Wandering Thoughts archives


The peculiar effects of grant funding at universities

One of the things that makes universities such peculiar computing environments is grant funding.

The straightforward effect is to inject uncertainty into the year to year budgeting process, since few grants have a sure renewal. Even when the total amount of grant funding stays more or less the same, who gets it (and thus what projects are funded) can vary a lot, with the attendant localized lurches. (The uncertainty of grant money may be one reason that people are often far more willing to pay for equipment and consulting than to hire staff.)

For all the agonizing that grant uncertainties create, this is actually the small effect. The big effect of grant funding is what it does to power balances, because most grant funding goes to people, not to the university's general budget.

People in companies have budgets. Grant funded people at universities have cold hard cash, and how they spent it is up to them. The immediate casualty is any plan to have a homogeneous environment by controlling purchasing, as grant funded people buy whatever equipment they like.

This also puts limits on irritating restrictions in the university infrastructure, because grant funded groups can just opt out. (This is how Unix spread at a lot of universities; early Unix ran on machines cheap enough that a research group could buy one out of grant funds. The subsequent withering of central mainframe computing is not a coincidence.)

Ironically, another effect is that grant funded people have a disproportionate amount of political power, because universities have evolved a lot of clever ways to extract money from grants (so many ways that most grants come with legal restrictions on what the money can be spent on). Often grant funded people club together to buy infrastructure, which can wind up effectively putting an entire department on their side.

tech/UniversityMoney written at 00:23:05; Add Comment

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