Where to cut ?

Amidst the global recession, funding for basic scientific research is suffering cuts just about everywhere (especially worrisome is the situation in my country). As these cuts trickle down all the way to individual research grants, academics and other professional scientists have to take a hard look at their budgets, and decide which expenses will have to be forgone.

For someone like me, engaged in theoretical research, one is looking at very little money to begin with (typically around 45K/yr) [0]. By far, the most important item in my budget is support for graduate students and postdoctoral associates. That is where the bulk of the money goes, and, frankly, I would hate to have to cut down on that part. But then, where else should I cut ?
Somewhat surprisingly, there are in fact budget items over which I can exercise stricter control, reducing my expenditures quite significantly.

It has been clear to me for a while that travel expenses were creeping up, but only recently has it finally hit me how out of control they really have gotten.
In 2008 alone, I tapped my NSERC grant for travel expenses by an amount roughly equivalent to that required to support a graduate student over the Summer term.
How did that happen ? Well, last year I have been lucky enough to receive an unusual (for me) number of speaking invitations at conferences worldwide. Since that is a welcome recognition for one’s research work, and since it is not something that happens to me regularly, I happily accepted all of them — the problem is, I had to fly myself where the conferences were held, as seldom do conference organizers have the money to pay for travel expenses, even those of their invited speakers. But flying is quite expensive, and by the time one adds conference registration fees and local expenses, it is not at all uncommon to be talking several thousand dollars a year.

I had already made, a few years back, the decision to cut down significantly on conference attendance, for a number of reasons (including the fact that I do not really get much out of conferences, nowadays — especially large ones). I do believe that last year was unusual, in terms of speaking invitations; still, in the future I may regrettably find myself forced to decline speaking offers, should no travel funds be available, and I am quite sure that there are many like me, in the same situations [1]. If some travel money is available at the end of the year, I would much rather send a student or a postdoc to a conference than attend myself (and if I really have to go, I am going to bite the bullet and pay out of pocket).

Computing equipment
Computers are not just necessary for office work. In my case, essentially all of my research activity involves numerical computation, hence the need for access to reasonably fast computing facilities. One might think that this is really no issue. After all, there exist large shared facilities (such as Westgrid in Canada), to which researchers have free access, upon stating a reasonably strong scientific case, expressed in a relatively compelling research proposal. However, in practice most of us who engage in large scale computation find it more convenient to maintain a small in-house facility (i.e., a computing cluster, either individual or shared with a few colleagues).
Of course, these things are not inexpensive, even though the cost of computing hardware is no longer what it used to be only a decade ago. Moreover, the notion that one can always use a faster computer is one that is difficult to dispose of, as newer and faster models come out each year. Still, given the need to curb my expenditures, I can see myself taking the following simple actions:

  • Buy fewer computers, especially office desktop ones (increasingly I am feeling that laptops are the way to go, even for daily office work), and replace them less often. Also, try and make greater use of large shared computing facilities, in spite of the difficulties that that often entail (I shall write about this painful subject some other time).
  • Spread out the purchase of new “number-crunching” hardware over the duration of a grant. It is easy to make the mistake of using all the money at once and buy all the XX nodes that one needs. That is a bad idea. Much better is to purchase XX/N nodes each of the N years of the lifetime of the grant — that way, only a fraction of the cluster will be relatively old (N years) at any given time, and at least a fraction will always be state-of-the-art. This is a way both to reduce the expenses (less maintenance is required for newer machines), as well as to get “more bang for the buck” [2].

Publication charges
This is a tough one. I am strong supporter of open access journals, and I really wish to see the New Journal of Physics grow to be an alternative to Physical Review Letters. However, I cannot afford to pay over a thousand bucks to have a paper published, simple as that. So, until the financial outlook improves, unless funding to publish my work on open access journals becomes available through other sources, open access will be achieved by uploading papers on ArXiv, while my papers will be submitted to free journals only. It is a shame, but I do not have a choice.


