1 The Ivory Tower


Tendencies have been well documented by Ginsberg,
The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters

and by Washburn,
University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

I recently had a Dean of Medicine tell me that “We have solved the M.D. tenure problem.” The bulk of physician salaries come from the clinical enterprise, and that affiliation can be terminated with 30-day notice. “Now we are trying to solve the Ph.D. problem.” By that, he was referring to how to terminate Ph.D. faculty who are tenured but have lost their government funding. Discovery of new knowledge and teaching are no longer enough unless they come with profit for the institution. The interim solution to the “Ph.D. problem” appears to be the use of Special Appointments, which are the probably better-paid equivalent of adjunct faculty appointments (not eligible for tenure). The long-term solution will be total elimination of tenure at medical schools (and maybe other universities). The final irony will be the socialization of medicine and physicians on government salaries. Creativity in basic medical research will wither.

This is a story of unintended consequences. In “the old days”, universities expected the faculty to teach, perform service, and to discover new knowledge (research). When the government decided to fund research in the public interest, and pay faculty salaries for the time spent on said research, administrators did simple math: two professors getting 50% of their salaries from the government frees up enough institutional money to hire a third professor. Two such professors provide enough money to hire yet another. Add in the indirect costs on grants (typically 50% or more) and the Ponzi effect should be obvious. This plan is dependent on continuous funding of the faculty, which has been anything but continuous since the 70s. Hence, “the Ph.D. problem”.  

As for funding, the NIH posted numbers for 2012 and 2013: https://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2014/01/10/fy2013-by-the-numbers/ . Numbers from this summary were averaged and used in the table below.

Barrett claimed that it takes 3 months to a write grant in the life sciences. von Hippel and von  Hippel determined that it takes 4 weeks to write a proposal in astronomy or psychology. Obviously principal investigators take care of other responsibilities in the 3 months claimed by Barrett, probably in line with the von Hippels' 4 weeks as total committed time to prepare the proposal. So I'll do the math using 4 weeks for an investigator to prepare a proposal.

  2012-13 avg Investigator- years Not funded Investigator- years Guess Annual Salary Salary effort spent writing all grants Salary effort lost writing unfunded grants
The overall success rate for competing research project grants (RPGs) 0.17          
R01-equivalent grant applications 28835 2218   80,000 $177,446,154  
Success rates for R01-equivalent applications 0.18          
R01 proposals not funded 23659   1820 80,000   $145,594,569
The number of R01-equivalent awards 5169 398   80,000    
R21 grant applications. 13486 1037   80,000 $82,990,769  
Success rates for the R21 0.14          
R21 proposals not funded 11632   895 80,000   $71,579,538
The number of R21 awards 1852 142   80,000    
The total number of research grant applications received by NIH 62269 4790        
Research grants not R01 or R21 19948 1534   35,000 $53,704,808  
Awards not R01 or R21 3431 264   35,000    
Not R01 or R21 not funded 16517   1271 35,000   $44,467,581
Total salary lost writing grants per year  $314,141,731 $261,641,688

Our institutions spend around $300 million/year in investigator salaries while we write proposals to NIH (R01, R21, and other), 82% of which result in zero return as unfunded proposals (estimate $260 million in lost salary) . The numbers may be larger if my guess for average salaries is low.