Yale may sit at the top of research institution rankings, but in times of financial uncertainty, this status actually hurts its researchers’ salaries.
While most of the University pays its faculty members to teach and participate in University functions, the School of Medicine operates off of a different compensation model, where professors and researchers are expected to pay for most or even all of their salaries through federal grants. This compensation model, based on grants that are approved only a small fraction of the time, according to Yale clinical professor of therapeutic radiology Douglas Brash, is a significant financial burden to the medical school faculty.
Faculty of the medical school typically receive 30 percent or less of their salary from the University, said Brash, with the rest coming from grants, primarily through the National Institutes of Health. That means the medical school faculty must spend much of their time working on writing grants and calibrating their research plans to put them in the best position to win those grants.
“When I talk to a lot of researchers in AAUP [American Association of University Professors, a national academic union] they’re often concerned about cuts to federal funding for the NIH and National Science Foundation that they’ve experienced since 2008,” said John Barnshaw, senior program director of the AAUP. “There has been less money in the pipeline than there has been in previous years — that’s where faculty are feeling the additional pressure.”
NIH research grants have been becoming increasingly selective over the last 40 years. In 1970, 36 percent of grants were funded. In 2014, only 18 percent were funded, according to the NIH.
Professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry Joan Steitz, who runs a lab at the School of Medicine that draws primarily from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said the stress of the compensation model applied to junior faculty and tenured professors alike who do not receive academic year salaries.
Steitz said she knew of faculty who were unable to continue working at Yale because they were unable to fund their own salary through grants.
Barnshaw said difficulties in securing grants were not in any way due to problems with the grants. Rather, he said, the highly competitive process resulted in entirely valid proposals losing out on the margin.
“If there’s a proposal and it’s ranked seventh out of a hundred, when there’s an environment with a lot of federal funding, then it gets a grant, but it gets pushed out when there’s a harsher environment,” he said. “This is a very high-stakes game when there’s not a lot of money.”
Barnshaw said only a few universities are able to use a grant-based compensation model. Other than the nation’s top private and public universities, he said, it is not possible for schools to rely on funding from government grants to come regularly enough to support the majority of research faculty’s pay.
Nationwide, at lower-ranked schools, professors in research capacities typically are hired to teach and train students, he explained, noting that these schools cannot rely on grant money to come in frequently. But when a professor at one of these universities does receive a federal grant, the grant essentially buys out the professor’s time and allots it towards funded research. In that situation, government funding will replace university funding at the value of the grant.
At top schools, though, universities can hire professors with the understanding that their time will be pointed towards research from day one. That allows these universities to have much larger faculties — a smaller proportion of each researcher’s salary comes from the university.
“About 70 percent of publications in the last five years came from faculty in the top 60 schools, and Yale is at the top of the list,” said Barnshaw. “These schools are different from the other 4,000 institutions.”
Though these top schools’ compensation models mean they save substantial amounts of money, can hire more faculty and can rely on constant streams of research, the model creates uncertainty for faculty members.
“There’s a lot of anxiety, and with good reason,” said Steitz. “I think everybody [experiences it.]”
In 2014, the NIH gave Yale $360,548,763 in 882 awards.