Something Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog wrote is very relevant to recent arguments about NIH (and by extension, other agencies’) grant overheads (boldface mine):
Please note how the Times presents this debate — in effect, “White House, Researchers Disagree on Need for Electricity and Infrastructure in Conducting Research,” as if lighting, heating, the Internet, waste disposal, and the construction and maintenance of laboratory facilities are add-ons for researchers rather than necessities. We’re told that “researchers said the remark” by Secretary Price “showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the way biomedical research is conducted.” The sentence should have made clear that the researchers were making a plain statement of indisputable fact.
Here’s the thing: I don’t know if Steve M. is correct. On the one hand, many universities claim they’re losing money on research, even with the overheads as they are. Then again, I find it hard to believe that, a decade ago, university administrators were building new science buildings and hoping to fill them up with researchers on the expectation that it, in the best case, would cost them millions of dollars every year. My guess is that some places are doing well (i.e., ‘making a profit’) while others are losing money, if for no other reason than the realized total indirects rate is basically the same across institutions.
But the arguments by those who claim that overheads are too high are lazy. It’s possible to find the indirect rate institutional agreements for most universities online (it doesn’t help that these words are used to mean different things by different people in different contexts; here’s a good explainer, and here’s a short version on the terms). Getting the justifications for these rates is harder, as they used to be publicly available, but aren’t any longer. Someone (or someones) need to do the heavy lifting here, and see how the numbers add up.
If there is waste, it’s probably like most other government spending: it’s marbled. That is, it’s not easy to go in and just lop off a big piece; one place might be charging a little more on depreciation costs, while another has high fringe . You’re going to have to work hard and sweat the small stuff to fix it. But the suggestions to cut indirects by around eighteen percent ($1.2 billion) aren’t informed by any such analysis. Instead, it’s being driven by artificially-imposed austerity.
More clarity in overheads is needed, but let’s be clear: the people pushing this right now don’t give a shit about science.