What is Science? Part I: Money

Here at Skepchick we receive many inquiries about this topic and others encompassing how, why, where, etc. I don’t think the answer is necessarily the same to anyone. As a post-doctoral researcher at a university, it means something different to me compared to others. Many in the Skepchick audience are familiar with the academic research process, but we thought it would be fun to give a little refresher course. This is going to be the first of a few installments about the academic research process.

Recently, I was speaking to middle school students asking them what they associate with chemistry research. I was anticipating an answer such as “You get to blow stuff up.” To my surprise, a 7th grade girl, in my first class of the day, replied “Money.” After class the teacher explained to me that her parents are both scientists, alas, the whole thing made sense. However, this 7th grade girl clearly has more insight into research than most as money is an essential part of the discussion.

Science, similar to most other things in life, is (unfortunately) very dependent on money. Grants from national institutes or foundations is how a large portion of science is funded at universities or national laboratories. Naturally, science is also done in industry that is usually privately funded. Mostly tax payers are responsible for shelling out the cash necessary for scientific research to be accomplished. However, according to some recent polls I saw from Research America this is a widely accepted way to spend tax money. What politician is going to come out with the platform to stop looking for a cancer cure? It is hard for me to gauge whether or not this sentiment is international, but for many countries I would imagine an analogous mind set.

How does one get money to do science? The simple answer is they write grants. People come up with their own ideas that will coincide with the interests of the organization giving away the money. Simple enough. Grants generally go through an extremely critical peer review process. Many funding institutions put a scoring system in place to wade through the large number of proposals where the percentage funded depends heavily on that particular funding agency.

Stress that exists when the coffee is gone. Note: Inaccurate grant writing situation because I slept the last three nights.

Once a grant is funded, where does the money go? The money mostly goes to university overhead (usually at least 50%), equipment, and salaries of researchers. Once the money is allocated that is when the research finally begins. However, it isn’t entirely uncommon to begin a research project before the funding comes through to show experience and feasibility to complete the investigation proposed on the grant application.

Every now and then the media or a politician gets a hold of a research paper or grant that is usually legitimately funded research with important aims and blows it out of proportion because they don’t understand the details behind it. Recently this story came out (
Now, I am unable to tell what their intentions are, but I think it is important to trust the system in place. As someone who realizes how difficult it is to receive research funding, the process is generally good. I am sure there could be many improvements, but overall it works reasonably well. The best ideas are usually the ones that receive funding.

Following this piece I am going to do others explaining the scientific process. Particularly discussing personnel, differences amongst research facilities, and the publication process. Please let me know if there is another aspect of science you are curious about and hopefully we can tackle the issue.


Jacqueline, a true Floridian, wandered up to the tundra of Athens, Georgia to receive her PhD in computational quantum chemistry. Returning to her roots, she is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in Tampa in the field of computational biochemistry investigating the wonders of penicillin-like drugs. When she is not slaving over the computer, her varied interests include international travel, Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing, fancy food, (American) football, and Belgian quadrupels. She is also the founder of, a football blog with an exclusive female writing staff. Check out her sports ramblings there or follow her on Twitter @jhargis9.

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  1. Good stuff, Jacqueline!

    This may be a crazy thought, but is there any way to get our hands on an actual research project budget? Just to sort of follow the money from the idea, to writing the grant, to each pay out, to conclusion of the project?

    At any rate, I look forward to reading the whole series.

    1. Thanks, Sam.

      The problem with getting your hands on an actual research budget is that principle investigators usually keep that under lock and key. All of their ideas for that grant are on there, if some of them don’t get completed then many of them get resubmitted on the next cycle. I know PIs who won’t even show some of their own group members their entire grant. However, you could view an application on NSF, NIH, or anyone’s website to get a better idea. I am traveling today, but I can work on this.

