Principal investigators (PIs) working in basic research at US biomedical institutions have to draw upwards of 65% of their own salary and benefits from the direct costs covered by their research grants. The situation discourages top talent and is a roadblock to diversity.
Yet institutions continue to take on PIs because each is a new source of grants and funds to cover indirect costs. PIs therefore need to spend more and more time applying (and reapplying) for grants. Up to US$6 billion of the annual research funding paid out by the National Institutes of Health is spent on PIs’ salaries and benefits (L. R. Pool et al. FASEB J. 30, 1023–1036; 2016). Government institutions pay the salaries and benefits of teachers and firefighters — research centres should do the same for PIs.
US public funding for universities is falling. Increasing tuition fees is not an acceptable option. Instead, funds to cover faculty salaries could continue to come mainly from federal agencies — but through direct negotiation with institutions, in the same way that indirect costs are met. Philanthropic funds should be directed more towards programmes that include salaries and less towards new buildings. A longer-term solution might be to both eliminate the tenure system and plan for a sustainable faculty pool that is based on merit.
Research institutions rightly opposed US President Donald Trump’s proposal last year to slash coverage for indirect costs. However, it is the same institutions that benefit from and perpetuate the status quo in research-faculty employment.
Nature 563, 325 (2018)