See? Teaching Professors Fare Worse in Grant Review

May 25, 2012


Just like I was sayin’

it is more reasonable for the NIH to stop wasting money on Profs who are all distracted with teaching and service and nonsense and just pay straight up for services rendered. If they want to leverage, put more research into the hands of soft money faculty since their salary doesn’t scale with projects. Full time attention on NIH’s biz is more verifiable and efficient.

The latest post at Rock Talk shows the data.

HAHAHAHAHA, Actually there is a lot more likely explanation. An old one.

A HOUND having put up a Hare from a bush, chased her for some distance, but the Hare had the best of it, and got off. A Goatherd who was coming by jeered at the Hound, saying that Puss was the better runner of the two. “You forget,” rephed the Hound, “that it is one thing to be running for your dinner, and another for your life.”

(Babrius, Fable 69; Thomas James’ translation.)

No Responses Yet to “See? Teaching Professors Fare Worse in Grant Review”

  1. Dead on. Those of us who don’t teach need that soft money to have a job at all.


  2. Alex Says:

    I firmly believe that teaching does a lot to make me a thoughtful, intellectually versatile scientist, a better communicator, and a better mentor. However, I am far from convinced that teaching is the only way to achieve those ends, and I’m far from convinced that the intellectual versatility conferred by teaching will automatically make me a more productive researcher and research group leader. Teaching gives me a broader view of the field, but it doesn’t necessarily sharpen me within my specific sub-sub-field (i.e. where I’m trying to be productive) and adjacent niches (the most likely places to find the insights that will lead to the next paper).


  3. Those assholes are frittering away NIH funds because their intellects are stultified with “teaching” undergrads: i.e., yammering at them using prepackaged powerpoint gibberish and fending off entitled grade-grubbing pre-meds.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    “grade grubbing pre meds”?


  5. Dude, you don’t know what grade-grubbing pre-meds are??


  6. Yeah, I was wondering if dm was making a comment about punctuation or something. Teaching certainly had its benefits when I was a TA, but dealing with whiny undergrads (who more often than not were pre-meds) trying to get me to add a point here and a point there was not my favorite part of the deal.


  7. MediumPriority4Life Says:

    I’m impressed it is even close, soft money people should be disappointed that people that get back to grant writing after teaching class, and advising students are within a few percentage points.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    They are over represented on study section MP4L


  9. Astro prof Says:

    How I deal with grade grubbers: “oh, I am so sorry, did I make an error when I graded your paper? My apologies. Please leave your exam with me and I will be happy to regrade the whole thing tonight to make sure I did not make any other mistakes.”

    Funny, No one ever takes me up on it. I am at a loss as to what to do with all my free time now.


  10. Astro prof Says:

    But to the point of the post, I have served on panels where the PI’s status at a teaching institution was regarded as sufficient reason to not rate the proposal high on merit, I.e. to give it a lukewarm grade to make sure that people who ‘really needed’ the money got it.


  11. Jonathan Badger Says:

    I agree that it’s wrong to argue for the soft money folks just because we need it more (we have no intrinsic right to be employed) but teaching profs (especially at undergrad only schools without grad students and postdocs) do need to be realistic about the scale of research that they can perform. Being an undergrad in a lab is a wonderful learning experience and support for such teaching is important, but if the main point of the proposal is the end product of the research rather than the teaching, a team of undergrads just isn’t as competitive as one made up by grad students and postdocs. In general, at least.


  12. BTW, it is woth pointing out here that tenured and tenure-track faculty in medical schools–while expected to support a significant fraction of their salary on their grants (generally 50% to 75%)–are not “soft money”, and their institutions have a legal obligation to pay them 100% of their salaries regardless of whether they are meeting that expectation or not. There can, however, be mechanisms to reduce their salaries over time, and–of course–non-tenured faculty can be fired.

    This is in contrast to real non-tenure-track soft-money positions in which the individual only gets paid what they can support on grants.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    Interesting PP. so you are saying the medical schools have plenty of money to pay their faculty but choose not to pay them and “expect” the NIH to pick up the difference. I think we see the REAL problem now!


