Living to your credit limit

Pierre Mignard, “The Marquise de Seignelay and two of her sons”

More funding doesn’t mean less pressure. 

Whatever their salary, people tend to live to their credit limits. It’s the same in labs. The interesting thing is that the pressure is probably the same regardless of whether you’re well-funded or not.

If you’ve got lots of money, you can invest in either people or infrastructure. Either you go for a large group with lots of people and fairly standard capabilities, or you have a small group but with a much higher per-capita expenditure (TIR’s tip: the latter produces better science). Regardless of which philosophy you plump for however, you need to continue to attract that level of funding to sustain the size of the enterprise, be it at a personnel or at a capability level. 

Fail to obtain it, and you’ll have to start letting things go. The “things” will be either people or tools, and maybe eventually both, and the hurt will be the same. If you’re a good boss, it will worry you because you have a sense of responsibility towards the people working for you and the impact it will have on their careers; if you’re a megalomaniac it will worry you because of the impact on your own career, as it suggests that you’re not as brilliant as you suppose, and that you’ll lose status amongst your presumed peers. 

Regardless, it’s a worry. 

This desperate need to sustain a level of attainment is academia’s counterpart to the money spiral of the corporate world, where pay rises and incentives start off being perks but then become necessities and end up as essentials. People become accustomed to a certain style of living, and then they need more money to sustain it. 

Research would seem to follow a similar trend. We talk of individual scientists as rising stars, but what really behave like stars are groups: successful groups grow, attract more money, and continue to glow radiantly from their fusion reactions until they go into supernova with the group leader’s retirement or fade away to become white dwarfs (old white male dwarfs, if we’re generalising in the current climate). 

It’s rightly acknowledged that more funding is critical to achieving more in terms of research output, but more money doesn’t mean less stress. More money just means you can have more people and/or more capability, but it doesn’t mean your life is going to get easier.

Imagining the difficulties of running a group on a small budget is straightforward. There will probably be fewer people and definitely a reduced output volume, but that lower expenditure also means you require less to keep going. You’ll almost certainly be more cost-efficient too, so there’s less wastage and the overall operation is tighter than in a large group. 

The only real psychological difference, and what constitutes the principal cause of stress in that setup, is that in a low-funded group you’re always much closer to an extinction event – loss of funding may mean winding up the group rather than simply letting people or services go.

So that’s it. In a low-funded group you worry about whether you’ll still be around in another year; in a large group you worry that things will collapse. But regardless of circumstance, the presence of pressure and worry is constant – both for yourself as group leader and, if you’re doing things properly, on behalf of your group members. As Notorious B.I.G. put it, “I don’t know what they want from me / It’s like the more money we come across / the more problems we see”. 

Becoming successful won’t make you less stressed. Getting more money will not, in the long term, make you less stressed either. You have to learn to manage the stress itself, and find a way to control the worrying.   

2 thoughts on “Living to your credit limit

  1. I’ve experienced this problem. A key issue is that we have very few ways to “save” money, which is what one does to avoid this stress in personal finance. You might apply for an additional grant out of fear of extinction. Then if you are lucky enough to get it, you have little choice other than to expand your group or give the money back. But when the next renewal comes around you are even more stressed out because now you have more at stake. Science needs more financing options. Living pay check to pay check is stressful for all. We need a system that allows us to save up for a rainy day. This might go a long way to reduce grant hyper competition.


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