Yale’s science faculty across the University are struggling to find ample funding for their research even after they get tenure, due to the financial landscape of both the University and the country’s STEM fields.
STEM professors’ laboratory research is largely funded through grants, either from federal organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, or from private foundations like the American Cancer Society, according to biology professor Joel Rosenbaum. When professors come to Yale, the University provides funds to equip their laboratories, but most future costs — such as paying postdoctoral fellows and research technicians — must be covered by grants. Science professors interviewed expressed irritation with the current process for funding research at Yale — troubles that stem from both the University’s funding policies and a fiercely competitive grant market, in which only around 10 percent of all NIH and NSF grant applications are approved.
“Yale, in spite of its huge endowment, does not support our research activities other than supplying its name … and keeping up the facilities in which we do research,” Rosenbaum said. “One either gets outside funding, or one’s research activities here die.”
Much of the funding researchers receive does not go directly to them — Yale collects around 40 percent of NIH grant money to pay for the indirect costs of running lab facilities, Douglas Brash, professor of therapeutic radiology and dermatology, said.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean Robert Burger ’93 said that in certain cases, Yale pays directly for science equipment that has broad interest across departments, such as computing hardware or an astronomy telescope. Remaining laboratory equipment is paid for by grants or through set-up funds for new professors. Rosenbaum said that in his 50 years of research at Yale, he estimates that Yale has pocketed more than $20 million of his grant money.
Faculty members never fund research out of their personal salaries, Burger said. When faculty members have gaps in funding, Yale has mechanisms in place to provide “bridge funding” to keep labs operating until the next grant is secured, he added.
But when Rosenbaum was recently denied NIH funding and appealed to the Office of the Provost for bridge funding, he was also denied that, he said. Now 80 years old, Rosenbaum decided to stop applying for grants, close his lab and continue on at Yale solely in a teaching capacity.
“To say I was a bit pissed off would be putting it mildly,” he said.
Alongside the challenges for professors, careers are far from secure among postdoctoral fellows and graduate researchers. Brash estimated that as many as a quarter of the labs he knew of had laid off, or failed to renew, a postdoc due to a lack of research funding.
Brash said these layoffs occur when researchers do not receive the federal grants they apply for, a phenomenon that has grown increasingly common over the last 10 years.
These budgetary challenges largely stemmed from the steadily decreasing amount of federal funding for research. In Yale’s annual budget report, released Wednesday, the University announced that the $355 million in federal government funding from the Department of Health and Human Services was a 3.6 percent drop from last year.
While there have not been direct budget cuts, funding for the program has not kept up with inflation since 2003.
“Who has had to forego hiring a postdoc due to lack of money? That would be everyone,” Brash said. “Laying off postdocs is a smaller number because the lab has to have been able to hire them in the first place.”
When a postdoctoral fellow is laid off or not renewed by a laboratory due to budget constraints, the laboratory’s professor generally tries to find a new post for the fired researcher — at Yale or at other universities. Because postdoctoral positions must be renewed regularly, the most common method of cutting researchers is to simply not renew the contract, Brash explained.
While this courtesy helps, Brash said, it can force the postdoctoral researchers into becoming “nomads.”
“The [principal investigator] makes some calls, the postdoc asks his friends or the postdoc responds to ads in Science or Nature,” Brash said. “The new position may be here or at another institution; and the spouse may or may not be able to move to the same place.”
This problem is hard to measure because there is a stigma among professors surrounding the loss of funding, Brash said. Further, since postdoctoral fellows are often placed in alternate posts when their contracts are not renewed, it is not clear how often these cuts occur.
These concerns have been raised by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization during protests on campus over the past two years.
“Some advisors run out of funding and then the students are left in a hard position,” said Shari Yosinski GRD ‘17, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and GESO supporter. “Yale can provide money to fund them for their salary, but there’s cases in which that’s not done.”
Yale does not pay FAS science faculty for the full calendar year. Instead, they are paid for the nine-month period during which they teach. In the summer months, these faculty members turn solely to research and their salaries come from grant money. For Rosenbaum, transitioning to a solely teaching position meant taking a roughly 30 percent pay cut.
Faculty positions in the FAS are “hard money” positions, meaning that Yale fully supports faculty salaries during the academic year, Burger said. This method of funding is different from “soft money” positions at the Medical School, where faculty must pay their salaries and their research through grants, he added.
Securing funding can be more difficult for non-tenured faculty, Rosenbaum said. In many cases, getting external funding is the difference between getting tenure and not, since receiving tenure in the sciences depends largely on regularly publishing research.
“If you are non-tenured in the research sciences, and do not get your grants funded, you can almost kiss your Yale appointment goodbye,” Rosenbaum said.
The struggle for funding in the sciences has consequences on the quality of professors’ teaching, Rosenbaum said. Although Yale praises good teaching when hiring new assistant professors, the greatest demand on science faculty is excellence in research, not teaching, he added. Research is where the money is, he said.
In cases where an FAS faculty member can no longer find funding, Yale usually gives that person an administrative position in their department, Rosenbaum said. He added that more faculty are “dropping out” of research as federal grants become harder to get.
Brash said this “dropping out” extended to the graduate student level as training grants become harder and harder to obtain from the NIH and the NSF.
“Wisely, someone realized that if there are no jobs for graduates and little grant money for graduates who do get jobs, then maybe we are training too many grad students,” Brash said.
Yale received $507.1 million of federal government spending in the 2015 fiscal year, or 75.3 percent of Yale’s grant and contract income.