  14. dsks Says:

    “Being an undergrad in a lab is a wonderful learning experience and support for such teaching is important, but if the main point of the proposal is the end product of the research rather than the teaching, a team of undergrads just isn’t as competitive as one made up by grad students and postdocs. In general, at least.”

    Agreed. And I think the idea of separating out this kind of research via the R15 mechanism is a good one (although you can still fund graduate students on those).

    Of course, the question is whether the dollars going towards area grants wouldn’t be more efficiently allocated to 100% research labs (soft money or otherwise), especially when times are tough and some labs are struggling to keep their doors open. There’s certainly a case to be made for that based on DM’s efficiency argument, although selfishly I hope it doesn’t gain traction at the NIH any time soon, or I’m in trouble.


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    We are not just discussing PUI science but also the traditional academic department faculty at larger, middle tier (and even some top tier) Universities. Places where professors still profess and have at max a single-R01 lab going on.


  16. occamseraser Says:


    100% salary is guaranteed at my med school for new tenure-track basic scientists for only the first 3 years — then you must recover 50% via grant dollars or suffer a 50% loss of salary. There is no legal obligation to cover 100% indefinitely. Lose your RO1 and you’re screwed.


  17. drugmonkey Says:


    No worries. The only reason I even bring this up is that it is about the only major change in this area that *isn’t* ever put on the table.


  18. Astro prof Says:

    Regarding “needing it” or not… As a prof at a Teaching institution, I can attest that we also “need” the funds because our tenure depends on our ability to conduct research. Tenure and promotion decisions rise and fall almost exclusively on scholarship these days, even though my big urban Non-PhD granting public university has a policy that obtaining external funding can not be a determining factor. But how do you do research without funds?

    That said, I wish I were not forced to compete with full time researchers for funds. (i say this as someone who has been quite successful at obtaining funds despite my circumstances.) My solution to this problem would be to have full disclosure from both ends: the university must state what the faculty teaching load is (where I am, it is 12 units) and how many of those units the university will release for research (in my case, zero). The funding agencies must then state their willingness to fund PI’s who are given little or no time for research from their home institutions.

    My hope is that such an openness would put pressure on universities to get real about teaching loads and research expectations, and for PI’s to not waste their time applying to programs that have no intention of funding them based on presumptions of what their teaching load is.

    My fear is that perhaps there really is no such thing as the Easter bunny. Don’t break my heart, people.


  19. Ass(isstant) Prof Says:

    But to the point of the post, I have served on panels where the PI’s status at a teaching institution was regarded as sufficient reason to not rate the proposal high on merit, I.e. to give it a lukewarm grade to make sure that people who ‘really needed’ the money got it.”

    I had suspected as much, but didn’t really want to believe it’s true. One might remember that at the “Higher education” institutions indicated at the blue line above, the University only commits 75% salary. So the investigator is on the hook for 25%. Or, he/she has the option of not getting paid for the summer. You can’t choose to not work for three months, as it would be impossible to meet research productivity requirements.

    Maybe productivity is higher at BIGMedResearchU because PIs there spend less time writing for each grant awarded, since they really need it. Oh, and they get props for just being at the Institute for Soft Money Acquisition.

    DM does make an argument about efficiency, but the graph above may be a simple indication of bias. Without an actual measure of productivity/NIH$ at StateU vs. Soft Money, it’s not possible to draw any real conclusions. It sounds like an argument to be biased against PIs who teach just because they do, or because they are *not like us.*


  20. Pamiam Says:

    I am one of those teachey-professy types, doing research because it’s expected of me and because it’s intrinsically interesting and fun. I agree that giving us money to perform research with a heard of grade-grubby premeds is not the most effective way to get answers. However, us teachey-professy types also train in our labs undergrads who go on to graduate school (albeit at a low rate). Would it be better to yank all of our funds and then tell undergrads who want to go to grad school to figure out how get a research experience on their own? Or is giving the undergrad profs some money to help train the next generation of docs and scientists a better idea? Or, is there another way?


