A few weeks ago I discussed my professional status as a soft-money researcher. I got a list of questions from one of my readers. I posted here today my responses to these questions since it may interest you.

1. Do you think that majority of the researchers are happy with the soft money arrangement? Even in an economic downturn?

I must admit that the majority of the researchers are unhappy with this position. Most of them want to have a tenured position or at least a tenured-track position since it provides stability and allow them to focus on their research. It is very difficult to deal with finance and management when one does not have any training. Our graduate schools prepare us to be able to understand physics and math and use it to study a problem, but it does not give us the appropriate training to deal with financial issues for instance. The soft money researchers need to learn from scratch. In my case, I was lucky to have the full support of the CfAO (NST center) for ~3 years which allowed me to learn about the grant writing and submission process, I also knew that since I am a foreigner and I am not coming from one of the 5 top US universities it will be very difficult for me to get a tenured job (let’s be realistic…), I tried like everybody else, I got a lot of different and opposite explanations about why I am not in the short-list (too young, too old, too specialized, too much science, too much instrumentation, too diverse,…), and realized that I will be more successful working out my career through the soft-money system, even if I do not discard getting a tenured job one day. I noticed that in fact people in postdoctoral position only think about their future as a tenured professor, they don’t pay attention to the grant process (even if they see their professors talking about it quite often) and don’t even consider being a soft-money researcher. As a result, when they 5-years appointment at the university as a postdoc is terminated (this is a limit which applies to most universities nowadays), they are not successful enough to be auto-sufficient by grants and give up research.

The majority of soft money researchers remain unhappy because this job is a constant “remise en question”. You need to be aware of the changes around you, be involved in the “politics” of science (e.g. future directions, major projects), deal with management issues if you have a group (nothing is worst than telling a brilliant student that s/he will have to leave because you are running out of funding. It is also very difficult to disentangle your private life from your work. One example that I use often to describe that is the following: 3 years ago a researcher wrote a grant to NSF which was successful, last year he got married and his family increased with the birth of twin. Suddenly he will have to pay as benefit the health insurance of his wife and two kids. I don’t remember the exact figure but his grant will be reduced by ~20% (I will find the numbers), meaning that he will have to work more to get new funding. Who wants to spend more time in his office when one has a major change in his family? These inconveniences can be minimized if you institution could help. For instance some of them (which has larger overhead) offer an investigator without resources to work as staff (public relation, grant review, administration and so on…), other request funding through a large program (Astrobiology, moon exploration, NSF center) which will be then used as an umbrella grant.  I will summarize this discussion saying that the majority of us think that the soft-money position is transitory.

For the moment, I did not see any effect of the economic downturn on our jobs. This is mostly because 1. the portion of private funding that I received so far is very minimal (even private funding is directly impacted by the economic state) 2. Our grants are decided 1-3 years in advance and I started writing grant in 2003 (I am spoiled most likely) 3. the Obama administration dedicated a significant part of the recovery money to science and education (see for instance the Major Research Instrumentation Program (MRI-R²) Recovery and  Reinvestment http://www.nsf.gov/od/oia/programs/mri/)

2. How do you think such an organization can enhance and strengthen its financial position ?

I think SETI Institute has been successful over almost 25 years for several reasons:

* Location, location, location. The institute is located in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Even when the state of California is in dismay, the Silicon Valley has been always a leading center for innovation, meaning that we always have around us the necessary dynamical companies  which could provide private funding but also use our research with their investment (there are currently several projects with Google and Microsoft for instance). The institute is also located nearby NASA Ames, Stanford University, and not too far from UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Cruz. The institute has several partnership projects with these institutions  (ATA with UC-Berkeley, Kepler with NASA Ames, …) which involves funding  but also manpower (several people needed for these projects were hired through SETI Institute)

* Diversity.  The SETI institution is not only focused on the search for intelligent life in our galaxy. It is composed also of the Carl Sagan Center which is less known but which hosts more than 50 Principal Investigators. This center aims at studying the prevalence of life in our Universe so the topic of research is enormous (biology, chemistry, applied physics, space engineering, mission development, astronomy, but also to a lesser extend philosophy and history). This broad topic is a good way to foster multi-disciplinary research and minimize the impact of budget cut in some specialities. I am impressed by the faculty of several PIs at the Institute to be able to master a large number of disciplines and involve as well their time in education and public outreach projects for instance.

* Staff. Finally, we have a staff at the institution composed of people who understand the need of the PIs. Since we are paid by grants and thus, we are dedicating a significant part of our time writing them, we also need an efficient staff to support this work, helping us to prepare a budget, and work efficiently to maximize our time for research. Large universities,which also have large overhead (>60%), are characterized by a more bureaucratic, and thus slow, process which is not always competitive for the grant hunters like us.

3. How can such an organization increase retention of its scientists/researchers considering the uncertainty of the soft money approach to funding?

An organization can increase retention of their researchers by developing temporary positions paid by the institution which could be part of its  administrative or public outreach. In fact, it could be useful for any researchers to be tightly involved with his/her institution administration to improve his/her visibility. An institution could also offered class/workshop to improve the success of grant writings, propose help to review them (internal review, proof-reading) and maximize collaborations within and outside by organizing workshops and meetings.

In a long term, such soft-money institutions should partner with a university to offer mix soft and hard positions. For instance a researcher with a significant part of his workload paid by a tenured position will have more opportunities to develop her/his group and  have contact with students, but he can also take advantage of the his soft-money experience to gather funding for his/her research.

4. Do you think it is a good idea for an organization such as the one you work for make a transition to a more balanced funding approach such as hard and soft money combined?

yes see point 3

5. How do you think such an organization can restructure or modify its business model to strengthen its financial position and security of its researchers? Do you think that it is a good idea to, for example, lobby to become one of the centers of excellence, say, for NSF in certain specific area so that hard money is channeled in addition to soft money?

Ideally I think that all soft-money organizations should try to get one of these large grants to be able to provide umbrella funding for its researchers but also to get a clear direction of research and maximize the involvement of the researchers. Several federal agencies offer such grant, I have in mind the  NSF center for excellence, NASA 5-yrs grant (exobiology for instance). I am pretty sure that the DOD or DOE also have them. The main difficulty here is to have a strong leadership in the institution to be able to organize the work of the PIs into this large grant program and coordinate it.

Comments (3)

  1. Great post! Very informative.

  2. Can you put some light on, “how the hard money is affected in this economic downturn?”

  3. The hard money people are also affected by the economic downturn but in a different way.
    The University professors have 10 months or more of their salary covered by their teaching requirements, so the impact on their personal life can be minimized. However their research group composed of postdoc, students and researchers are mostly paid by federal and private grants, meaning that their research will be affected. If on the top of that, the university is suffering from the economical turmoil, they will also have less resources for managing their research.
    For instance, UC-berkeley went through a drastic budget plan this year. Consequently part of our administrative staff (including our grant managers) was put in part-time with mandatory furlough (2-3 weeks per year see http://hrweb.berkeley.edu/budget/furlough-at-a-glance.pdf) and several of them were laid off. The university also reduced the amount of internal grants (support for research which involved students) and services (no phone in the office). The salary of the professor may be reduced next year and this year there is no hiring of new professors and no increase of wages.

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