Katherine Hayhoe, with PBS Digital Studios made this really cool video where she explains not only why scientists receive such large grants, but where it goes.
Grant money is not money for researchers, but money for research. While it may ultimately go to salaries, as is often the case when it comes to paying graduate students (they gotta eat, too), that doesn’t mean it’s a lot. In fact the relatively high cost of labor and facilities means that these sums often work out to be very little. Grants are necessary paperwork headaches and take time away from what scientists really want to do: Science.
Grants bring accountability. Grants from the federal government in particular can lead to financial audits, so researchers have to keep all their ducks in a row and account for every penny, just like you do come tax time, except that unlike your tax returns, federally funded projects are public. They can easily become politicized. Take for example, Climategate.
While it turned out to be a tempest in a teapot that was ultimately about taking hacked emails out of context, the National Science Foundation’s Office of the Inspector General conducted an investigation. That’s right, the NSF has an Inspector General, and it looks into scientific misconduct and whether federal funds are used appropriately. So when scientists hear someone say that scientists just say certain things to get more funding, there’s a very real disconnect to how funding actually works. What’s funny is that the organizations most likely to give unrestricted, unregulated money to scientists are industry groups of various kinds. Politically motivated environmental groups don’t necessarily like to direct their money to scientific funding, instead preferring to spend that money on lobbying and campaigning.
The next time you hear that global warming is made up by scientists who “are just after funding,” ask them how they think grants and scientific funding works and how easy they think the process is.