Wednesday, June 18, 2008

NSF funding rates and University tenuring policies

I read with interest a posting by DrugMonkey on the "undoubling" of the NIH budget. I poked around for similar information on the National Science Foundation, but did not find anyone who put the NSF budget in the context of inflation.

NSF's funding rates have been at ~8% for my field for the past few years. There were rumors that NSF was to undergo a doubling like NIH, but it really never materialized. I suspect, that given various budget cuts, NSF has at best kept up with inflation. At worse, it hasn't even done that.

General Disarray and I have speculated on what the 8% funding rate at NSF means for the tenuring process at universities. Our university, like many others, requires a "federally-funded" grant as part of the promotion and tenure process. Really, though, the requirements for the grant are usually more stringent than that. Grants run through other institutions do not count for the tenure process because the tenuring university does not "see" that money (seeing has nothing to do with it being visible on your CV and everything about whether the accounting office can roll around in the Facilities and Administration returns in some secret back room). At my institution, the grant must be "in operation" at the time of tenure (i.e., if you had a grant while an assistant professor but it ran out before you came up for tenure, it wouldn't count.) I have a friend at another institution who was told the grant must be at least $500,000 to count, meaning his $150,000 in NSF funding did not. (I always meant to ask him if he had 5 grants each $100,000 or 10 grants each $50,000, would that count, but it always sounded too much like an SAT or GRE question).

The current 8% funding rate has us curious. Can universities afford to be so picky about grants now or do they risk losing their untenured faculty because their expectations no longer meet funding reality? I haven't done the math on this, but I am very curious to see what tenure decisions really look like for assistant professors in my cohort. Will the less-mighty and more scarce dollar really play such a big role for us as it has for cohorts past? While I suspect that the answer is "no", I have no intention of being the guinea pig for our brave, new, less-funded world, so back I go to my NSF proposal.

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