I wish I was a Thought Leader so I could write thinkful and thoughty pieces that aren’t grounded in reality. Which brings us to this post by Clay Shirky about how professors, like it or not, are going to do more teaching more and less research. It’s…OH SWEET BABY INTELLIGENT DESIGNER, HAVE YOU EVER BALANCED A BUDGET, THINKY LEADER?
Here’s what Shirky doesn’t seem to realize–and I realize this is ‘science-centric’: if the research money goes away, universities lose many millions of dollars of overhead. While these can’t be used for anything the university wants (no more yachts, Stanford!), money is rather fungible, and ‘costs’ can be shuffled and inflated (we live in a country that has $676 saline IVs). It should go without needing to be said: no time for research, no research money. Here’s how it works (boldface added):
I’ve discussed overhead and fringe costs on grants before, so the short version is that on a federal grant, usually somewhere between 30-40% of the total grant award doesn’t go to the researcher for research costs (salaries, supplies, etc.), but to the institution. Now, some of that money is spent on actual administrative costs, but the rest goes to the university. So if the university spins off $50 million, or $100, or, in the case of the University of Iowa, $169,175,021 of NIH funding alone (never mind other government sources), that’s tens of millions of dollars that have to be recovered.
One option is a Magic Pony that craps platinum bars:
If you crapped bars of platinum, you would look like this too. You would not be happy.
Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, you either have to raise tuition (or state taxes for public universities), or hope someone ponies up a huge honking endowment. I realize “huge honking” is a highly technical term, so to put some concrete numbers to this, if a university loses $15 million of indirect costs, it needs to raise $300 million of endowment ($15 million is a five percent annual payout).
In 2014–2015, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (just that campus) received $477,315,721 from NIH, FDA, and CDC alone. This does not include NASA, NOAA, NSF, DOE, or the Department of Defense. The overheads from only NIH, FDA, and CDC funding are in the neighborhood of $150,000,000 per year. The University of Iowa received $193,709,887 from from NIH, FDA, and CDC alone, while the University of Michigan (the Ann Arbor campus only) received $482,777,467 (again, only from NIH, FDA, and CDC).
No administrator can walk away from this kind of money. For the University of Michigan, in 2014, student fees and tuition totaled $1,108 billion. $150 million–or even half of that–is a serious chunk of change.
I realize numbers are boring and not very Thoughtful at all, but, in the end, accounts must balance. The professor-as-researcher is here to stay–as long as she can bring in the grants….