Harmful effects of federal research grants
The past two decades have seen an increasing emphasis on the importance of university faculty obtaining external funding to support their research efforts. Social work faculty have not been exempt from this pressure, especially within the network of programs housed in so-called research universities. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching currently designates 96 universities as Research Universities--Very High (RU/VH), meaning they annually award at least 20 doctoral degrees a year. These RU/VH institutions particularly value faculty obtaining federal research grants, although the pressure to do so is percolating throughout academe. Of the 203 Council on Social Work Education-accredited MSW programs, 47 are located in RU/VH universities.
Federal research grants are among the most highly sought sources of external funding, for several reasons. One is prestige, in that the competition for such grants is very keen, with a rigorous peer-review process used to exclude all but the highest quality research proposals from being funded. A second reason is that certain forms of important research can only be undertaken with substantial funding. A third factor (perhaps paramount) is that universities are allowed to attach a percentage of the research expenses to the total amount of the grant, expenses called "administrative overhead" or "indirect costs." My own university charges a 47% overhead rate for federally funded research conducted on campus. What this means is that if a research project is budgeted at $100,000 a year, the grant will receive its $100,000 to conduct the research, and the university will receive an additional $47,000 for indirect costs. (Indirect cost recovery rates do vary across funding sources and funding mechanisms.) This overhead is used to help provide the physical plant, personnel, and other resources needed to keep the university up and running. A portion of it is usually divided between the college and department from which the grant originated, and perhaps a small amount is awarded to the principal investigator (PI) of the grant itself, to provide supplemental research funds. In 2009, my university received over $142 million in federal contracts or grants. Thus, the grant overhead income received by research-oriented universities can be a major source of institutional revenue.
In this era of shrinking resources and cutbacks in state and private funding, university administrators increasingly encourage faculty to seek lucrative federal grants. Although hard data are difficult to obtain, it seems as if the profession of social work has been only modestly successful in this regard. The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) now publishes a directory of social work grants funded annually by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (see https://htmldbprod.bc.edu/ pls/htmldb/f?p=545:1:2378998554668479::NO:1). A histogram of these social work grants awarded from 1987 to 2009 looks rather like a normal curve, peaking in 2002 with 53 awards and declining yearly to 28 in 2009, about the same number as in 1996 (30 awards). It is by no means an accelerating curve, sloping ever upward. Despite the pressures from within the discipline and those imposed by upper level university administrators, the writing,...