Tuesday, February 17, 2009


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.


quietandsmalladventures said...

you forgot bake sale and/or carwash!! :) just kidding, we toss that one around every couple of months, thoguh it might get really seriously thought about when the thermocycler finally kicks it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this timely post - my own department is trying to sort out the whole process of indirects and surviving on a shoe-string budget. Which means more of us kicking in for things that are typically dept/college level costs. And finding funds that are ok to do that with. I'm fortunate (?) to be in the early start up stage where I have plenty of restriction-free funds. But, I have no grant funds yet and given everything going on.. it isn't pretty. So, while I have those funds, I'm definitely trying to hold on to them as long as I can - while still using them to do research enough to get a grant. The cycle apparently never ends!

John Vidale said...

Just so.

The only comment I can think of to add:

In my field, the most critical equipment, seismometers and some of the big computers, are now centralized and funded separately by NSF - actually they have been so for a decade or so - so matching funds are not so necessary for most seismologists.

We used to use matching funds in applying to NSF for our research group's computer network, but now computers are so cheap it's hardly worth the trouble.

Anonymous said...

Science funding is so broken...the entire higher education system would collapse without NSF and NIH. People have no idea. Did you see this article?


Kim said...

Bake sale! That's it! (Our ICP broke last fall, and we don't have the money to pay the technician to drive seven hours each way and mess with it until it works again. It's not old enough to be broken, and we've only just started using it for all the cool transforming-education stuff we promised to do in the education grant that bought it. Really, we need to do some major fund-raising with alums and build up an equipment-repair budget, but this isn't a good time to expect people to send us lots of money.)

John Vidale said...

a contrarian view:

Another way to view the problem is the sacrosanct nature of tenure-track positions.

When budgets must contract, the only place to cut in the colleges of art and sciences are the matching funds, initiatives, temporary teaching faculty, and TAs.

If 80% of the budget can never be fired and rarely given a pay cut or furlough, then even 10% fiscal shortages are automatically a crisis.

The move to non-tenured teachers is the natural reaction, and one would allow administrators the freedom to retain some matching funds and other flexibility, even in hard times.

"The entire educational system" would not collapse without NSF and NIH, rather the fields that grow primarily in proportion to their overhead would suffer - I suspect most touchstones of a liberal education, such as humanities, music, and arts, would not miss NSF+NIH so much.

Which doesn't help us with the current budget shortfalls, but I feel more fortunate to have a secure job than lament the matching funds I won't get this year (and next).

Ms.PhD said...

a very informative post on a topic nobody told me about when I was a student.

And timely. I just had a long chat with a professor in my department about where does all the overhead go, and specifically what institutional commitment actually means (and more specifically, why postdocs can't ever get any).

The whole "trickle back to the department" thing is especially interesting now, when all the leaking in the money pipeline is even more obvious. The faculty blame the administration and the students who can't afford to pay enough tuition. The postdocs blame PIs who have no clue how to manage the money they do have, and NIH who gives it to them whether they need it or not, and then it gets wasted on replacing stuff instead of paying for maintenance contracts... except one of the other unknown loopholes is, apparently, depreciation costs and how most universities and funding agencies won't cover any of that, even though it would be cheaper for everyone... maybe you could blog about depreciation next?

Professor Staff said...

I know this is a late comment, but I'm surprised nobody posted this.


The above link is a draft report by the National Science Board (who play a strong role in setting NSF priorities and policy directions) on cost sharing. They recommend eliminating (effectively prohibiting) _voluntary_ (i.e. not required) cost-sharing on grant proposals where it is not required. They also recommend putting strict limits on the # programs with mandatory cost sharing.