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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Funding Legal Scholarship: The Grant-Funding Model

Under the traditional law school model, scholarship is an expense that the school shoulders as part of its mission.  In many academic disciplines, however, research is a revenue generator.  The primary way in which schools generate income from their research is through grant funding: a third party will agree to pay the school a certain amount of money in exchange for the production of a specified research project or agenda.  So instead of the school paying for the research, the grant-funder pays the school to pay the professor for the research.

In those disciplines where grant-funding is substantial, it is common to refer to the school's or division's research portfolio by a dollar amount, signifying the amount of grant-funding in play at any given time.  And no wonder -- the funding can be quite substantial.  For example, this 2011 report on UT-Austin found that the faculty generated $161 million in tuition revenue and $397 million in external research funding.  The report came in response to an earlier effort to quantify UT faculty productivity based primarily on two metrics: number of student hours taught and amount of grant funding brought in.  As one might imagine, law faculty who taught small courses and were traditional yet productive legal scholars did particularly poorly on these metrics.

The grant-funding model differs from the traditional legal scholarship model in several key respects.  First, and most obviously, grant-funding is usually supplied by a non-profit or governmental agency that operates outside of the school.  The NIH provides over $30 billion annually in medical research funding to over 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 research institutions.  (These numbers alone make one realize how relatively small the whole law school universe is.)  A myriad of other grant funders exist, reaching out to a variety of different disciplines.  But I think it's fair to say that there is no non-profit or governmental grant-funder that focuses primarily on legal research.

Grant-funding is not just different in terms of who provides the money; it's also different in how the money is provided.  Here are a few of the salient differences between grant-funding and the traditional law school model:

  • Grant funders provide money not as salary to a particular person, but as an allocation for a particular project.  Of course, part of any grant includes salary or salary reimbursement, but the grant is directed toward a project, not a person.
  • Grants are generally awarded through a peer-review process, in which the researchers and the project are scrutinized to determine if the research is deserving of the award.
  • Grants are limited in time, and may or may not offer an opportunity to renew.
  • Universities generally take a big chunk of the grant as overhead, and may or may not have restrictions on how this overhead is allocated.
  • Although grants do not generally have financial penalities for failure to produce the research, they may be structured to require deliverables.  Some funders use contracts or "cooperative research agreements" to maintain even more control over the research and the disbursement of funds.

How does grant-funding affect the salaries of researchers?  It's hard to say as a general matter, but in those fields with significant grant-funding, researchers are expected to get grant funding.  Faculty may even be expected to get almost their entire salary covered through grants.  Tenure generally protects tenured researchers from being terminated for failing to obtain grants.  However, grant success is a factor for tenure in many fields, and failure to get grants post-tenure may have a significant impact on salary.  Grant-funding may also affect how much money a particular school is allocated from the university.

If legal education went to a grant-funding research model, faculty would be expected to look outside the school to find funding for their research.  Funding would be based on projects, rather than people (at least nominally), and would pay for the professor's time spent on the scholarship as well as associated expenses.  Funds would likely be disbursed based on a peer-review system, combined with whatever policy angle or political interest the funder brought to the project.  However, even in the absence of third-party grant-funders, a school could also adopt a grant-funding model to deploy its own research funds.  In fact, some schools use such a model for funding such as summer research grants.

My assumption is that grant-funding in legal academia is is relatively small but growing.  As the academy becomes more interdisciplinary, it will be easier for professors to hop onto projects with other researchers in grant-funding fields.  It may also be the case that foundations and government agencies are looking for more legally-related projects to fund.  However, federal government funding is definitely getting squeezed, making overall grant-funding dollars scarcer.  So it seems unlikley that significant grant-funding sources for legal research will soon spring up on their own.

I think legal education could use aspects of the grant-funding system to provide more incentives and support for legal research.  These reforms will be discussed more on Thursday and Friday.  In the meantime, I'd be interested in hearing if I've characterized the grant-funding system properly, and if I've missed any of the basic policy effects of that system.

Posted by Matt Bodie on February 11, 2014 at 04:48 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I think before even proposing this, you may want to calculate:

1) How much grant funding there presently is in law schools.
2) Who is doing the funding--i.e., do the funders have an agenda.
3) What likelihood there is for any federal or state grant funding in this area.

