12 April 2009

An examination of the attached strings

StringsMany people worry about giving public money for researcher. But even the most hard nosed will support government funding for something like cancer research.

This article in the Dallas Morning News shows how terribly convoluted funding can be, even for something that enjoys wide support. Here’s a summary.


  1. Texas legislators start cancer initiative to give money to cancer researchers to “cure cancer.”

  2. To get the bill through, a late addition requires researchers provide 50% matching funds. For every $10 dollars from Texas, the scientist has to find another $5.

  3. Texas law also forbids using the money for overhead (i.e., costs of maintaining infrastructure, like power), which can be 70% of the grant. For every $10 dollars from Texas, the scientist has to find up to another $7.

  4. Thus, to get the grant, a researcher may have to raise more money than the actual value of the grant.

    If a researcher won a $1 million grant from the state, the university could need an additional $1.2 million – $500,000 for the match and as much as $700,000 for indirect costs.

  5. Researcher spend more time chasing money to do research and less time actually doing research.


Can you feel the crazy? Does any reasonable person think this is an effective way of achieving a goal?

Apparently, some are so used to this that they don’t realize how inefficient this all is:

“I think everybody had assumed that the goal was to leverage state money,” DuBois (Dr. Ray DuBois, provost and executive vice president of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center) said. “But I don’t think anyone anticipated that things would go south with the economy.”

Don’t blame the economy for a counterproductive funding structure. And in particular, don’t try to tell me that research money has just suddenly dried up in the last year. The major sources of U.S. funding for this kind of research have been flat or shrinking and becoming ever more insanely competitive for almost a decade, nearly destroying scientific careers.

I also wonder whether, in these “touch economic times,” institutions with 70% overhead will start getting black marks against them for their high indirect costs? For instance, our institution currently charges 43.6%. And it used to be much lower. Thus, if someone at my institution were to try to get money from this program, we would “only” have to raise money slight less than the value of the grant.

This also brings up a story that I’ve commented about on other blogs. This paper recently came out, arguing that for the Canadian funding agency NSERC (who I owe a lot to), it’s cheaper to just award every grant than it is to try to sort through and review every grant and give money based on merit. This seemed to be similar to points I’d made before about micro-grants.

And my sale on amazing is still valid!

1 comment:

Steve said...

I feel the crazy. The whole funding system, especially the egregious univ. overhead "tax," is deeply broken. :(