Hijacked by an External Funding Mentality

The increasingly intense pressure on faculty members to get federal grants has produced many undesirable consequences in higher education, argue Gordon G. Gallup Jr. and Bruce B. Svare.

July 25, 2016

Universities used to compete for intellectual status and visibility. But because of a growing reliance on federal grants, awards from private foundations, alumni donations, tuition, student fees, tax revenues and proceeds from athletics, a focus on revenue generation has come to pervade the daily operations of higher education institutions.

A disturbing corollary to this trend is that, when it comes to program development and resource allocations, decisions that affect academic matters are increasingly being made on the basis of a parallel, trickle-down, “what’s the return on the investment?” mentality. And more and more frequently, those returns are being measured in dollars and cents rather than good teaching, scholarly achievements, national prominence and academic excellence.

Indeed, higher education institutions often compare themselves based on the aggregate value of their funded research projects and their endowments. A growing number of institutions have been able to amass so much money their externally funded research projects are measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and their endowments are measured in the billions. Rather than being a question of having enough funds to run the university and develop a monetary reserve as a cushion for a rainy day, it has almost become one of funding for the sake of funding. Witness all of the successful fund-raising campaigns undertaken to generate millions of dollars in donations, only to be followed a year or two later by new funding drives with even more ambitious goals. Many universities have large offices with professionals whose sole purpose is to raise funds, get grants and invest existing funds to generate more funds.

In a similar vein, success among administrators nowadays is often measured in terms of their ability to garner additional financial support for the university from legislators, alumni, industry and philanthropic organizations. Predictably, this mind-set has meant that faculty members are increasingly evaluated based on their ability to secure externally funded research grants. Advertisements for faculty openings often feature the ability to obtain external funding as one of the principal criteria upon which prospective candidates will be screened, evaluated and eventually hired. These days it is not uncommon for professors to wear their external funding on their academic lapels; they prominently feature their grants (past and present, along with those planned, pending and under review) on their résumés.

Although lip service is still paid to traditional academic values, decisions at many universities about hiring, term renewal, promotion, tenure, posttenure review, merit salary increases and performance-based salary adjustments have come to emphasize individual differences in the ability to attract external funding. Importantly, among grants obtained by faculty members, those that bring in overhead are given the highest priority. We know of a recent case at a university where the provost denied tenure and promotion to a candidate who had a distinguished record of research and teaching that rivaled those of many full professors in the candidate’s department, and the candidate had secured lots of private foundation money. However, the scarcity of federal funding with overhead was given as the reason for recommending against promotion and tenure. Clearly, as federal funding diminishes, continued pressure to bring in overhead money becomes unrealistic at best and counterproductive at worst.

Thus, getting grants has eclipsed the old refrain of “publish or perish.” Whereas it still may be true that deans can count but not read, nowadays they count the number of grants and add up the overhead generated rather than the number of publications. Should faculty members be judged on the basis of what they do or how many grants they bring in? At many universities, endowed chairs, along with named and distinguished professorships, are about external funding, not distinguished records of creative research. Titled professorships are being bought and sold on the basis of extramural support.

Research that answers significant questions or opens up new perspectives is not always proportional to funding. No one has ever been awarded a Nobel prize or a Fulbright scholarship based on the dollar value of their grant and contract support. But given the growing emphasis on funding in many quarters as the sine qua non of academic achievement, we may reach the point where faculty members’ obituaries will read along the lines of, “Professor X didn’t leave much of an intellectual legacy, but he/she sure brought in a lot of grant money.”

In spite of the fact that published research does far more to enhance the reputation of a department and a university than grant money, administrators continue to cling to grant dollars as the single most important criteria for decision making. This obsession is at odds with the formulas used by leading university ranking systems, such as The Times Higher Education World Ranking System, which weighs teaching, research and impact (citations) far above external funding.

In their undaunted effort to improve the bottom line, some administrations have taken the position that if the research is not funded, then it probably is not worth doing. We knew a vice president for research at a major university who maintained that if you were working on research where it was difficult to get grants (either because there was a lot of competition or not much funding), then you should seriously consider changing your interests. This is tantamount to saying that: 1) your work is only important to the extent that it brings in extramural support and 2) the purpose of doing research is to secure funding. The obvious danger in this approach is not only that it undercuts academic freedom and stifles creativity, but it also is equivalent to letting the bureaucrats who hold the purse strings in Washington dictate your priorities and define what is important. Academic freedom is the opportunity to pursue questions because they are interesting -- not because they are fundable or politically correct.

The intense pressure on faculty members to get federal grants has produced many undesirable consequences. Because of its hypercompetitive nature (less than 10 percent of grant applications are funded), faculty members often spend inordinate amounts of time revising and resubmitting grants. The result is a scientific climate that suppresses the creativity, cooperation, risk taking and the original thinking that is so important for new discoveries. It breeds conservative short-term thinking that produce results measured in terms of dollars rather than sense. Postdoctoral scientists, who can spend 10 or more years in their positions before landing an academic appointment, are especially disadvantaged. Because federal grant money is so tight, they may not receive their first grant until their early 40s, when it may be too late for tenure and promotion.

According to one study, the peer-review system for federal grants is approaching the point of becoming arbitrary. Upon analyzing the number of citations and publications resulting from funded National Institutes of Health projects, Fang, Bowen and Casadevall discovered that excellent productivity was exhibited by some projects with relatively lower scores and poor productivity by other projects with outstanding scores. Since peer review panels were unable to make accurate predictions about which projects will have the greatest impact, the authors concluded that a lottery system would work just as well. Discouraged by this picture, less-established faculty members are turning to private foundations for support or are pursuing academic appointments in places such as Canada, where federal grants do not include money for overhead.

Do not get us wrong, faculty members have good reasons to apply for research grants. The principal reason to get a grant is to do research. Aside from the fact that the faculty can use grants to pay summer salaries, support students and impress administrators, some research projects require the expenditure of considerable funds for equipment, supplies and personnel. People working on topics that require funding should certainly be encouraged and even rewarded for securing extramural support.

But if you can do good, influential research without external funding, should you be penalized or relegated to second-class citizenship as a consequence? Funding is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Whereas people should get grants in order to do research, too often nowadays people do research in order to get grants. Academic freedom ought to include the opportunity to pursue research questions because they are intrinsically interesting or theoretically important, not simply because they are fundable.

One of the principal distinctions between a job in the business world and one in academe is the degree to which you have to answer to questions of funding and/or profitability. If you took a job with General Electric or IBM, you could expect to be held accountable to the profit motive, but is that what we want academic life to be all about? In this day and age of competition for dollars, growing evidence strongly suggests that matters of quality and academic excellence are taking a back seat to funding.


Gordon G. Gallup Jr. is a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, where he specializes in the field of evolutionary psychology. Bruce B. Svare is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at  the same institution, where he specializes in the field of behavioral neuroendocrinology.

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