I read a…
I make a sort of English summary in this post if you want to understand how research money works here, making some additional notes about things that the article doesn’t mention but are relevant. So some content here is adapted from the article and all credit goes to the authors for their work. I also translate some key quotes from the article. I am making this as explicit as possible so you can see what is from the article and what is my new content. Please, try to read the original too and google translate it if necessary.
Why is this in my blog? This is a research blog and research depends increasingly on external funding so it’s fully relevant.
There are a number of large private foundations associated with Danish companies etc. that give also large grants based on (tough) competition. These grants are usually prestigious. Total private funding increased from 1 to 3,6 Billion kr. in 15 years says the article. That is good, you would say, but…
Private differently from public2 funds can decide to support what they want, and the funding distribution is skewed. 45% Health science, 42% Natural/technical science the article says. Social science and humanities get peanuts in comparison.
They are also skewed between male and female applicants 22% only to female scientists says the article (I am not sure about the public ones though, tbh).
And they are skewed because for various reasons there is a tendency to rain where it’s already wet (as we say in Italy…). In the sense that who gets grants gets more grants (Matthæus-effect) either because they are good in finding the money or because the money is good in finding them…says the article.
Over your head
Most importantly though, and it’s the first article I read that makes it so explicit, private funds do not usually pay the “overhead” (costs for rent, administration, energy, it-support etc.), or cover it only in part…
Why? Because it’s their money and they decide how to spend it…
(and yes, in DK many universities have to pay rent on the buildings they use, they don’t own them)
So “Paradoxically it costs money to receive money”.
What do the universities do then?
Take the money from somewhere else
The article reports that they apply to many micro-grants to cover the other costs. I confirm. What the article doesn’t say: many of these micro-grants also require administration…and it’s very inefficient to run these small projects…so public money wasted.
The article also reports that universities take the money from other “less fundable” areas: “Then the universities close subjects like Greek studies or Finnish, that is the harsh truth” This indirect effect is quite dramatic for those working in these areas of course. Because of priorities made in the private sector, their public-sector work has to shrink.
But there is more to 2. Danish Univs. can also use co-financing. So they “match” the missing part with “own money”. Where do these come from? And this is where it becomes more complex (and I might not get everything right but let me try).
2.1 Simply, they don’t employ other people with own internal funds. If a position was supposed to be open on a topic and partly funded internally…this will not be there anymore because the internal funds are needed to match the externally funded large grant on the other topic….
This is subtle because, you don’t clearly see it happening. It’s not as flashy as firing people, for example.
2.2. They use the “base funds” that the state gives to the universities to run the higher education and research.
The problem with 2.2. is that…these base funds are not allocated equally to all universities. The criteria for allocation are based on some rather obscure principles and are quite skewed. A colleague has written a blog post about university financing with base funds (in Danish, though) that I think gives a good summary.
Anyway, the implication is that some Univs. can afford to take the private money and match the overhead with their own…more than others.
This creates further skewness in the access to funding.
To make a concrete example, all my grant applications are checked beforehand for budget, it’s a safety measure to make sure the economy will be healthy if the project is granted. The Dep. collectively can afford some no-overhead grants, but not many and depending on many factors.
I myself avoid specific calls from private foundations because I know the economy will be in minus from day one…and this is some trouble you don’t want to step into.
Most interestingly, the article also says that this is the case (and I am surprised to read that!) also in other Danish Univs. that get a much larger share of base funds than mine does. And there, researchers at institutes with many external funds are told not to apply to new externally financed projects, says the article, because “there is simply no more [internal] money to support it”.
What do the private funds think of this? According to the article one says: “we will not pay fixed overhead nor pay the universities’ often expensive rent”.
Fair enough, it’s their money after all. The researchers will work in the park then, I guess!
The other side of dystopia
This is part of the situation, the other part is that there are many public funding opportunities, but competition is absolutely fierce, and a lot of time is wasted in writing unsuccessful applications…this opens a pandora box and is a topic for another post.
End of post about dystopian academic funding…no morally clear take-home message here.
If I got something wrong, it’s possible, please correct me.
Again, some content is taken from the article linked in the beginning, I tried to make it explicit every time. If you work in Danish research, read the article, it’s good.
Trivia: the title of the article Luksusfælden means “The luxury trap”, and there is also a TV program with the same name where accountants look into the economy of “normal” people who have difficulties in keeping a financial balance in their everyday life. It’s between cynical and dramatic. ↩
We see thematic calls from public funds too now, for example “green transition” calls about environmental topics, which for me personally fits well but others might find not so positive…another story ↩