Salary On Grants: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

By

Leonard Zwelling

It has become the perennial questions for scientists at MD Anderson. What percentage of one’s salary must one bring in from outside sources? What counts toward my total and what will happen if I fall short?

My argument will be that the answer ought to be zero, as it was when I got to Anderson in 1984.

When I obtained my first RO1 and my ACS grant one hundred percent of the direct costs were available to me to do research. All of the indirect costs went to the institution. Any money I brought in for “my salary,” I could spend on other personnel or supplies. Then, as now, I seriously doubt that the indirect income from my grants really offset the true cost to MD Anderson of my research. Between the space costs, the air conditioning, the administrative support and the clerical costs, there is no doubt that my indirects did not cover these costs. That is probably more true than ever today. Research is a loss leader. Patient care makes the bulk of the income. But Anderson must do research if it is to distinguish itself in all areas of intellectual activity.

It was under the presidency of John Mendelsohn that a cottage industry arose—managing salary on grants. (How many administrators does it take to do this? How much do they cost?) What percent of which number had to be brought in from outside sources to satisfy the Chief Academic Officer’s mandate so that a faculty member could be in good stead with the institution and qualify for all salary bonuses? This was part of the Mendelsohnian “raising of the bar.” I am not sure it accomplished much. It did bring more money into the institution for IT to spend. It did increase the size of the requests for grant money to the NIH from the faculty at Anderson that had previously been among the lowest in the nation. It did increase the indirect costs in parallel, of course. But think of the turmoil and angst it brought to the faculty at the same time as getting a grant was becoming harder and harder. Was it worth it? Did it have any impact on the $500 million dollar DePinho shortfall? Is science at Anderson demonstrably better now? I doubt it. All salary on grants is is a surrogate in lieu of decision making by faculty leaders as to the contributions of individual faculty members. Rather than evaluate the output of each member of the faculty and the total contribution of that member to the mission of MD Anderson, whether or not a faculty member got 40% of his or her salary on grants determines his or her longevity. This is foolishness.

Each Division and department doing research ought to have a budget with which to fulfill its mission. That budget should include the full salary of each slot assigned to the unit. It would then be up to the leaders of the units to deploy those resources to see patients (and bill) or do research and teach. If one gets a grant, that ought to be a bonus, as it was in 1984. Now it’s the price of admission to the faculty when grant success rates have never been lower. How smart is that?

Getting a competitive grant of any kind (NIH, ACS or foundation) is an accomplishment and ought to be rewarded. But effort to obtain grants is also to be acknowledged and any source of funds ought to be of equal worth to maintain one’s position at MD Anderson. Grants may well stay as a criterion for promotion and tenure, but even this should not trump contributions in service, teaching and patient care.

MD Anderson is uniquely positioned to determine its own way forward. It doesn’t have to be like any place else and shouldn’t be. As sure as this salary on grants mindset is locked into the fabric of MD Anderson, it is also sure that Anderson will regress to the mean and be like every other cancer center in the country. And that would be a tragedy.

Salary on grants? Dump it! If Anderson cannot afford it, lose some administrators instead. I am still flabbergasted that Anderson needs over 20,000 employees. Lighten the load. Reduce the size of grants administration.

Leonard Zwelling