’t involve pricey reagents or equipment or year-round labor, it looks do-able.
The funding situation has gotten so miserable that paying for it myself looks a lot better than writing grants to maintain the flow of external funds.
This next year, I’m taking a similar-sized cut in pay to go on a year-long sabbatical. What if all the fuss about competing for grants is out the window for good? I get to spend that time writing the papers I’ve been waiting to write. That doesn’t even look much like a compromise or something to settle for, it looks more like heaven. I guess I’d have to cook up a new logo for when I give talks.
Another reason this seems so attractive is that spending grant money at my university is so damn painful. The international travel barriers are so bad that I actually chose to not submit a preproposal for a certain project in January because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to run the project effectively (which would have involved three other countries). And this last week, the only person in our post-award office who knows how to handle an NSF grant finally upped and quit, for reasons that are wholly understandable. Seriously, when I think about the prospect of a major grant getting funded, because of conditions on the ground at my institution, it actually causes me more worry than pleasure. If I spelled out exactly how bad everything is, I’m not sure you would believe me. And I don’t think I’m authorized to share the lengthy report of the task force I was on to address the issue.
How serious am I about this? Well, I don’t know. I’m writing this in the midst of a feverish grant-writing-induced haze (exasperated by unexpected family issues that just popped up, challenging both emotionally and in terms of time management.) If these grants don’t come in, well, I might be inclined to hang up my grantwriting hat. Here’s hoping a sabbatical gives me some perspective.
If I recall the tax situation right, as long as research expenses are >5% of my family’s gross income, then it’s deductible. (Of course, I’m the last guy you should see for tax advice.) To date, I’ve really avoided using my own funds for supplies or travel or anything else related to research, in part out of principle. But if I do spend a non-trivial fraction on research, that might take my family into a lower tax bracket. Worse things have happened.
When I was in grad school, my dissertation was entirely independent of everything else that went on, and I was paid off of TAships except for one semester when I had a fellowship. I got a couple hundred bucks or so to go to conferences, but most of the travel expense was on me. We quadrupled up in hotels and managed to do it on the cheap. And I went to meetings every year. When I went to the field, I had various travel and supply expenses, that I mostly paid for with small grants here and there but I some of it just came out of my pocket. I didn’t think of this as a miserable state of affairs, but instead, I didn’t really separate the ‘science’ part of my life from the ‘non-science’ part of my life, and that included finances. I just spent the money on things I needed to spend it on. Travel to a conference, in my mind, wasn’t that fiscally different than traveling home for the holidays to visit family. Both were necessary expenses and neither were subsidized. After I started getting real support from my universities and from bigger grants, for the last 15 years I’ve ditched that idea that my research-related travel should not come from my paycheck. And really, it shouldn’t. But I’m not going to make decisions that affect my happiness wholly on the basis of shoulds that are governed by factors beyond my control.
Is this a pathetically shameful reflection of the current state of affairs in science funding in the US? Why yes, it is. But you don’t go to research with the funding environment you want, you to go research with the funding environment you have. I’ve talked to too many scientists who regret spending their careers chasing grants (successfully and otherwise), and maybe I want to avoid that regret while I still have a few decades left of my career.
Have you entertained this idea? Or given the funding rates, have you been compelled into this? Without external funds, how much travel and expenses are you willing to personally incur? How less will you think of me if I voluntarily give up writing external grants and pay for field research, meetings, conferences, and everything else out of pocket? Here’s one thing I know: my publication rate will go up, so long as I find some other way to keep my teaching load down to something reasonable for getting research done. There’s the rub.