Sunday, May 12, 2013

Soft money: how to hire a physician-scientist for free

You may think of university professors as having cushy jobs which--thanks to tenure--guarantee us a job and a salary (as you will see, this is not redundant) right up until retirement. This may be true for, say, professors of political science or English literature, but this is most definitely not the case for your typical academic biomedical scientist. In fact, not only do biomedical faculty not receive a guaranteed salary, they often receive no salary at all. You see, back when grant dollars were easier to come by, academic medical centers figured out that they could hire scientists and pay them only a small percentage of their salary, very often 0%. The professors' salaries would be mainly foisted off onto the granting agencies (mostly the National Institutes of Health). This was brilliant: universities could hire faculty virtually on a volunteer basis, agree to pay them X per year, pay them a fraction of X per year or zilch, and tell them they were on their own to scrounge up the rest. If the faculty member was lucky and had part of her salary paid by the hiring institution, they were said to receive "hard money." The rest is "soft money."

This soft-money based system evolved at at time when over 30-40%* of NIH grant applications--and some years over 50%--were approved for funding.  What happens when grant approval rates are closer to 10-15%? Here is one indicator: a Google search for "soft money" (not the political kind) and "stress" results in over 59,000 hits**. Considering also the vagaries of the grant review system, the soft-money system verges on cruelty. Highly-educated, generally very intelligent researchers are forced to compete against each other to be one of the few investigators selected for funding. Loss of research funding could very well equal loss of salary support and derailment of ones career. And people are wondering why physicians don't want to have biomedical research careers anymore?

As a physician-scientist, I am fortunate in that having to leave academia would result in an increase in my income, and it would not be hard to find a job as a clinician. If I'm stressed, I wonder how straight Ph.D. faculty members must feel? The 59,000 Google hits I mentioned above give some indication of this**. There is also much discussion of the current dire funding situation--the angst is almost palpable--and it's impact on medical school faculty careers at the blogs of other biomedical researchers, including my current favorite***.

*link will download an Excel file from the NIH website
**see first comment for caveat regarding using a Google web search for quantitation in this manner
*** "my current favorite" except for the occasional political commentary, which is often uninformed and/or venomous.


  1. I agree with the message of your post. Just don't believe that the number of google hits means much. For example, the nonsensical google search for "fat elephants eat too much rice" yields 51,600,000 hits. The results have anything to do with gluttonous rice-eating elephants.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out. I agree. I tried to structure the search to increase the % of hits that are relevant, but I can see looking over the search results that this did not work as well as I would have hoped. I've also noticed that there is substantial day-to-day and variation in the number of hits. I'll add a link to your comment in the post.