The Pirate Stronghold Strategy

December 16, 2016

Being a pirate probably really sucked.

Your odds of profiting from a raid were dodgy. Some of the victims fought back. The authorities might show up. Don’t even start with me about the storms.

If you were a pirate captain….whooo. Do you know how hard it is to get good help? How expensive to refit and provision a ship? And where do you store your money so that you don’t lose it and can afford to pay crew if the raid didn’t go well this time?

Especially when you are constantly on the run?

Wouldn’t it be great to have a place to go? Wouldn’t have to be fancy. Just some basic support to help you refit the ship, provision it and hire crew for your next raid on the coastal settlements.

This is what NIGMS has been doing with their strategy of getting sustenance grant funding to as many of their people as possible. Keep lots of privateer crews, sorry, labs, alive…but just barely. Then you know they will launch raids on the other ICs to bring in their booty. Which they will spend a lot of back at the pirate stronghold.

24 Responses to “The Pirate Stronghold Strategy”

  1. OlympiasEpiriot Says:

    Just need to point out that most pirate ships were more like a democratic corporation. Loot was shared (not paid) and frequently ships officers were voted in.


  2. MorganPhD Says:

    I had a conversation with a senior faculty mentor yesterday. I asked “how many labs in our department could run on $100K/yr”. The answer of course is all of them, because we are a hard money department. 100K pays for 2 grad students, some summer undergrads, and supplies. So a single modular R01 from NIGMS sounds great.

    But if you need to bring 50-100K to the table for your salary, things get dicey on one grant.

    Yes, NIGMS and the NIH as a whole might be late to the party (or arriving at the wrong one altogether) but they are only partially to blame. Universities should contribute more salary and faculty should teach more (or at all).


  3. lazybratsche Says:


    Tangential question: how much does a grad student cost, anyways?

    I’m at an expensive private university, and every year get a letter stating that I’m getting $75k in total support, including tuition and stipend. If that’s true, then the $100k per year would just cover one grad student and supplies. But given what I can infer from my lab’s (distressingly opaque) finances, I can’t see how the grants we have can cover all the grad students at that price.

    How much money actually comes out of a PI’s grant for tuition and expenses for a grad student?


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    MPhD- so are they? Do they write their grants for $100k per year? If not, sounds like we’ve found the RealProblem™.


  5. Laffer Says:

    I think I pay around $38K for each grad student on 12 months support: $30K stipend, $2K for health insurance, and ~$6K tuition.


  6. qaz Says:

    DM – That’s the real Pirate Stronghold – the University is supposed to provide a base of salary and support (TAships) so that faculty could go out and get loot to bring back to the stronghold. (This was the original structure when the system was built.)


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    Fair point qaz


  8. MorganPhD Says:

    Our students are on TAships until their 3rd year, when they switch to 1 credit hour of tuition. So, the university pays tuition and stipend during TA period in exchange for grading and teaching labs. At year 3, the lab picks up the stipend at 21K and 1 credit of tuition. Students are state employees and state covers health benefits.

    And yes, the average lab is getting about $100K/yr support, through a combo of state, federal, and charity-type awards. Uni admin obviously want R01 for pretenure faculty. R15 type costs would work, but the 3 year grant period is quite short.

    Didn’t you (Drugmonkey) have a thread going previously where someone discussed asking for less $$$/year on an R01 mech. I think reviewers would be dubious. Gotta look to see how many peeps are asking for and getting $100K direct.

    I like the NIGMS MIRA program overall but in that case I agree with you. MIRA awardees are just going to go to the most relevant other IC for additional $$$, this not really solving the problem.


  9. JL Says:

    Here grad students are slightly over $53k/year not including any expenses or supplies, so $100k/year covers one.

    However, this has to do with this being a medical school. Grad students here get their degrees from basic science departments, which charge profs from the medical school through the nose for the privilege. Students are required to TA in the basic science dept, but not paid a dime. So, the school of medicine ends up subsidizing the basic science depts through inflated tuition, providing TAs for free and other advantages. It’s a really good deal for the basic science depts to squeeze NIH money out of the profs from the med school who have to get the grants.

    Qaz, I agree, that’s your pirate stronghold.


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    Pretty good argument to stop using grad student labor.


  11. JL Says:

    DM, we are expected (read required) to have grad students for tenure and promotion.


  12. dnadrinker Says:

    Qaz, I was talking to an oldtimer in my department. He said each faculty member used to be guaranteed two TAs and half a secretary in the old days. This is at a big state university.


  13. Yizmo Gizmo Says:

    You might have been referring to my comment when I said a PI at USC
    offered about 1/2 the NIH standard to me as postdoc salary because his foreign
    post-docs made that much. That was supposed to be the starting amount
    until his next grant came through but by that time I didn’t really believe anything he
    said after all the smoke he was blowing, and the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo going on in his shifty department.


  14. AcademicLurker Says:

    a PI at USC offered about 1/2 the NIH standard to me as postdoc salary because his foreign post-docs made that much.