      1. Speaking as a grant recipient and person who signs off on grants:

        Part of the reason most grant budgets are secret is that the vast majority of it is salaries. The feds “buy” release time for a university faculty member from his/her regular duties. Faculty salaries are really a hot topic–there is a lot of disparity between senior and junior, male and female, and between departments.

        So, revealing the budget means also saying “here is my yearly salary.”

        The budget also contains money to pay for graduate students and post-docs, which are not embarrassingly large, alas. Then there is “overhead”. This is a charge the university applies for letting the research be conducted on their site. It’s a reasonable thing to request–the researchers are using electricity and university equipment, as well as support staff, copiers, and IT that the university supplies.

        In some cases the grant may include major purchases of equipment, but that seems to be less and less common. NSF is cutting programs, and the FSML program just announced it would no longer help build buildings, greenhouses, etc. for research.

        1. Recently I was discussing the issue of salaries with a colleague. You can usually look them up by other means. I have seen salary lists of faculty members, grad students, and post-docs at public universities because they are state employees (at least for both states I have spent time in). I am not sure if there would be a way to determine salaries at private universities.

        2. That is of course unless it’s big corporate or military research. In that case, they pay you to sit for months at a time to try as much shit as you need to until it works.

          I did quasi-defense oriented aerospace stuff for a while and we had all the toys we ever wanted. The key as I saw is to simply secure a top place on multi-billion dollar government contract vehicles. And all you need to secure that is a profitable cause, and an army of bizdev people to bump elbows with the people who hold the purse strings.

          Big research budgets are a 3 step process
          1. Stop even caring about changing the world and switch to a profitable research field
          2. Join a large soulless corporate entity
          3. Enjoy the fruits of selling out!

    2. //This may be a crazy thought, but is there any way to get our hands on an actual research project budget?//

      SBIR or STTR money is not really TOO hard to get if you are working in a ‘hot’ field, have strong principles/proper tools, and can stomach writing grants over & fucking over.

      And of course, if you want to sidestep all that bootstrapping, you can simply work in the following fields:
      1. Petroleum
      2. Pharma
      3. High-Value Software Research (Cloud Computing, Security, Data-Mining, etc.)
      4. Defense/Aerospace (Encompassing Many Disciplines)
      5. Mining
      6. Medical/Biochem
      7. Industrial Engineering & Chemistry

  2. As a chemistry undergrad I recently had a conversation with guy who’s company shares our research lab. He told me about a system I hadn’t heard about before where the government tosses out a problem to various small research companies (“We need stuff that does this. Make it”), and anyone who thinks they can solve it can get a grant and keep the patent in exchange for letting the government use it for free.

    As I understand it, it’s a way to keep small innovative research companies going while solving problems for the government and saving them money in the long run.

    This is all very practical research aimed at solving specific problems with manufacturing, etc., about as far from “pure science” as you can get, and it was all news to me. I’d love to hear more about it if you’re familiar with this side of research.

    Oh, and why does everyone warn you about how horrible Organic Chem is (when it’s not so bad), but completely fail to mention Physical Chem? Or is it just the way it’s taught at my university?

    1. The approach you describe is often promoted by economists as a superior alternative to grants, at least when you’re after something specific.

    2. The point you guys make about the other way to fund research is true. One of my friends works on a project like this. I didn’t explicitly mention it because it is slightly less main stream than other methods. I am glad you pointed it out.

      The point you make about physical chemistry and organic chemistry does seem to be true. I attribute it to the larger volume of people that take organic chemistry. Most engineers, pre-med students, biology, and chemistry majors all take organic chemistry. Hence, there are more people to complain about the seemingly difficult course. Usually, chemistry majors are the only ones to take physical chemistry that consists of one semester of quantum mechanics and one semester of statistical mechanics. This course usually has more prerequisites and is viewed as more difficult due the math required. At my undergraduate university we were expected to two semesters of physics and three semesters of calculus. They also suggested ordinary differential equations. I venture to guess if pre-med students, biologists, etc. had to take physical chemistry to graduate there would be more problems and more complaining.

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