Friday, October 03, 2008


Grants and Plans

As direct operating subsidies are losing ground against our expenses, and becoming increasingly tenuous as tax revenues drop, we're turning increasingly to grants to find the money to get things done.

Grants are great in many ways, of course. They give us revenue that doesn't rely on taxpayers or students; they allow us to experiment; they increase the number of people interested in seeing that we do our jobs well. In a few areas in which our grantsmanship has been particularly successful, we've been able to supply opportunities and resources for students we otherwise couldn't have.

But grant money comes with conditions, and as grants become more important, so do those conditions. We're increasingly defining our operating budget around filling in the gaps between grant programs, or around grant expiration dates. Worse, long-range planning becomes difficult when our controllable funds are tenuous, and grant availability fluctuates with the political winds.

Over the years, a number of grant-funded (grant-founded, really) programs have attained a certain level of popularity on campus. When the grants expired, the programs became part of the college's operating budget. In a way, that's the purpose of grants: they're often intended to be “seed money,” with the idea that the seed would grow into a permanent part of your plant. I can understand the impulse, but sometimes I wonder if the folks behind the grants actually understand how nonprofits work.

In the non-profit world, the occasional big splash is relatively easy. What's difficult is maintaining a high level of service over time. In other words, seed money is great, but what we really need is steady, reliable, predictable operating funds.

Steady, reliable, predictable operating funds allow for thoughtful long-term planning, since you can actually have a reasonable idea of the resources you can devote to any given enterprise. They allow for inclusive planning, since promises made can actually be kept. They even allow for meaningful assessments of success or failure, since you can actually keep focus on the same task over time.

When that's sacrificed to the political winds, and the best you can do is to keep hopping from grant to grant, long-term planning becomes much harder. At any given RFP, you have to drop whatever you've been doing and try to match the conditions of the latest program. Multiply that over the years, and you wind up with a crazy-quilt of programs assembled whenever the opportunity came along, rather than a coherent whole.

In better years, when the public subsidies are actually keeping pace with inflation for more than a year at a time, you can fill in some of the gaps with careful planning. But when the public funding gets cut – even worse, when it gets cut at midyear, which is looking increasingly likely – careful planning is off the table. At that point, decisions are made based on exigency, rather than sustainability. (That's the best case. The worst case has decisions being made based on politics, favoritism, and the like.) And the prospect of not pursuing a grant, any grant, becomes ludicrous – even if the grant isn't a perfect fit, some of the money can probably be used to save something. Long-term coherence can wait.

My heartfelt plea to granting agencies and philanthropists everywhere: seed money is well and good, but if you're really serious about improving access to higher education, we need operating funds. Give grants for existing programs. Support existing institutions. Right now we're running more classes with adjuncts than I care to admit, even while ponying up matching funds for new grants. Honestly, I'd rather skip some new programs and hire some permanent faculty, to give the students those close ties with advisors that we all know they need. (This is one of the underappreciated dynamics behind the shift in administration/faculty ratios: every grant-funded program needs a director.) Extras are great, but first things first.

(chuckle) Welcome to my world, DD.

"sometimes I wonder if the folks behind the grants actually understand how nonprofits work."

Trust me: they do. They are nonprofits themselves, unless they are part of the government, and in my experience, government grant administrators understand perfectly well the pressures on their clients.

I had a very educational conversation with an NSF program officer a couple of years back, when I was serving on a review panel. From their perspective, they find it extremely annoying that colleges try to push more and more of their operating costs onto the granting agencies. The grantors see their role as funding the best proposals, as opposed to making sure that College X has enough money to meet expenses. College X is not their mission.

Now, if you happen to be dependent on grant money (and, as someone who spent 12 years as a soft-money researcher, I think I can speak to that), this is a stomach-churning way to run a railroad: sort of like institutional adjuncting, except you also have the responsibility of raising the money for your own salary. The point is, basically, that you're not supposed to be using grant money for operating expenses. It's supposed to be gravy. Of course, in most cases now, it isn't.
I'm responding not the grant portion of today's post but to the plea that existing programs be supported. I would like to extend the same plea to our administration, which runs after every new fad while neglecting basic services such as the writing center. And they wonder why we have such difficulty retaining our students?
I have to agree with Dictyranger; program managers seem to be very sharp about what will be obtained in return for their organization's money. As more than one has said to me, "my job is to give away money". They have organizational missions, and the grants have to fit. Perhaps that is the biggest problem for ongoing operational expenses? Fitting a long term research project into 3 (or 1!) year chunks has a similar problem.
HSLPODD: "Fitting a long term research project into 3 (or 1!) year chunks has a similar problem."

Damn straight.