    Because of shenanigans like this, my department requires that the chair sign off on every postdoc offer letter. The policy was adopted before I arrived, but I got to hear some pretty hair raising stories of PI exploitation of foreign postdocs from back in the old days.


  15. jojo Says:

    Are people really so strongly against the traditional model of faculty being guaranteed a 9 mo salary and a grad student to keep their labs going? In some parts of biology (the traditionally less well funded parts I might add) it’s absolutely possible to produce science at a slow and steady rate on that model. If you need reagents, write tiny grants to various agencies to fill the gaps, scrimp and save, make your own stuff, etc.

    Though from what I hear especially from vertebrate people I guess you can’t run on that measly amount of support anyway because your experiments are too expensive. So maybe that’s where the disconnect is?


  16. SidVic Says:

    Ahem, so we pirates now? When do we get to raise the black flag and start slittin throats?


  17. drugmonkey Says:

    jojo- The vast majority of the progress in my subfields of closest interest has been made by people with very minimal to non-existent teaching loads. Often with large %soft money, particularly more recently. We have some great and uniquely contributing folks in more traditional appointments as well. They are super valued. But the highest volume and many of the most leading lights are essentially full-time grant funded folks. This informs my perspective on what the NIH is purchasing and what is necessary to efficiently produce that product over the long haul.


  18. jmz4 Says:

    “Are people really so strongly against the traditional model of faculty being guaranteed a 9 mo salary and a grad student to keep their labs going?”
    -The traditional model is the PI actually doing benchwork and getting a small subsidy from the university to run a lab.

    ” The vast majority of the progress in my subfields of closest interest has been made by people with very minimal to non-existent teaching loads. Often with large %soft money, particularly more recently.”
    -Is your argument they’re more capable, more motivated, or that they have more time to devote to research? It seems like the latter, so we should be able to compare comparably situated people, but with the variable of hard vs. soft money support, no?

    Cause the cynical argument is that they’re making shitte up to ensure they can draw a salary next year.


  19. EPJ Says:


    do you think the average lab can be supported by 100k/year? are you referring to a one person/PI lab or maybe even 2 persons/lab?


    what is the percentage of funding for intramural and extramural relative to the whole science budget? and what about the % of funding for science relative to that for the nation?


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    The NIH bill runs around $100 a person.


  21. drugmonkey Says:

    jmz4- I am assuming that the time and resource differential led to this reality. I know tons of folks with higher traditional academic loads that would have been even more productive as soft money scientists. And vice versa. It’s about the job category not the individual.


  22. MorganPhD Says:

    I’m not saying ALL labs can be funded for $100K, and in fact, it’s nearly impossible for soft-money faculty to run a lab at that funding level. But there are many labs that would be very happy to consistently have $100K/yr to run their lab.

    Drugmonkey has consistently brought this point up: consistency is perhaps better than having boom-or-bust or lapses in funding. When you’re churning grants, you are probably not doing as much benchwork, manuscript writing, or mentoring as you should be. This is (somewhat) the idea of the NIGMS MIRA approach. Make it easier to renew in exchange for not asking for more $$$. I think that’s fair. Whether that pans out is another story.

    For example, I COULD run my lab on $100K/yr, but the reality is that there are almost no funding mechanisms that exist to ask/receive that kind of money in a consistent fashion. Also, as a pretenure faculty, I need to get grants now to show my value.

    The R15 is good, but the 3 year funding mechanism is short and is only available to certain universities. So I’ll ask for an R01 at around $250K/yr, and if I’m lucky, it’ll be cut to $175K and 4 years at NIGMS. For that extra money, I can now have a technician in addition to my 2-3 grad students.

    I’m not for or against any one funding method for PI’s (hard vs. soft money). I think there needs to be a good balance, and certainly, the shift towards low-investment (for salary) on PI’s by universities as stressed the system in many respects. As has increased reliance on grad student labor and pumping out more and more PhD grads.

    By the way, I’d love an FOIA request for the total % of grant $ spent on PI salary across the NIH grant kingdom.


  23. EPJ Says:

    Hi Morgan,

    the situation is very frustrating for Science when it comes to money, and other issues. Particularly after all the effort that involves going through the many steps to do research with supposedly more independence and of benefit for the Universities.

    Agree that a steady source of $ would provide the mental relief for what is needed to compete for the gold standard grants. And it would give continuity to the ongoing work as long as no more fancy/unique supplies and equipment are needed.

    I wish you success, and by all criteria.


  24. Ola Says:

    Off topic I know, but there was an older version of this tale about how much it sucks to be a burglar. You have to work odd hours, always getting cut by broken glass, no guarantee of getting paid, or even what you might get paid in. You might get shot at, no healthcare or other benefits, have to work outside in shitty weather. If you get caught you could go to jail, and of course you can never tell your kids or friends or family what you do for a living, &c.

    I do agree with NIGMS comment tho’. I have half of a multi-PI R01 from them, and the science on that project is constantly being subsidized by my awards from other ICs. And the NIGMS program officers are picky as hell. They’re the only ones who always ask follow up questions about the RPPR every single time. So yeah, what the DM says is true – GM is mooching off the rest of NIH.


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