The Big Bucks

January 15, 2008

A recent reader discussion touching on scientist compensation has blown up on a prior post. Bill (no, not that Bill) and whimple have been leading the charge. To add another data point we have the current NIH Notice on Salary Limitation on Grants, etc. The money quote is as follows:

Every year since 1990 Congress has legislatively mandated a provision limiting the direct salary that an individual may receive under an NIH grant. For FY 2008, Public Law 110-161: Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 restricts the amount of direct salary to Executive Level I of the Federal Executive Pay scale. The Executive Level I annual salary rate was $186,600 for the period January 1 through December 31, 2007. Effective January 1, 2008, the Executive Level I salary level increased to $191,300.

In case translation is necessary, this means that the most annual salary that one may be paid from NIH grant/contract/etc sources is $191,300. There are two usual responses.

1) Dude, this science gig is schweeeet!

2) This is outrageous, compared to similarly educated, productive and responsible professionals this is peanuts!

There is a little truth in both of these although as you can see from the aforementioned comment thread the eye of the beholder is everything. To the struggling postdoc making under $50K per year, an upgrade to $65 as junior faculty looks pretty good. How do you see it Dear Reader?

There was also a discussion a bit ago on clarifying the usual imprecise analogy of the science lab with business. Is the PI a CEO with the postdocs as middle management? or is the typical PI really only low-middle level management her/himself?

One way we might get at this is to ask about budgetary responsibility. In the business world, what level of management oversees annual budgets of $250K (starting bid PI), $500K (good jr. ok mid-career PI), $1M (good mid-career PI) or $5M (Med-BigCheez PI)?

[Update 1/16/08: the Incoherent Ponderer has more on academic salaries, h/t Dynamics of Cats]

5 Responses to “The Big Bucks”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    “In the business world, what level of management oversees annual budgets of $250K (starting bid PI), $500K (good jr. ok mid-career PI), $1M (good mid-career PI) or $5M (Med-BigCheez PI)?”

    Oh, that is a great question! I have no idea of the answer, but I guess it depends on the size of the business. It depends whether we are talking about a newsstand, a restaurant, or Microsoft.

    Since the institutional context for a PI is a University, can we stipulate that the size of business enterprise to compare to would have a total annual budget of at least 100s of millions of dollars, and range up to several billion dollars?

    And once we do that, without knowing any of the details of the relationship between management levels and budget authority, it immediately becomes indisputable that PIs are not even close to analogous to CEOs, at least from a budgetary standpoint.


  2. bikemonkey Says:

    At BigHighFalutinStateResearchUSystem, the heads of the branch campuses are beat up extensively in the press over salaries in the lower half of six figures. This is an area where I think we can confidently say that the comparison business CEOs would at least be in the several millions, don’t you think?


  3. Bahrad Says:

    There was actually a recent case in physical sciences & engineering – the head of the nanotechnology program at SUNY-Albany getting a pay-raise to $665K, in addition to $250K he pulls in from a separate research foundation.

    there are other links to it… The argument is that he’s bringing in tens of millions in new research dollars + potentially billions in other investments. The institution got a lot of flack for this, but they pointed at CEOs of similar companies (who would get stock options, frills & other forms of compensation).


  4. PhysioProf Says:

    Do we want to start talking about football coach salaries at big-time universities? Many of them make substantially more money than the President of the university!


  5. bikemonkey Says:

    huffpo blogger Jane Smiley is apparently also some kind of author. (!)

    anyway, her novel “Moo” is a fantastic picture of small university politics including the econ prof with the big salary. worth a read if you’ve never seen it…


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