The great project hotel


As a humanities researcher on grant money, I am now gearing up for the grant-writing season. In fact, I’ve already submitted one application to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, which has their general project proposal deadline at the end of January. The reason I have to write applications is simple: if I don’t get funding, I’ll be unemployed next year.

As I have been preparing those applications, I’ve come to think of my university is one big project hotel. As an independent contractor of sorts, I go out and find the financers then the university facilitates payment from the financers. In this arrangement, my university gets to take 30% of the grant off the top for overhead expenses and another 10% pays for facility costs. Those costs enable me to use the library (critical in research), print documents, have an office, and maintain the project’s accounting books. The remaining 60% of the grant is used for my salary, others’ salaries like assistants or even other researchers, computing equipment, archival visits, conferences, etc.

My arrangement with my project hotel isn’t all bad. I worked for many years in environmental consulting companies, so I’m familiar with project-based businesses. But I see three major drawbacks to using it in the Swedish academic setting.

First, although universities are in principle a place for academic freedom, project-funded researchers have little. If I want to stay employed, I need to write project grant applications that will be selected by a group of reviewers as a top project. Because so few projects actually get funded (only 8,5% of the 1108 humanities & social science applications to VR were funded in 2014), reviewer biases matter. Grant reviewers generally come from discrete disciplines (like history or geography) and are rarely specialists in my field of environmental history. On top of that the first reviewers are almost always people within the Swedish academic system, meaning that national biases in research approaches and questions are built in. In practice, this means that I can’t do the risky project, the one that crosses disciplinary boundaries, the one that might or might not succeed. I need to write a project reviewers want to fund, not necessarily one I want to do.

Second, the Swedish university system has a false veneer of job security. I am a ‘tillsvidare’ employee, which should mean that I have employment at Umeå University, but in reality I am only tillsvidare as long as there is money to pay me. No part of my salary comes from a general budget, thus the administration has no vested interest in me. Unlike in a consulting firm where there are people whose sole job is marketing clients for new projects to keep the staff employed, I am the only one seeking funding for me. Although my department is perfectly willing to employ me and take the overhead money from my project, if I don’t bring in more project-funding, I don’t have a job.

Third, because the university is a project hotel, it is only interested in guests that can pay “rack” rates. A discussion of overhead charges recently came up in my department because many funders cap the overhead amount (most EU projects, for example, are set at 25%). The leadership stated such projects can only be taken if the researcher can secure “co-financing” for the overhead portion unfunded by the granting agency. Because there are few sources within the university willing or able to provide this co-financing, I am structurally prohibited from applying for many overhead-limited grants. The message is that unless the university ends up getting all of that 40%, it would rather get nothing and have researchers unemployed.

Competitive science has been touted as the path to increase academic quality and has manifested itself in quantitative measurement of research like the UK REF and the new Swedish Fokus plans. But the drawbacks of the project hotel model for universities can be overwhelming, particularly for young researchers. When researchers end up spending all of their time and effort trying to stay employed instead of doing good science, neither science, the funding agencies, nor the Swedish public benefits.

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