I was reading this. It says

... You won't find yourself as starving for funding like Pure Mathematics. (You'll still always find yourself starving for funding.)...

Why do pure mathematicians need funding?(Ooops its mathoverflow question)

Why would someone doing theoretical research need funding?

I think tools of trade are papers, pencils, a laptop with good internet connection and a printer(?).

Please enlighten me! :-)


This is purely US-centric: other countries have different funding models. This is also from the perspective of an academic with a Ph.D, rather than a graduate student

As Jamie and Peter point out, the primary purpose of funding is to support graduate students. A secondary purpose is to support yourself during the summer. It's not widely known, but most US-based academics aren't paid for the 3 months of summer, and use grant money as salary for those months (I'll not discuss the limitations of NSF vs DARPA etc etc).

So you say, "I don't need students, I'll just work with colleagues". Great ! but then you need money to visit them. Without grant money, you have to wait your turn for whatever meager departmental funds might be available for travel (usually minimal).

So you then say "Fine ! I'll use skype and email to collaborate". Great ! but then you need to travel to a conference to give a talk. How do you fund that ?

So you say "Fine ! I'll just publish in journals and on the arxiv, and the brilliance of my research will shine through". Um, yeah....

If you're a junior academic, not getting funding can also affect your ability to retain your job itself. Funding is a major income source for most American universities.

None of this is ideal. But that's how the system is currently structured, dating back to Vannevar Bush, the founding of the NSF, and the mutation of the university into a research-generating enterprise.

  • $\begingroup$ Aha! Got it! In its full(almost full) depth and breadth :-) $\endgroup$ – Pratik Deoghare Jan 5 '11 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ “So you say ‘I don't need students’.” Sorry, but if you work at a research university and you want tenure, you need students. Even if you can argue that your research per se doesn't require funding, having no (or even very few) students raises serious red flags with tenure committees. But once you have students, you need to feed them. $\endgroup$ – Jeffε Jan 12 '11 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ too true. I wrote this partly from the (imagined) perspective of a tenured professor, but you're absolutely right that having no students is a major red flag. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Jan 12 '11 at 18:48

To hire graduate students! In addition to paying for your own salary, travel, guests you'd like to have visit the university, and so on.


[Adding to Jukka's answer] You need to somehow support your life. If your family isn't paying your costs (which is the case for all students in our research lab), you need to somehow earn a living. Either you have to work (which usually prevents one from concentrating on research), or you use the funds.

A friend of mine was once asked to promise not to work during his graduate studies. "I can't eat papers when I'm hungry," he replied! ;)

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    $\begingroup$ "I can't eat papers when I'm hungry." is going to be my T-shirt quote! +1 $\endgroup$ – Pratik Deoghare Jan 5 '11 at 23:15

I have a scholaship, but that only covers the tuition fee and living costs. My university doesn't give me money to go to conferences (registration, hotel, aeroplane tickets), paying for journal access, buy books, etc. Those things require a heck of a lot of money, and research grants give you that. Normally the costs of printer, paper, pencils, etc are covered by the university.

  • $\begingroup$ (I think you meant "heck of a lot" not "lot of a heck" :)) $\endgroup$ – Joshua Grochow Jan 9 '11 at 1:01

To pay your own salary (and the travel costs of some conference trips).

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    $\begingroup$ And grad students. $\endgroup$ – Peter Shor Jan 5 '11 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ Pay your own salary?? what? $\endgroup$ – Pratik Deoghare Jan 5 '11 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ @TheMachineCharmer: It is much easier to find a job (or keep your job) at a university if you have a grant that covers the costs! Once you get a permanent position as professor, you can stop worrying about it (but, as Peter Shor pointed out, then you will need to worry about finding funding for your grad students...). $\endgroup$ – Jukka Suomela Jan 6 '11 at 0:26
  • $\begingroup$ ...even if tenured, the group as a whole can get the boot; this can happen (particularly when finances are tight). $\endgroup$ – Eamon Nerbonne Jan 8 '11 at 12:44

It is possible for a financially secure professor to get the mindset of "money doesn't matter", and indeed beyond a certain subsistence level, it is irrelevant. I will comment, that most of us aspiring researchers would indeed prefer a research job to a non-research one paying twice as much - beyond the minimum living costs and odd luxuries.

I will note that the renowned Topologist and Fields Medal winner, Stephen Smale once commented that he did his best research on "the beaches of Rio". The ensuing controversy cased him to lose his NSA funding temporarily, but I believe his point is valid. Security, travel and some degree of comfort/diversion does benefit the best minds.Not that 99% of us would be comparable to Stephen Smale of course, even with a million dollars.


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