A while ago I had a meeting with a well-known scientist visiting our campus, and after talking science, I expressed some frustration about the impediments presented by university bureaucracy to doing my science.

He responded saying that he had just had dinner the night before with our Chancellor, Holden Thorp, and that Dr. Thorp had expressed an opinion that faculty should find ways around the bureaucracy.

I let that sit for a while… and it didn’t sit well.

Often times there are no viable ways around the bureaucracy.  For example, let’s say I need to give a key person in my lab a raise, and say for example that the bureaucracy says “no raises”.  I say for example “but the person took on much more work that she wasn’t doing before, so needs a raise”.  And the bureaucracy says “budget crunch.” And I say “but I pay for the person with grant money”.  And the bureaucracy comes up with some other reason.  Round and round it goes.  There is no way to get around such a situation, except for paying the raise out of my own pocket.  (The example situation above is very close to a real situation, where it took over 14 months to get a raise for someone who was strongly deserving of it).

So I called up the Chancellor’s office to ask for an appointment.  That appointment is today.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that this university (like many) want us and tells us to be entrepreneurial, yet in terms of actually supporting us in doing so, it falls very short.  This is going to be my main point for the Chancellor.

For example – this Fall my collaborator and I received an ARRA “Grand Opportunities” award from the NIH to accelerate our work on human genome annotation.  This came directly from an extraordinary grant writing marathon that I had undertaken last May, writing 3 proposals and parts of 2 others within a 5 week span.

Now, if this were a real entrepreneurial system (i.e. a business), if I had just made such an effort, and as a result brought in over $2M in revenue, I believe that they would have found some way to make that a rewarding experience, so that I would do the same thing more times in the future.

However, I had the opposite experience.  Getting that award was one of the single most challenging happenings of my entire career, because the university bureaucracy has been in the way at every step.  There have been problems with space, hiring, administrative support, and many others.  At one point, I found myself yelling at my chairman over space issues (which really weren’t his fault).  After apologizing for that, I had to do some serious reflection about what the problem was that would lead me to such a situation.

Who else thinks that bringing in $2.1M in funding (on top of the R01 I received earlier in the year) should be a cause for celebration, rather than a cause for major career angst?

The bottom line is that there’s a strong disincentive here for me to go out and ever try to do that (getting big grants) again!  (Instead, I’ve decided to use my grant-getting skills and energy to help other faculty be more successful at it).

That kind of negative feedback loop for doing something great is strongly discouraging of entrepreneurialism.

If I were in a business, and we’d just received a big contract or grant, we’d go out and lease more space (and have a big party as well!).  Problem solved.  Here it was a somber occasion.

I think this problem is not just localized to UNC.

Many universities now expect their faculty to go out and get (lots of) grants.  Yet many of those same universities aren’t prepared to support and encourage that grant-getting work (hey, if you’ve had a positive experience, please write about it in the comments, it would be great to see some uplifting stories once in a while!).

It is very different being an entrepreneur in the business world.  If you’re successful – you get paid a lot more money, and get access to a lot more resources.

I know, I know – science isn’t about the money (or, at least in theory, it shouldn’t be).  But the fact is that most universities have monetized the scientific endeavor.  So like it or not, as faculty, we can simply come to be seen as profit centers, rather than as scientists.

I think I have an idea here for another book… something like “Science is broken…and how to fix it”.  First I have to finish the other two books on my slate.

I’ll post about how the meeting with the Chancellor goes.

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