CLAS Blog

By Jeremy Teitelbaum

Insights on topics in the liberal arts and sciences and higher education, with periodic outbreaks of humor and satire. Jeremy Teitelbaum is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The Research Funding Version of “No Free Lunch”

The US Government awarded 110 million dollars to researchers at UConn (excluding the health center) in 2010.  Those funds are the lifeblood of research in behavioral sciences, life and physical sciences, and engineering at UConn.  They are used to purchase sophisticated equipment, to mount and analyze large-scale surveys, and to support the personnel — expert staff, faculty, and graduate students — who carry out research in psychology, advanced materials chemistry,  genomics, particle physics, biomedical engineering, and  many other cutting-edge fields of study.

Increasing the amount of research support that UConn obtains is a major goal of the university.  More research money translates into  more opportunities to employ scientists and support students, better research instrumentation, and ultimately into a better understanding of the natural world.  For those fields closely associated with industrial applications, more research money offers more chances to make discoveries with direct practical applications that benefit industry.  And more research increases UConn’s visibility and impact on the international  scene, leading to higher rankings of its science and engineering programs.

But research funding is by no means “free money.”  UConn’s 110 million dollars is a composite of awards ranging in size from $100,000 to a million dollars made to individual faculty members.  To receive a grant, that individual faculty member has to have an original idea that has a reasonable chance to yield truly new knowledge, and they have to convince a panel of their colleagues that their idea is so  promising that it merits funding.  Faculty members compete for those awards nationally and internationally, and in many cases, fewer than 1 in 10 proposals for funding are supported.

For those faculty members who count on a stream of federal dollars  to continue their work — and their career — the quest for funding is a constant preoccupation.  Faculty members must sustain a exceptional level of creativity and generate hard results in an intensely competitive environment. It’s hard for faculty members who don’t depend on external funding to appreciate the demands that the pursuit of federal research money puts on their colleagues who rely on that money.  It’s even harder for individuals outside of the university to appreciate what’s involved.

Along with a tendency to overlook the fact that research funding is generated by the creativity and effort of individual researchers, rather than by some kind of university or institutional program, comes a tendency to see the research funds as income.  The funds come with very specific instructions as to how they can be spent, and to a very large extent the university acts only as an agent and administrator for those funds.  While they are central to graduate education in certain fields because graduate students do much of the lab work and are often paid out of grant funds, their impact on undergraduate education is often rather indirect.

If we’re being realistic about the benefits of a major program of funded research, we also need to take into account the costs of that research.  This is one of the most poorly understood aspects of federally funded research.  To run a research program, you must build laboratories and provide heat and electricity for them.  You also have to accept the fact that you’re going to need a substantial administrative staff to keep track of the money and comply with the complicated regulations surrounding federal grant programs.  While the government does provide some funding to reimburse the university for these “indirect” costs of research, it’s never really enough.  In a subsequent blog, I plan to return to this question of costs associated with research, and talk about how those costs play into the overall budgetary calculations we have to make in running the college.

Fundamentally, it’s scientific curiosity and a competitive drive that keep faculty in the race for federal funds, and keep the funded research enterprise at UConn and other research universities moving forward.  Those are precious, if intangible qualities, and they need to be nurtured if we’re going to continue to expand our role in quest for basic scientific knowledge.