[0] The cost of a graduate student is approximately 25K/yr in Canada, while that of a postdoctoral associate is approximately double. That means that, over the duration of a typical grant (5 years), one is looking at supporting in full, on average, one to two graduate students and one postdoctoral associate. I think it is fair to say that that is really the typical group size for a condensed matter theorist such as myself, these days, in America.

[1] It will be interesting to see whether many of us start cutting down on travel, as a result of which the number of conferences itself may go down dramatically. The implications could be actually non-trivial and far reaching — are conferences not an essential part of the scientific business ? Could it be that the time has come for scientists to experiment with virtual conferencing ?

[2] I know, I know, someone reading this is going duh !… all right, it took me a while to figure this one out, so shoot me… jeez…

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11 Responses to “Where to cut ?”

  1. Professor in Training Says:

    Hahaha – when I saw the title of your post, I thought it was going to be a tirade directed against me and our recent discussions about hair, or lack thereof!

  2. R Says:

    what about cutting on the number of grad students? (That is assuming you have many).

    That probably also goes to departments that accept a lot more students than they can support as RAs.

    • Massimo Says:

      The number of graduate students is strictly regulated by the law of supply and demand, like anything else in a market economy. If I have the money to support a student who is interested in pursuing a graduate degree in physics, has in my view both the talent and the motivation, wishes to work with me and I think I have the time, there is no reason in the world to tell him/her to go away…

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    Very interesting point on conferences and travel. I’ve never experienced a virtual conference myself, but I know Nature do various seminars etc. on Second Life (which I’ve been avoiding because I have a tendency to get sucked into such things – I don’t want to tell you how many hours I spent on Sim City during my PhD). If we start now then the systems and interfaces will be optimised by the time virtual conferences become a financial and environmental necessity.

    (p.s. from the title I thought this post was going to be about something else)

  4. Schlupp Says:

    Massimo, about Westgrid and so: One certainly needs something like this if one needs to do ‘huge-scale’ computing on a scale where computing costs become prohibitive. On the other side, one also needs a fast and hassle-free way to do ‘mall-to-medium-scale’ computing, be it only for code development and exploratory work. But how is it for merely large-scale? I mean the scale for which you CAN buy the computers but where administration and costs become noticeable, e.g., you’d have to reduce travel to buy the machines. I heard from one guy who actually has money for computers, but does not want to buy any, because he’d then have to worry about sys-admin stuff. He specifically mentioned Westgrid as something he’d much prefer. What is your opinion?

  5. Massimo Says:

    Well, my own case is a bit different, in that I had to do the system administration myself at my first institution, which did not really provide research support such as an in-house system administrator. So, it is something that in principle I could do myself, if I really had to. On the other hand, the presence where I am of a competent and efficient system administrator, paid by the department and willing to help research faculty with their computing needs, undoubtedly makes things much easier for all of us.

    It is certainly an issue, one for which different solutions can be found. I do not like the idea of giving this as a task to a graduate student or a postdoc — they are not there for this type of stuff.
    I think the only viable approach consists of hiring a person whose salary can be paid off the grant money of a a bunch of faculty who engage in computation.

  6. Successful Researcher Says:

    By the way, I have always wondered how one could substantiate spending the grant money on the publication fees in the first place. I mean here physics and mathematics, where one has arXiv.org; of course, the situation is probably different in the life sciences. Anybody cares to comment on that?

    • Massimo Says:

      Justification ? Open access… quite a powerful argument, if you ask me. It only becomes a moot point if we agree that preprints published on the archives are every bit as good as articles printed on journals after undergoing peer review. Personally, I think they are, as it is the number of citations that determines in the long run the quality and impact of an article, peer-reviewed or not. However, society still ascribes some value to peer review and “formal” journal publication, in which case open access (namely articles freely accessible to everyone everywhere) is a strong reason to shoulder publication charges.

  7. Successful Researcher Says:

    Thanks, Massimo, I got your point.

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