This is going to get long, but I figured I'd core-dump; it's Saturday, and I have a nice cup of coffee here. Besides, this is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. This comment is really science-focused, but I'm less inclined to run my virtual mouth about things I'm less familiar with.

Any reasonably active laboratory will have a mixture of salaried and grant-funded people in it, because there's never enough resources to put a full research staff on hard money. So, you have to be very strategic in your research plan, so that you have nice juicy things to show off at carefully-timed intervals. Otherwise, you won't get funded next round.

So what? You're on salary, right? True, but as a scientific producer, you just got hamstrung. Goodbye to that soft-money tech you spent four years training. Oh: and that grad student a year away from defending? Better beg your department head for a three-semester TA slot, or he's screwed. Of course, that's going to slow down his work, too. And I hope you've been saving money for your no-cost extension year, or you won't be able to afford reagents in three months.

And if you miss again on your applications? Boy, are you in trouble. Better write two applications. Or three. (I wrote four in 2007, some with colleagues.) You didn't have anything else to do anyway, right?

In the current funding environment, this happens to everybody. I don't know a single researcher---and I know several National Academy of Sciences members and other assorted Big Dogs---who does not live in terror of a funding gap. I've lived through 'em myself, and boy is it fun to work 80-hour weeks for 50% of your salary, trying to get back on the horse.

But that isn't the program manager's problem. They have X amount of money to give out, and a mandate to get the biggest bang for the buck. Since there's always more good science out there than money to fund it, lots of good, worthy people are going to go hungry.

Now, of course, this is causing major structural tensions in the scientific community. The NIH, a very big player in the grantor business, is massively overhauling their grant-approval process because it was causing systemic problems. One was that it put too much pressure on reviewers, who could not afford to sacrifice 3 working weeks a year. Government granting agencies depend on experienced researchers to review grants, but these are also the people who will be spending lots of time supporting a 10-person lab staff.

The average age of a first-time NIH grant recipient has also risen steadily, and now stands at 42. The program managers say that this means early-career researchers are being forced out of the system because they can't get on the first rung of the ladder. (By 40, you've already run through your start-up money and are probably up for tenure review. No grant, no tenure.)

So, the program managers really do care about what happens to the health of the research community. But they can't fix the fundamental problem, which is (IMO) that the reward structure in academia is now at cross-purposes to the traditional mission, and the contradiction has not been resolved. I strongly suspect that these trends will accelerate in the next decade, with traditional teaching being swapped out for online and immersive electronic instruction...and boy, will the academic fat be in the fire then.
I can understand your frustration from your vantage point but as a grant writer and grant reviewer, I have to agree with some of the responders that point out it's not the funding agency's responsibility to fund long-term programs.

An aspect of granting priorities that is left here is to allow humanities scholars and teachers to think outside the box and get funding for ideas that push beyond the envelope that may limit what their own campus will fund. Furthermore, granting agencies usually look for proposals that can eventually be modeled for other institutions and/or individuals to models. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities is supporting instrumental funding for blending technology and the humanities in unique ways that expect state of art in scholarship AND technology. On many campuses, individuals have support for one or the other but not both since very few people are experts in both humanities and technology.

Additionally, the same agency, supports individual scholarship in research and teaching that individual institutions, especially smaller ones who don't offer much individual funding support (we won't discuss whether they have it or not, just whether they are likely to fund it).

In a different granting agency, the US Department of Education, they are primarily supporting model programs that other schools can replicate once the initial model can substantiate "scientifically-based research" for others to utilize and effect wide dissemination of such key efforts to improve the nation's education system.

I'm also familiar with National Science Foundation efforts to offer unique opportunities to fund humanities tied in with technological science. The foundation is currently emphasizing STEM initiatives as a way to push forward the entire system. And, most importantly, they are actively supporting research not only in how students of all ages learn science and math but also history and other core subjects of learning.

On the tech front, the MacArthur Foundation is also way out ahead of the pack supporting the work of those on the teaching technologies utilizing Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 systems.

Furthermore, national funding agencies are correctly expecting state and/or more local funding opportunities to support the work they support with grants as a way to ensure that the more esoteric interests are drawing away funds that can be used for the wider good.

So, while I understand your operating needs budget, it is a somewhat short-sighted view IMHO.
This conversation hits very close to home for me. I direct a new technology-based academic program at a state university with one of the lowest rates of state support in the country. The program I founded is bringing in more students than we ever imagined and is earning tuition dollars like crazy.

The problem is that half of tuition dollars go to institutional expenses such as utility bills, and the other half (according to the Provost, who decides such things) is never enough to increase operating budgets. While a startup grant helped us begin the new technology program, the base operating budget for our department hasn't changed since the 1970s. This year my department head had to cut contracts for adjunct faculty, mostly to pay for the technical staff that my program desperately needed.

