While the faculty of the Yale School of Medicine are considered by many to be leaders in the medical community, even tenured professors face uncertainty regarding one of the basic logistics of any job: a reliable paycheck.
Though their peers on Science Hill receive a largely Yale-funded paycheck, medical school faculty must rely on grant funding from the federal government to pay for the bulk of their salaries. This payment model causes significant financial insecurity to faculty, who even with tenure cannot necessarily rely on steady pay, said professor of cell biology Yongli Zhang MED ’03.
“Faculty are being laid off because they are not able to fully fund their salary, and funding may not be renewed on a project, so the researchers cannot finish it,” said Douglas Brash, professor of therapeutic radiology at the School of Medicine.
Brash added that to be more sure that they will get funding, faculty often shape their grant proposals around more conservative scientific questions — “just confirming things we already know.”
“That’s not why I got into science,” Brash said.
Seventy percent of Zhang’s salary comes from federal grants, he estimated. With so much grant money focused on professors, significantly fewer funds are available for hiring graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as well as purchasing research materials.
That 70:30 ratio is consistent with the payment model of most professors in the School of Medicine, Brash said, noting that it may in fact be an overestimate for some departments that provide as little as 10 percent or less of a professor’s salary. Getting the remaining 90 percent is often uncertain.
“Many great labs that have done a lot of notable work cannot even get their grants renewed — this is very typical now,” said Zhang. “The grant environment is just getting tougher and tougher.”
According to Sandy Chang ’88, professor of laboratory medicine and of pathology, while medical school faculty pay for nine months of their yearly salary through grant funding, Science Hill faculty only pay for three months of the year through grants.
Since the 1990s, the research environment has grown increasingly difficult for grant funding, Brash explained. He estimates that the acceptance rate for grants has decreased more than threefold in that time, from a 35-percent acceptance rate to a 10-percent acceptance rate for National Institutes of Health funding.
As a result, significantly more time must be spent writing grant proposals. Brash said he thinks medical school faculty must spend about 80 percent of their time writing grant proposals and only 20 percent of their time researching and teaching.
Meanwhile, research-related costs have risen. Zhang said the need for research funding and the number of applicants have risen dramatically, but the available funding has not kept pace. Brash added that postdoctoral fellow salaries have risen, as have instrumentation costs alongside an increasing necessity for proposals for more costly research that addresses more nuanced scientific questions.
“The bulk of my time is spent writing grants,” said Zhang. “It might take two months to write a grant, and I won’t receive most of them. You can imagine how hard that is.”
This time spent writing grants is higher in the medical school than among faculty on Science Hill because the latter have a much greater proportion of their salary paid by the University as opposed to by grant funding, Zhang said.
According to Zhang, that funding model means that, when medical school faculty write grant proposals, they find themselves allocating more funds for their own salaries and fewer for the research itself or the postdoctoral and graduate students working in their labs. As a result, they have to hire fewer researchers, which slows down and limits their research potential, he added.
Shaoyan Liang, a postdoctoral associate in the Physics Department, said this uncertainty and occasional lack of funding caused him to seriously consider switching to a private sector job when he was earning his PhD. The precariousness of the job, he said, also put pressure on the research team to show results by the time the grant was set to expire and they would need to reapply to study further.
As such, Liang added, job security for longer than a grant’s time frame is a regular concern for himself and other postdoctoral researchers.
Brash, similarly, stated that postdoctoral associates and beginning professors often consider other, more stable professions instead of one so dependent on increasingly irregular grants.
To address this tension, some medical school professors recommend that Yale pay more than 30 percent of medical school professors’ salaries.
“Paying more in a private investigator’s salary would be great,” said Zhang. “This is something many professors at the medical school have been trying to push.”
Brash said this policy would result in significantly less time spent writing grants and open up more time for research and, potentially, teaching. Additionally, if more of a professor’s salary were guaranteed by Yale, the professor could likely expand his or her team, accelerating the research and freeing up time for creative thought.
Currently though, said Brash, the situation for professors in the medical school is exceptionally difficult.
“It’s a whole different world over here,” added Brash. “You don’t sleep at night.”
This year, the NIH estimates that it will spend $30.3 billion on scientific research grants.