  21. drugmonkey Says:

    As I alluded to, there is a diversity of employment “type” on study section. I served on a panel that was very balanced. And while I didn’t hear much busting on people for being too small, or for having high teaching loads, there was sometimes a touch of “that PI has too much” when, IMO, it was expected value for that soft-money person.

    The biases go both (all) ways. How could they not? I like the solution of balance and competing bias because I believe the diversity of PI type is good for science.

    My real point here is that pointing to “that guy over there” as the type to be targeted for de-funding or pushing out of the system is likely a bad way to go. I tend to think we need across-the-board shrinkage.


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    ” Institute for Soft Money Acquisition.”

    Hahahaahaha. Perfect.


  23. Eli Rabett Says:

    Practice birth control. Limit the number of PhD students a faculty member can graduate in a career if you are serious, the one faculty one PhD program is the only way out of the mess you have made for yourselves, otherwise you fucked yourselves and enjoy it very much.


  24. Astro prof Says:

    Quite ignorant to assume that all people with PhDs generate more people with PhDs.

    Many of us with PhDs do not generate any new PhD’s at all. this would include all professors at institutions with a terminal degree of BS or MS.

    About half of new PhDs go to citizens of countries other than the US. Many of them move back to their home countries.

    A lot of people take non academic jobs.



  25. Alex Says:

    It just occurred to me that data on funding success rates tells us little or nothing about the merits and outcomes of the projects that are funded from different types of institutions. If the folks in the College of Arts and Sciences don’t generate as many fundable proposals that fall within the mission of the funding agency, then don’t fund as many of them. However, that says little/nothing about whether the funded folks in the College of Arts and Sciences are being just as productive as their colleagues on the Health Sciences Campus.

    I take it as a given that, say, a neuroscientist sitting down the hall from other biomed folks will be exposed to different influences and inspirations than a neuroscientist sitting down the hall from a plant biologist or even a sociologist (for the one who winds up in the Psychology Department in the Division of Social Sciences). If the neuroscientist having lunch with the botanist winds up generating fewer ideas suitable for NIH, then NIH can, should, and evidently will fund fewer of his proposals. This tells us absolutely nothing about the merits and productivity of whatever project of his does get funded by NIH. It might be worse. It might be just as good. In some cases it might even be better, if those lunches with people in other fields lead to something truly novel.

    It isn’t obvious to me that spending time teaching undergrads always leads to less productivity in research. Remember, there’s a big difference between the teaching load of a professor in the Biology Department of an R1 and a professor in the Biology Department of a SLAC or Regional State University. (Think CSU vs UC.) And a Biology Professor at an R1 still has PhD students and whatnot.


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    Astro P-

    You don’t think a professor at a PUI has to take responsibility for the stream of undergrads she pumped into the system?


  27. Alex Says:

    You don’t think a professor at a PUI has to take responsibility for the stream of undergrads she pumped into the system?

    Well, I try to do everything I can to sell undergrads on non-academic careers. Even to the point where every month I drag a bunch of them to a meeting of a local scientific association that’s mostly industry folks.

    But you raise an interesting points: Funding agencies are happy when we tell them about undergrads who went to some sort of graduate or professional program after doing research with us. If an undergrad works with me, develops a bunch of technical skills, and then goes and gets a Real Job, that isn’t seen as a success in the same way as the one that I send to a PhD program. NSF will be OK if I send the student to get an MS in Science Education and teach in a high school, but the PhD is the Big Prize. So the funding agencies are incentivizing us to help with the problem.


  28. Pamiam Says:

    You don’t think a professor at a PUI has to take responsibility for the stream of undergrads she pumped into the system?

    Great question. I do take my training role very seriously. I have had two students go on to graduate school out of the 70+ students I have mentored in the lab since 2000. One dropped out and is working at J&J now and the other just started, so it it too early to tell where she’ll end up.