(In the program's first two years, I put in 120 hours every week, covering a teaching overload plus technical work for the program. That's the main reason my departmental colleagues haven't voted to cut me and the new program entirely; they know I'm not just hiring staff to do my grunt work so I can go sip lemonade in the shade!)

Any time you add a "smart classroom" or Web 2.0 application, you just added man-hours every week to keep it working. Any time you add a computer-based academic program, you just added a full-time technical coordinator job.

In a similar vein, any software purchase is really a commitment to continually upgrade that software, to keep it compatible with the rest of the university network and the internet.

External funding, as Kelly in Kansas points out, is wonderful for starting up technology initiatives that the university couldn't otherwise afford, and it's great for starting up research programs to connect with the world beyond the university. But when the grant runs out, the technology gets moved to a storage closet. There's almost never any way to save a portion of grant funds for future upgrades, or to hire permanent staff for maintenance.

Without technical staff, relying on student labor for technical work has terrible downsides. Student positions are always the first ones cut when belt-tightening comes around. Undergraduate students (we don't have a grad program) aren't reliable without someone supervising them. So we get "Franken-positions" like mine, where I'm paid as 1.0 FTE faculty, but I still have a 2.0 FTE job because no one else on the faculty has the technical expertise to supervise the student employees, check their work, set procedures for them, et cetera.

Another academic unit in our university has seen the worst side of this problem. They received a grant close to $1 million to open a new lab several years ago. The lab is nominally self-supporting, seeking external grant funds for projects. Unfortunately, the grants don't fund permanent support staff, and the Provost can't provide the academic unit with a yearly operating budget for lab personnel. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of computer equipment sit unused, because faculty don't have the time or the lab-management mandate to keep everything upgraded, updated, and "playing nicely" together.

Computer management is a very different skill set from computer savvy in general. In my job I design documentation systems, predict where newbies will have trouble, decide which preference settings to lock down and which to let users change, make purchasing decisions, time upgrades to keep version numbers compatible, update documentation and retrain users every time we update software. . . all these are long-range planning tasks that faculty can't do in spare moments between classes.

I hope that the commenters from the grant-administration world can see this additional aspect to Dean Dad's argument: Universities aren't trying to pass their operating expenses off to other non-profits. We're trying to ensure that we have something other than 1970s technology in our labs and classrooms. Tuition increases and state funding simply aren't enough to accomplish this in my state.

I've seen this scenario play out more times than I can count: If a grant pays for startup equipment but not permanent staff, you get a fancy press release announcing a new initiative, and the faculty who wrote the grant get a C.V. entry. Three years later, all the new gear is sitting in a basement, and the school goes back to using the old gear that doesn't require additional staff to support. What was really accomplished?

It's not just a matter of schools needing donations for general operating funds to do what we want to do. It's a matter of schools needing donations for general operating funds to continue doing long-term what the grantmaking institutions want to see us doing, for the benefit of our students and the broader community.
For HSUPD: I don't know; your problem sounds more like administrative malfunction than anything else. You say that your Provost says that the college doesn't have the resources to run this equipment--did the granting agencies ask for a plan from your institution to ensure continued operation? (Some do, some don't.)

As an aside: Not to pick on you specifically, but one of my pet peeves is hours inflation. When I mentioned, above, that I was working 80-hour weeks for 50% of my salary, it was true, but I didn't do it for long; I spent several weeks working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, plus 6 hours on Sundays, desperately writing two (successful) grants. If you worked 120-hour weeks for your first two years, that's 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, no breaks. Very few people work 5 AM to 10 PM on a Sunday as a regular thing, even if they are working extremely long hours.
Ha! Yes, it's actually true; I counted. (I don't sleep much, which is one reason this job works.) I should probably have said "on average," though - some weeks are a little better, some worse.

I'm not qualified to judge administrative functionality, but I think the idea was to start a new program to bring in lots of students, taking a "leap of faith" of sorts. But since other areas of the larger academic unit have stagnated or fallen in student numbers, at the highest levels there's no apparent improvement and thus no justifiable increase in operating budgets. Those numbers couldn't have been predicted in advance.

The point that I think needs making is that grantmaking institutions, donors, and even local administrative offices like to pay for one-time purchases, but they consider it the department's responsibility to pay for staff. Whereas if you really do build an academic program around your new technology, in short order your faculty time will be taken up with new students, new courses, recruiting, etc., and faculty time to take care of equipment becomes extremely limited at best.

If a grantmaking or philanthropic institution, or even our own administration, could ever fund a long-term staff position instead of an ever-increasing pile of gear, we could accomplish much more of what that institution wants to see us doing.
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