In Sweden a successful academic career requires you to apply for research funding. If you don’t get funding, they say, it’s difficult to do research. You end up teaching too much and you have no money to buy books or to travel. The pecking order of prestige is determined by who can get what grant.  Big professors have big grants.

And yet, I’ve decided not to apply for any money.  First of all, I like teaching.  It is only once you are forced to explain something to someone else that you actually understand it. Not teaching, I would lose this opportunity.  Secondly, my research is extraordinarily cheap. All I need is a computer with an internet connection, and I have that already. I also have about a million books. The additional books I need I can get as pdfs or buy with my own money.

The fundamental problem with big grants is that they ground you in one place. You are supposed to invest the money in institutional structures — assistants, copy machines, adoring post-docs — and to develop your network of patronage.  I’ve done the opposite throughout my life — constantly broken with institutions and networks. I have no patronage to distribute. All I have is what I can take with me as I move along — my words. The words I write and the words I use when I lecture. Omnia mea mecum porto.

I treasure my freedom more than the social prestige that comes with big grants. I want to be able to write whatever I like and not be dependent on others. I want to speak out on behalf of causes I believe in — such as academic freedom — without fear of financial retribution.  If I don’t apply for money, no one can tell me what I can’t do. No, I will never be a big professor.

And frankly, I don’t think much social science research deserves funding anyway. The research just isn’t important or interesting enough. Most of it is esoteric nonsense and self-indulgent self-promotion. No one outside of the universities cares, and for good reason. I include my own research here. Give my money to cancer research!

4 Responses

  1. Very interesting. I wrote down my own thoughts in these/similar matters a few year ago (see the link below). Do also note that the blog post below leads to two other blog posts, “Writing research grant applications = wasted time?” and “My price tag”.

    “I estimated that I had spent between/at least 200-300 hours working on/writing these five applications during the last (academic) year. In the last (and smallest) application, I asked for money to finance a pilot study (344 hours). That still becomes a lot of money since my time is expensive (calculations show that I (someone in my position) cost more than 700 SEK/hour when I apply for research money). My own price for my own time, i.e. the hit I take in my wallet (taxed salary) when I ask for a leave of absence is only 150 SEK/hour. An alternative to applying for money is thus to work less than 100% and do the research you really really want to do (but can’t get financed) on the side. This opens up very sticky questions about the proletarianization of university teachers, but having to spend 200-300 hours of non-financed time writing research grant applications could also be discussed in the same terms, right? And it would be a hell of a lot more fun doing the research in question, rather than just writing about doing the research in questions… ”

  2. Daniel, we clearly think alike. What’s important to me is to get on with my work, and since it’s so cheap anyway, I just do it. I realize of course that this isn’t feasible for all kinds of research. Some need big labs and Large Hadron Colliders, and that’s obviously fine. A problem with the social sciences though is that much of what passes for “research” really is pretty useless. I enjoy reading and writing but I would feel bad asking someone to pay for what I do. There are too many serious, actual, researchers out there, and I respect them too much to ask for money from the same pot.

    1. Hi Pella, thanks. On some level this is clearly a matter of personality traits rather than convictions. I’m in general not that impressed with what passes for the socially prestigious.

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