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Academic Scientists at Work: Giving It 110%

"With this new grant, 110% of my effort will be covered by research grants. I certainly should get a big raise--after all, what else is the department going to do with the extra money?" you say with exuberance. Your colleague replies, "Congratulations on the new grant, Dr. F. Ort. You really are doing great--this is just what the chair wants." But as you talk with your department administrator, you find that there is a problem with your effort allocation. 110% is too much.

But how can that be? You put in at least 30 hours a week at the lab bench; 10 talking with students and research staff, another 8 preparing and delivering lectures; and least 6 hours on a variety of committees, journal clubs, and research meetings. You must be putting in 60 to 70 hours a week. Clearly, your full effort is 150% or greater of a 40-hour workweek, so why shouldn't you get paid for it?

The simple answer is you can never be paid for more than 100% of your effort, no matter how much time you put in. But that doesn't mean you can't benefit from your own success; the increased funding and salary recovery may entitle you to some reward. This article will discuss the concepts of salary recovery, what it means to you when you look for a job, and why Dr. Ort's effort distribution may cause some problems. We will also discuss various salary recovery incentive programs.

What is salary recovery?

Universities pay faculty, in part, to teach and disseminate information to their students. But universities also hire faculty to further the institution's academic mission of scholarship, research, and service. It is helpful to think of the university's different missions as different businesses, or at least as different divisions of the same business. The cost-accounting of each of these enterprises is distinct, even though the same person is carrying out each of the missions. It's easy to decide who should pay for the time you spend teaching a class, but who should pay for the time you spend in the lab, seeking the next biomolecular advance?

More than 50 years ago, an agreement was reached between the federal government and a group of universities. It was decided that federal extramural funding agencies would provide universities with faculty salary support for the projects that they fund. In this way, universities are able to recover some of the costs they incur in doing research that serves the public--and national--interest.

In turn, faculty are partially released from their university responsibilities and spend this portion of their time and effort on the research projects that are paying a portion of their salary. This system, in which federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (to name just two) gain the research expertise of university faculty in carrying out their scientific objectives, has led to the preeminence of American research universities and science.

At the extreme, if 100% of one's salary is paid by extramural research grants, then the faculty member should have no university responsibilities. Thus, salary recovery is the amount of one's effort that is recouped from extramural funding sources. Implicit in this definition is the fact that one can only have effort totaling 100%, irrespective of the number of hours worked in a week. At the other extreme, some universities may not allow faculty to buy release time for research during the academic year. This may be the case if faculty are supported on 9-month contracts. Often, these universities allow faculty to focus on their research over the summer months and receive salary support from their extramural funding sources during this time.

Effort distribution

Given the above definitions, it is clear that Dr. Ort is overcommitted in his research projects and his efforts in his job with the university. How can he fix this? Most funding agencies will allow faculty to redistribute effort as long as they feel that the reduction of effort will not jeopardize the success/completion of the project. For NIH grants, the easiest way to change one's effort is during the submission of noncompeting renewals at the beginning of the grant budget year. NIH will allow principal investigators to alter their percent effort by 25% of the declared effort with written justification on one of the form pages.

That is, if you are at 40% on a grant, you can usually reduce it to 30% for the next year. In all other cases (greater than 25%, mid-fiscal year, or other agencies), you will need to discuss your proposed changes with your program officer(s). Remember: Part of the evaluation of your original grant proposal was related to the amount of effort you said you would devote to the project. Reasonable arguments for reduction in effort can include the following:

  • You have accomplished a substantial part of the proposed work.

  • You have established the proposed system and it no longer requires the same amount of your time.

  • You have hired a whiz-kid postdoc who has made great progress and your supervisory effort can be reduced without jeopardizing the project.

  • You have staff members who can carry out your experiments.

Although there are other examples, the rationale for changing your effort must be factual. In viewing these examples you can see that it would be difficult for Dr. Ort to reduce the effort on the new grant, as he cannot make the above arguments. If you attempt to reduce your effort on a new grant, the program director may also reduce your funding associated with that effort. So, be careful what you propose. Importantly, before you take any steps, you should discuss these with your department administrator and chair to make sure that you do it right and that they are on board with your plan.

Although the above discussion seeks to clarify the issues surrounding percent effort on research grants, it does not address the fact that you are spending a lot of time performing university activities during the time that you should be working on research. As a junior faculty member, you know that you must do your part for your department with respect to teaching duties, mentoring, and service obligations if you want to become a tenured member of the department. Yet, you also know that a major part of your tenure decision will be based on your research and scholarship excellence. So, how does one do both at the same time?