    What happened to the others? Many of them figured out early labwork can be tedious, isolating, and frustrating and went on to other things, including teaching and social work. I am glad that they learned something during their time in my lab about themselves and chose wisely.

    Others were pre-professional to begin with. Even though they may become a “human healthcare maintenance technologist” (as I like to call them) we undergrad profs still have an obligation to teach them the scientific method and the difference between good and bad science, since these medical professionals should be reading the literature and figuring out the merits of treatments. Some may even be involved as professionals in research projects.

    Is my role in the research enterprise important enough to merit national funding? That’s an important question I don’t think anyone has quite sorted out yet. We used to get money through MARC and Bridges (NIH) for training. Both MARC and Bridges were restructured to require all participants to go on to grad school in order to be considered a successful program and so our programs were not considered successful. I also didn’t want to be a part of that spurious notion, and so stopped submitting. Now I collaborate on an R15 and with a fellow who has Thorne Foundation money, as well as receive some money through my institution.

    Alex is correct. So the funding agencies are incentivizing us to help with the problem. Should faculty who mentor undergrads who don’t go on to grad school be given federal dollars? I am not sure the answer to that. I’d like to think yes, as I am training your future physician to be able to read and contribute to the literature of health care research. But, perhaps I am mistaken.


  29. miko Says:

    I have a few questions on fundamentals:

    – What is the point of funding research at PUIs? If we agree that it is poor efficiency science and that we actually need fewer people getting PhDs…? I always considered undergrad science degrees kind of a basic science literacy designation. The weird smattering of lab skills you might pick up are not that big a deal when you get to grad school — everything is new. If we’re just doing it because it looks good on med school applications, fuck it, right? That said, the undergrad poster session at SfN is my favorite one. Doesn’t mean it’s worth it.

    – Is the funding that goes to PUIs a remotely significant proportion of total NIH funding? i.e., is there any point to even having an opinion about this, or is “PUI funding is wasteful/essential” the “pitbulls are killing everyone” of NIH worries?


  30. miko Says:

    OK, Pamiam answered my first question as I wrote it.


  31. drugmonkey Says:

    There’s a PI doing research at a PUI that is front and center for one of my current interests. Fwiw.


  32. drugmonkey Says:

    IME, R15 apps that relate how many undergrads go on to PHDs do very well with explicit mention of this factor.


  33. Dave Says:

    Physioprof is correct, but in the med school where I am the tenure-track position is all but extinct (I don’t know a single person on TT), and the tenured faculty are a dying breed (literally!). The real soft-money position completely dominates our med school and we are expected to pay 100% of our salary. Tenure means little anyway so most people don’t even bother trying to get on TT. It might buy you a year or two when grants dry up, but that is about it. You will still get pushed out just the same. Sad state of affairs really. But it is a truly frightening experience not knowing whether you will have a job year after year, and I think this partly explains the NIH grant success rate. Your livelihood really does depend on it and you have to submit multiple grants just to stay alive.

    But it is interesting though because the basic sciences departments are reaaaaaaly hurting on our campus, but the med school guys are doing alright. The reason I think is that we are a little better at getting money from non-NIH sources………..perhaps.


  34. miko Says:

    “IME, R15 apps that relate how many undergrads go on to PHDs do very well with explicit mention of this factor.”

    yeah, that’s the part I don’t get. Why reward PUIs for producing PhD students? Is there are principled reason, or just like “i haz phd, every1 should want phd”?


  35. drugmonkey Says:

    I suspect the world just never thought hard about it miko.

    Because if that isn’t true then we’d be left with a cynical labor ploy to ensure the NIH gets its work done at half price.


  36. Alex Says:

    NSF is the same way. They loooooooove hearing that you sent an undergrad to grad school. They might be OK if your student goes on to a job in k-12 teaching or a science museum or outreach or something (remember, NSF has the Broader Impact thing going on) but they loooooove if you send your undergrad researcher to grad school.


  37. Joe Says:

    Those of us at medical schools are having to teach more. State budgets are going down, so there is less money to pay teaching faculty and more tenure-track or tenured faculty are having to do more teaching. Those who are not getting significant external funding are, of course, doing a lot of teaching. However, we all get paid our full salaries whether we have have grants or not.


