How much time do scientists spend chasing grants?

Computer scientist Matt Welsh said that one reason he left Harvard for Google was that he was spending 40% of his time chasing grants. At Google, he devotes all his time to doing computer science. Here’s how he describes it in his blog post The Secret Lives of Professors:

The biggest surprise is how much time I have to spend getting funding for my research. Although it varies a lot, I guess that I spent about 40% of my time chasing after funding, either directly (writing grant proposals) or indirectly (visiting companies, giving talks, building relationships). It is a huge investment of time that does not always contribute directly to your research agenda — just something you have to do to keep the wheels turning.

According to this Scientific American editorial, 40% is typical.

Most scientists finance their laboratories (and often even their own salaries) by applying to government agencies and private foundations for grants. The process has become a major time sink. In 2007 a U.S. government study found that university faculty members spend about 40 percent of their research time navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth, and the situation is no better in Europe.

Not only do scientists on average spend a large amount of time pursuing grants, they tend to spend more time on grants as their career advances. (This has an element of tautology: you advance your career in part by obtaining grants, so the most successful are the ones who have secured the most grant money.)

By the time scientists are famous, they may no longer spend much time actually doing science. They may spend nearly all their research time chasing grants either directly or, as Matt Welsh describes, indirectly by traveling, speaking, and schmoozing.

9 thoughts on “How much time do scientists spend chasing grants?

  1. I spend a lot less than 40% of my work time going for grants. I do spend a lot of time supervising postdocs, but almost all of that is for the purpose of research or dissemination (writing papers).

  2. It occurs to me that this is similar to the distinction between working a big company and working for oneself. Google can lay off its employees, leaving Matt Welsh unemployed. A university scientist (once tenured) is effectively self-employed: never laid off, but always having to attract new resources. There are trade-offs between the two. Moving from academia to industry carries risks of a different sort.

  3. “A university scientist (once tenured) is effectively self-employed …”

    There is a world of difference between being tenured and being self-employed. If a tenured professor tires of chasing funding, then he or she can still make a far above average salary by simply doing the minimal amount necessary to maintain his or her position. If a tenured professor becomes ill, his or her salary is still paid.

    A self-employed person has no such safety net to fall back on; lacking a guaranteed salary, the self-employed person must hustle if he or she wishes to eat. And becoming ill may lead to disaster.

  4. (1) Tenure is at most a status symbol for Matt Welsh. Yes, Google can fire him, but when you are in top 0.1% of all engineers, that is not something to worry about.

    (2) There are different types of professors, but there is also intense pressure to get large grants to secure tenure and promotion these days. Andrew Gelman may not have the same concerns as untenured or recently tenured professors. I have seen several reasonable people fail to get tenure based solely on their failure to get large grants.

  5. I agree with others that a tenured researcher is not “self-employed”. Clearly, they can expand their budgets through some extra work that may appear somewhat entrepreneurial, but they clearly don’t have as much on the line.

    What about academics trying to commercialize their work as an alternate revenue stream?

    I have seen this several times, but feel like the tenured professor puts a lot less of himself into the effort precisely because the cost of failure (actual unemployment) isn’t really there. This would be fine if they were the only ones involved, but often they bring in investors or more committed partners who do have a lot to lose and it ends ugly. If an academic gets a new idea (more interesting than the last), he can change gears an purse it. But as the CTO of a company based on his previous work, he should feel more commitment…

    My recommendation is to avoid investing in commercialized IP unless the prof behind the IP gives up his other lifelines and gets all in. ;^)

  6. Ironically, when I left my tenured position at Carnegie Mellon for Bell Labs in the 1990s, the non-academics in my life told me things like “you’re finally going to have to work for a living”. Being a professor is a lot like running a small business with a large business bureaucracy. And there is a cushion when you get tenure, but as Daniel Lemire points out, it’s no big deal for an employable computer scientist. (Though after 15 years, I could no longer get an interview for the job I left, much left move in with tenure; it’s much easier to move from academia to industry than vice-versa, unless you keep up publishing and presenting.)

    You also don’t have to teach or advise grad students, go to endless curriculum meetings, admit new students, hire new faculty, if you move into industry. You do have to do some of those things, but they tend not to come with the endless rounds of discussion and compromise you see in academia.

    Also, if you go some place like Google, you can forego management and still get to do science at an advanced level. It’s tough to do that in academia, though some people have managed.

    But if you want to keep up your reputation and keep up with the field, you do have to present what you’re doing to others. That can be inside Google (which is a bummer for the rest of us) or it can engage the rest of the world like most researchers try to do. As Mark Steedman once said, and I parapharse, “scientists are transducers: tofu in, keystrokes out”.

    P.S. Andrew’s very efficient. Part of his fundraising efficiency is that he goes in on other people’s grants as a stats advisor. That’s partly how I’m funded.

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