Fortunately, the definition of "research time" includes a wide range of activities. Your research time includes the time when you a) mentor graduate students on research projects; b) prepare for and teach an advanced course related to your research field; c) review manuscripts or grants in your field; d) discuss science with a seminar speaker; e) work out the design of a new core facility that you will use for your research program; and so on. Other activities, such as preparing and lecturing for an undergraduate course, do not qualify. Interestingly, the time involved in writing a new grant proposal cannot be charged to a current grant, even if it is the competing renewal. Thus, unless your institution has policies that require you to maintain 100% of your effort supported from research grants, you are better off keeping at least 5% to 10% of your time free for all those extra activities. After all, they really don't take that much time, do they?

Salary recovery and choosing a job

The issue of how much of your salary a university will require you to recover on grants is critical to the overall support that your department/institution will give you during your career, and therefore should be near the top of the list of factors when deciding on taking a position. Although there is no official upper limit aside from 100%, most principal investigators request 20% to 40% salary recovery on their grant applications. (An NIH survey of noncompeting applications found a median of 30%.) Thus, if you are required by your department to recover 60% of your effort, you will need to have at least one large grant (with 60% effort) or several smaller grants, each covering a portion of your salary.

Obtaining several grants (each with a small percent effort) is difficult for several reasons. The first is that it is simply difficult as a new investigator to be able to justify to a study section that you have the ability to run more than one project in such a small amount of time. As you gain more experience and demonstrate your productivity as an independent investigator, you prove that you can run your own show. In time this "penalty" disappears, but when you're just starting out, grant reviewers are likely to look askance at a big project with a small (say, 10%) time commitment from the principal investigator. The second reason is that funding agencies require that each project be distinct. This means you have to keep up with multiple literature sources and direct your attention to "nonoverlapping" projects. The ability to successfully do this comes with time and experience.

Many faculty find it easier to compete for private funding sources--often disease- or subject-specific philanthropies--where their field of interest may give them an advantage compared to the public funding agencies. And here's another hint: Collaborating with colleagues as a co-investigator on their funded projects can help you recover salary in small bites. If successfully arranged, your time and effort may be able to be easily covered from multiple sources.

One other really important point: It's a very good idea to stagger the end dates of these sources of funding, so that you can keep your funding (and salary recovery) consistent over the course of your career.

Having to recover a large percent of your salary could mean that you will spend all those extra hours in a week (168), trying to obtain--or maintain--two or more grants. Doesn't sound like a great deal, does it? If your institution requires a lower amount of salary recovery (30% to 40%), you may be able to run your program successfully on one grant and not worry so much about your salary. This being said, there are advantages to the first option. The advantages are discussed below.

Why do institutions/departments require salary recovery?

Scientific research is expensive. Top-notch research institutions can increase the number of academic scientists they support by paying only a part of their salary. Increasing the number of faculty can increase the intensity of the research environment, raise the scientific prowess of the institution, and create unique intellectual environments that would not be possible with fewer members. These are the clear advantages. This strategy will also increase the research and F&A ("facilities and administrative") dollars flowing into the institution and hopefully support more research and related activities. The danger is that the university may rely too heavily on extramural revenues to support their faculty. When the funding climate chills and funding levels fall, overextended universities may be hard pressed to support their faculty and programs.

In addition to extramural research grants, faculty salaries are derived from a multitude of university sources. Your department budget has funds allocated to cover all or part of your salary. The greater the portion of your salary that the university can recover from extramural grants, the more funds the department has available for other activities, such as service contracts, secretarial support, seminar programs, or computer support. Additional funds recovered from salary support at the department level reduce the amount of funds that the university needs to commit to that department as well. This financing practice makes it possible to create a variety of incentive programs to encourage faculty to get more grants.

Incentives can include salary supplements. So, Dr. Ort may be able to convince his chair that he should get a salary supplement, once he succeeds in fixing his effort allocation. A recent article in Science (W. T. Mallon and D. Korn, 23 January, p. 476) discusses the philosophy of supplement programs and warns that they are good when funding is high but may turn sour when funding levels fall.

Incentives can also include unrestricted, discretionary funds for research development. This could be a real plus and allow a faculty member the freedom to pursue an idea that could lead to a new grant. Additionally, such funds could be used to pay for a new postdoc, computer, or fancy gizmo in the lab. Truly unrestricted funds may even be used for such morale-boosting activities as taking the research group out for lunch to celebrate some research accomplishment. However, you need to be sure that this expenditure is legit. If not, you should consider using your own money to reward your group for their performance.

It is important to know the basic effort and salary recovery parameters of your current job. If you are seeking a job, be sure to ask that these issues be laid out clearly. Incentive programs are often touted as a big plus, but it is just as important to know what would happen to your status in the department if you do not meet the minimal salary recovery requirements. Good luck, and give it your best 110%.

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