Two of the prominent string theorists working on ideas about holography and cosmology featured in Amanda Gefter’s new book are Tom Banks and Willy Fischler, who have a new paper out on the subject, entitled Holographic Space-time and Newton’s Law. Besides the usual sort of thing, this paper contains a rather unusual acknowledgments section (hat-tip, the Angry Physics blog):
The work of T.B. was supported in part by the Department of Energy. The work of W.F. was supported in part by the TCC and by the NSF under Grant PHY-0969020. However, the authors do not thank either of these agencies, nor their masters, for the caps placed on their summer salaries, nor for the lack of support of basic research in general.
It seems that while debating philosophical issues concerning holography and cosmology can put one at the upper end of the current academic star system pay scale, it doesn’t stop one from getting embittered that it’s not enough. The authors did revise this text a few days later to remove the complaints.
For those who don’t know what this is all about, prominent theoretical physicists (and mathematicians) in the US generally have research grants that pay them not only research expenses, but “summer salary”. Historically, the reasoning behind this was that academics needed to teach during the summer to make ends meet, so agencies like the NSF would get them more time to do research by paying them to not teach. That was long ago, in a distant era. At this point the typical sums universities pay for summer courses are so much smaller than the academic-year salaries of successful senior academics that few would consider dramatically increasing their teaching load this way to make a little extra money.
Taking the NSF as an example, the standard computation is that an academic’s salary is considered just pay for nine months, with the NSF allowing grants to pay for up to two months of summer salary. In other words, grant applications can include a request for 2/9ths of a person’s salary, to be paid as additional compensation in return for not teaching summer school. As the salaries of star academics (who are the ones most likely to get grants) have moved north of 200K/year, these additional salary amounts have gotten larger and larger, crowding out the other things grants pay for (post-doc salaries and grad-student support are the big items).
Several years ago the mathematics part of the NSF instituted a “salary cap” on these payments, limiting them to about $25K/year. This year, in response to declining budgets, such a cap was put on payments to theoretical physicists, at $15K/month. So, any theorist with an academic year salary of over $135K/year saw a reduction in their additional compensation (although as far as I know only two were so outraged by this that they complained in the acknowledgments sections of their papers). The report of this year’s panel on the future of particle theory in the US includes the language:
This past year, the DOE instituted caps on summer salaries, and the NSF is following suit. We agree that this is preferable to further cuts in student and postdoctoral support, but it should be noted that still lower caps will have implications for research productivity, particularly if they reach the level of junior faculty (assistant or associate professor salaries). Many researchers may have to supplement their income with further teaching or other responsibilities in the summers.
Since Banks and Fischler work at public universities, one can check for oneself that they are seriously impacted by the new caps. Fischler is at the University of Texas, Banks has positions at UC Santa Cruz and Rutgers (I have no idea how the two institutions split his salary). Some of the grant information is also publicly available, for instance the NSF grant referred to in the acknowledgment is this one. It expires soon, but was supposed to provide $690K over three years, presumably including summer salary for Fischler, Weinberg and three others. One anomaly here is Weinberg, who at over $500K/year is likely the highest paid theorist in the US. The same people have a new grant recently awarded, for $220K.