Why does my academic lab keep growing?

Andrew, Breck, and I are struggling with the Stan group funding at Columbia just like most small groups in academia. The short story is that to apply for enough grants to give us a decent chance of making payroll in the following year, we have to apply for so many that our expected amount of funding goes up. So our group keeps growing, putting even more pressure on us in the future to write more grants to make payroll. It’s a better kind of problem to have than firing people, but the snowball effect means a lot of work beyond what we’d like to be doing.

Why does my academic lab keep growing?

Here’s a simple analysis. For the sake of argument, let’s say your lab has a $1.5M annual budget. And to keep things simple, let’s suppose all grants are $0.5M. So you need three per year to keep the lab afloat. Let’s say you have a well-oiled grant machine with a 40% success rate on applications.

Now what happens if you apply for 8 grants? There’s roughly a 30% chance you get fewer than the 3 grants you need, a 30% chance you get exactly the 3 grants you need, and a 40% chance you get more grants than you need.

If you’re like us, a 30% chance of not making payroll is more than you’d like, so let’s say you apply for 10 grants. Now there’s only a 20% chance you won’t make payroll (still not great odds!), a 20% chance you get exactly 3 grants, and a whopping 60% chance you wind up with 4 or more grants.

The more conservative you are about making payroll, the bigger this problem is.

Wait and See?

It’s not quite as bad as that analysis leads one to believe, because once a lab’s rolling, it’s usually working in two-year chunks, not one-year chunks. But that takes a while to build up that critical mass.

It would be great if you could apply and wait and see before applying again, but it’s not so easy. Most government grants have fixed deadlines, typically once or at most twice per year. The ones like NIH that have two submission periods/year have a tendency to no fund first applications. So if you don’t apply in a cycle, it’s usually at least another year before you can apply again. Sometimes special one-time-only opportunities with partners or funding agencies come up. We also run into problems like government shutdowns—I still have two NSF grants under review that have been backed up forever (we’ve submitted and heard back on other grants from NSF in the meantime).

The situation with Stan at Columbia

We’ve received enough grants to keep us going. But we have a bunch more in process, some of which we’re cautiously optimistic about. And we’ve already received about half a grant more than we anticipated, so we’re going to have to hire even if we don’t get the ones in process.

So if you know any postdocs or others who might want to work on the Stan language in OCaml and C++, let me know (carp@alias-i.com). A more formal job ad will be out out soon.


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