I'd say that 3) is near-zero, 1 is minuscule, and 2 would reveal exactly why anti-regulatory, pro-corporate-power groups would love to see this model take root.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 11, 2014 8:55:38 PM

I think of grant funding as a grant needed to do research to pay for the costs of research. But most legal research is research on Westlaw or in a law library. Assuming that law schools continue to pay for Westlaw and the law library, the "grant" is just an inducement to write on a particular subject instead of something else. It seems like a somewhat odd field in which to have grant funding, at least outside areas like empirical work, historical research that has significant travel costs, etc.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 11, 2014 11:19:20 PM

I more or less agree with Orin saying that law doesn't exactly fit a grant-funded model, but otoh I don't really think it fits a student debt-financed model either...

Posted by: yes, but... | Feb 12, 2014 6:12:11 AM

I will say that in the area I work in, health law, there is a much larger amount of grant-funded work that goes on. I think this is true of law and science more generally. Among the difficult questions that can come up (1) How should an institution approach grant funding when a faculty gets it? Are there limits on how much of their time that the faculty member can buy out? Notice also that because on charges overhead on the grant typically, the school actually ends up ahead even after the buy out. (2) What support should law faculty be given in seeking grants? In particular, in many other parts of the university there are people who are paid to help write grants for faculty and pursue them? (3) When law faculty who are "hard money" want to work with "soft money" peers at other parts of the university, how can the university facilitate those relationships? (4) When does grant funding or industry funding begin to alter or re-direct the research agenda of faculty, and is that a good or bad thing? (5) Should ability to bring in grants be a factor in hiring, promotion, remuneration decisions? There are many others, but I have faced all these things in my own academic life and also the academic life of my center, both of which have pursued and received big grant funded projects. Matt I would love to see you write some more on these issues, perhaps by talking to some of your colleagues at your institution in health law or other grant-funded areas? Thanks again for raising these issues...

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Feb 12, 2014 11:04:39 AM

I should have before, and I will now, direct folks to Glenn's discussion of grant-funding last year here on Prawfs:


I think there will be a lot of pressure on law profs to seek grant funding in the future. But I also want to talk about the grant-funding model, which law schools could apply for their own dollars that they devote to research. I have some more ideas on this that I'll explore on Thursday and Friday. But I agree with Glenn and Anon that there are a lot of issues in grant-funding for law schools, and it's not realistic to expect all law profs to start winning grants tomorrow.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Feb 12, 2014 11:42:11 AM

At UI, there are regular information sessions on grant funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim, American Counsel of Learned Societies and NSF (in their Law and Social Science division). I have also reviewed a law-related grant application for the Templeton Foundation.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Feb 12, 2014 12:21:49 PM

Grant-funded research is different from grant-based salaries (thank goodness). That's a big step, but just as a reminder of how grant-based salaries can go:

(Two prominent experts in public health were dismissed by Columbia School of Public Health earlier this year.)

Posted by: Monica Eppinger | Feb 12, 2014 12:51:00 PM

My colleague Jeff Redding sends along this cautionary tale about grant funding:


Posted by: Matt Bodie | Feb 12, 2014 12:52:10 PM

Anon's first comment above illustrates another problem with the grant funding model in law school (perhaps associated with some of the other comments here about direction and sources, etc.). For many readers, the identity of the grant source is a signal that the work must be shoddy or otherwise tainted.

I don't know what can be done about that. The likelihood is that folks already hold whatever views they hold, and that's why they get grants. In any event, I think this will grow over time as more grant funding becomes available.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Feb 12, 2014 5:30:18 PM

The idea that grant funding signifies shoddiness but lack of peer review doesn't is one of the more troubling aspects of legal academia.

Just a few thoughts that come to mind:

1. In theory, legal research should be better suited for grant funding than several other, more abstract/less applied fields, like literature, philosophy, and cultural anthropology.

2. If legal academics have to compete against academics in other fields, they are going to run into skepticism about their ability to adequately investigate non-legal fields. A law professor applying for a grant for a project utilizing ethnography who is competing against trained anthropologists is going to be handicapped. The tendency for a lot of law professors to be self-trained may be accepted in law schools but it is generally not in other areas.

3. Legal academics are going to also be disadvantaged by the fact that for a lot of applied legal questions, practitioners are better analysts of the subject, which is not something you see in most other fields.

Posted by: TWBB | Feb 13, 2014 10:12:42 AM

"The idea that grant funding signifies shoddiness but lack of peer review doesn't is one of the more troubling aspects of legal academia."

To be clear, I wasn't saying that, at least not directly. I tend to think that there is a lot of post publication peer review in the form of commentary and citation (or lack thereof). A lack of ANY critical commentary on quality is a problem. My point was just that the commentary (whether peer review or otherwise) should be based on the quality of the work.

I agree with all the points TWBB makes, though, which is why grant funding for legal scholarship is often quite different from the type of grant funding we think of in other areas.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Feb 13, 2014 3:59:39 PM

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