Some scientists need Science Stuff (equipment) in order to do their research and train their graduate students in the techniques they may need for their careers. Science Stuff can involve zippy new machines that do new things that couldn't be done before, zippy new machines that other people have but that we want to have as well, and zippy new machines that replace similar but old/malfunctioning equipment we already have. To get Science Stuff, we write equipment proposals to programs that fund big-ticket equipment items.
When writing a proposal to acquire research equipment, it is advisable to get matching funds from one's department and other academic units (i.e., a school or college within a university). I don't know about other funding agencies, but NSF does not require matching funds (cost sharing) for some equipment proposals, but good luck getting an equipment proposal funded without them.
Cost sharing is viewed by funding agencies as a sign of "institutional commitment", and typically involves actual $$, not just the commitment to provide space for the equipment, even renovated space. Many institutions have a standard formula for how cost sharing is shared among the various academic units; i.e., so much from the department, so much from the college/school etc.
Or, I should say, many institutions used to have a standard formula for calculating cost sharing. Now the formula would look something like
(department share of matching funds) * (Dean-level share of matching funds) * zero = zero.
Matching funds are hard to come by in these days of economic crisis. It appears that NSF will have funds available for equipment, thanks in part to the economic stimulus bill, but scientists at public universities may have a hard time getting matching funds because universities are in budget-cutting mode, not cost sharing mode.
If researchers at public universities can't get matching funds, perhaps only those at financially less desperate universities will be able to write successful equipment proposals. Perhaps my public university colleagues are being pessimistic and paranoid, but the lack of matching funds may well be a reasonable concern.
Will NSF continue to require-but-not-require matching funds, or will NSF take pity on matchless researchers?
My university has been severely limiting commitments for matching funds lately, and some administrators recently suggested that only those faculty who chip in some of their own (non-grant) funds will be eligible for consideration for matching funds.
This doesn't mean that we dip into our own bank accounts and sacrifice our kids' college education in order to get more scientific equipment, but there are only a limited number of ways that we can acquire non-grant funds. Examples include funds that are:
- associated with an endowed chair (either a lifetime endowed chair or a temporary (folding) chair;
- provided by a wealthy patron;
- added to a personal research fund as part of an award for outstanding research, teaching, or service, either as a one time infusion of funds or on a recurring basis;
- added to a personal research fund as part of additional administrative duties (such as being an academic advisor) that are time-consuming enough to involve additional compensation;
- part of the microscopic amount of indirect costs that, at some institutions, trickle back to the PI's department, where a small fraction of the small fraction is put in an account for the PI to use for research-related expenses that grants are not allowed to cover but that are essential for the research;
- remaining from a start-up package. Some of my colleagues try to make their start-up funds last for many many years because of the occasional need for such non-grant funds; and
- acquired through various legal/ethical but somewhat devious means; e.g., PI salary that can be put in a different accounting category and that by doing so is designated as non-grant funds and that, if the PI chooses not to use this money for salary, can be used for research-related expenses that aren't otherwise covered.
I am feeling fortunate to be in a secure job, and the world (and my research) will certainly survive if I can't acquire more scientific equipment for a while. This post is meant only partially as a complaint about the possibility of scientists at public universities being at a disadvantage relative to colleagues at other institutions.
Mostly it is a list of the ways that we can acquire and use research funds that are not tied to a particular project. These funds have always been important, and perhaps now are becoming essential to keeping individual research programs afloat.
10 months ago