Running on empty

July 17, 2008

As every academic knows, the competition for grant funding is intense. At any one time the average UK academic might expect to hold a single research council grant. I wonder then how the full economic costing (FEC) regime will sustain research activity in the sector.

Typically, grants employ a single postdoctoral research associate for three years and provide three hours a week of the principal applicant salary under "directly allocated" costs. Are we to suppose that the remainder of the working week is dedicated to teaching, administrative and other duties? Clearly not. But if the UK is serious about FEC, research councils should provide a "going rate" reflected in the amount of time an academic spends on a project.

Is it reasonable to expect a research-active principal investigator to hold ten research grants to justify his/her position in the sector? I expect not. So why do we accept three hours a week as the norm for principal-investigator salaries on standard research council grants?

In a recent award to my research group, a research council attributed 1.5 hours a week of co-applicant salary (two weeks a year) to specialised work that comprises about one third of the total four-year programme.

Put simply, FEC isn't working, and it is universities that are paying the price. How long can we keep running on empty?

Nigel S. Scrutton, Faculty of life sciences, University of Manchester.

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