  38. AcademicLurker Says:

    it is more reasonable for the NIH to stop wasting money on Profs who are all distracted with teaching and service and nonsense and just pay straight up for services rendered.

    I’m not sure the graph addresses what I take to be your original point.

    Shouldn’t a comparison of productivity in papers/dollar between Med. School based vs Arts & Sciences based PIs be the real test?


  39. drugmonkey Says:

    It is a lot more competitive to get a grant funded than a paper published AL.


  40. AcademicLurker Says:

    But what NIH wants for it’s money, in the end, is research. That is, new knowledge.

    That’s why they measure productivity in papers published, not additional grant applications funded.


  41. DJMH Says:

    If there’s no point in having any overlap between research PIs and teaching professors, since it’s such a waste of grant $$, then aren’t you saying all undergrads should go to PUIs, DM? And all grad schools should be like UCSF, no undergrads allowed?


  42. drugmonkey Says:

    aren’t you saying all undergrads should go to PUIs, DM? And all grad schools should be like UCSF, no undergrads allowed?

    I didn’t say that but I’d be more than half way on board if someone were to advance the argument. Sure.

    I was frankly shocked when I arrived at a larg-ish, research focused-ish University for grad school and discovered how absolutely abysmal the undergraduate education was due to the incentives for the professors being one hundred percent against being good at teaching. Along the line I had the opportunity to teach some classes as the local community college level and that really compares quite favorably for the first couple of years worth of intro classes in a given major. (or, my line of -ology anyway)


  43. Alex Says:

    DM, I don’t disagree with you on the incentives faced by many R1 faculty. OTOH, 2 things prevent me from jumping completely on-board with a complete separation of graduate and undergraduate education:
    1) The opportunity to be involved in research as an undergrad is incredibly valuable. This won’t work for every student and every lab, but when it works, OMFG, it works. I was a nerdy kid who was allowed into a research lab the first week of my freshman year, and over 4 years I worked in 2 very different cutting-edge labs. One of those resulted in a co-authorship, the other group was mostly focused on delivering data to the agencies that contracted with them, but the CV was not the main outcome of this for me. Being in a lab, seeing what real science is, learning how academic science works, interacting with grad students as colleagues rather than just TAs, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

    I’ll be the first to defend some of the research going on in undergraduate-focused institutions, and I can point to the cutting-edge things that my students do, the awards they get, the places they’ve published, but at the same time I know that not everybody in PUI world has strength in that. And for some fields and sub-fields and for some types of research, the only way to see it is to be at an R1. I’ve carved out a niche where I can be very productive in a PUI, but different strokes for different folks.

    2) I look at what I do with my 12 unit teaching load, and what some of my R1 colleagues do with their 4 unit loads. You’re right that some of them don’t do much, but there are others for whom 1/3 as many courses means 1/2 as much time, i.e. the time per course goes up.

    Show me a model that keeps those research lab opportunities available to undergrads (for more than just 8-10 weeks per summer) and keeps the teaching opportunities open for people who are good at juggling research and teaching and enjoy doing so, and I’m in.


  44. drugmonkey Says:

    Show me a model that keeps those research lab opportunities available to undergrads

    first two undergraduate years at PUIs, then application for the second two years at University.

    I don’t know what to do about the pre-meds but….I don’t care much about them.


  45. becca Says:

    DM- when you look for grad students, do you actively recruit people who started at CCs and then moved on to a 4 year research oriented school? Or do you allow admissions committees to prize “substantial lab experience” (i.e. staying in one lab for 3-4 years; which is simply not possible for those starting at CCs without unusual personal connections)?


  46. drugmonkey Says:

    I don’t “look for grad students”. All y’all “pipeline” people have convinced me we shouldn’t be training any more PHDs for quite some time.


  47. Alex Says:

    I don’t know what to do about the pre-meds but….I don’t care much about them.

    Words to live by! 🙂


  48. […] Brazilian ants are fiesty! Insect swarms near streetlights contain more predators and scavengers See? Teaching Professors Fare Worse in Grant Review Does Dawkins understand group […]


  49. Dave Says:

    It has been said several times above that faculty at teaching (and I am combining undergrad only and larger academic PhD granting universities) are less productive and are wasting NIH money. We have seen no evidence that it is true and I suspect it is totally false. If you are using undergrads in your research, you are getting free hands. Grad students who teach part of the time are cheaper than technicians. Also, having been in both large well funded labs and poor, academic labs, I can tell you for certain that the wasting of money by big well funded labs is a huge problem whereas the small academic labs tend to be extremely frugal. So if any one ever put together a stat on papers per dollar, I would be shocked if small academic labs did not win easily. Now, I admit that if you factor in the impact factors, it might shift the results, but I don’t happen to subscribe to impact factors as a reliable indicator of research quality.


  50. Drugmonkey Says:

    Scientific *progress* is not necessarily defined by papers published per dollar of grant funding, Dave.


  51. Clay Says:

    The discussion of whether “soft money profs” deserve the money more than “teaching profs” is disconcerting. There’s great research going on at research institutes, medical schools, and yes, academic universities. It seems that we’re arguing amongst ourselves because of the shrinking pool of money. If funding rates were higher, then this wouldn’t be an issue.


  52. Dave Says:

    Drugmonkey- I don’t disagree, but finding a workable definition of “progress” is challenging. I don’t know one that is useful. I don’t think you could argue that research done at medical school/soft money environments is necessarily more progressive than that done at other environments. There is lots of derivative work done in both places and likely as much innovative. Lets face it, most of what is published is not ground breaking, but small steps toward better understanding. No one environment has a monopoly on that. We all know of many small stories that over time led to breakthroughs and new directions that were not obvious or intended. Who would fund work on esoteric things like restriction enzymes in todays funding climate? Who would fund understanding glowing jellyfish? Neither required huge amounts of money or huge research teams. Totally obscure that such work would be of earth shattering consequence 20 years later.


  53. Drugmonkey Says:

    For some reason I never see these comments for diversity raised over at Rock Talk when the knives are out for the big labs, high overhead institutions and soft money researchers, Clay and Dave. interesting.


  54. miko Says:

    First ones up against the wall are always pointing at the second.


  55. multitasker Says:

    It isn’t clear to me what drugmonkey is complaining about…that tenure track faculty at institutions with undergrads do mediocre research and waste NIH money? From my perspective (research at 3 different Big 10 med schools, 1 small east coast undergrad college and 1 medium sized state med school), the more money a lab has, the more it wastes. The most efficient research is done in the 1 – 2 R01 labs with a mix of PhD students and postdocs (maybe a couple of GOOD undergrads) in a group that has a couple of PIs working synergistically on complementary projects and not back-stabbing each other to suck up more dollars than needed to inflate already over-sized egos and attend more international meetings with other similar folk. papers/$ IS important as is accountability for every $ spent/wasted to “spend out” a grant


  56. drugmonkey Says:

    the more money a lab has, the more it wastes

    This is in the eye of the beholder.

    There is an argument to be made that a lot of “just fucking around in the lab” science is both wasteful (not everything turns out to be interesting or productive) and simultaneously the most productive because it has the chance of high-payoff, unexpected stuff.

    A related argument is that the “efficient” yet pedestrian, me-too, small potatoes research is ultimately inefficient because the actual scientific advance is of limited scope.


  57. drugmonkey Says:

    This is about the point in a thread like this (actually a series of posts and threads) where I wonder whether I need to ask if I’ve actually overestimated the smarts of my usually astute commenters and readers?

    Is the actual point of this whole line of attack from me going over everyone’s head?

    (as a hint to the recent or casual reader, the arguments that are advanced by Your Humble Narrator on blog are not necessarily the arguments that he personally finds to be the most convincing as a reaction to the NIH funding crisis we find ourselves in.)


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