To answer that, we have to examine some deeply embedded structures.
Probably many people who have a passing familiarity with science or universities know that in the United States, much research is supported by grants from the federal government. What is less well known is this aspect of grants that are variously called “overhead” or “indirect costs (IDC).”
If I write a grant, I estimate how much the research project will cost me and write up a budget. I put in salary for students, costs of supplies, travel, and maybe some money to pay publication charges when the work is done.
I get a total. A nice, even, $50,000, say. Then, the university takes that total and adds overhead costs to it. Suddenly, the cost goes from $50,000 to $75,000 or even more. Typically, the bigger and swankier the university, the bigger the proportion of overhead.
Overhead is supposed to ensure that the institution supplies the researcher basic infrastructure. The phrase I’ve sometimes heard is that overhead helps to ensure the university “keeps the lights on.”
I do not know how or when the practice of including overhead in grants began. But I think it’s had some bad effects, which were probably not intended.
Overhead changes the dynamic in play for research tremendously. Because it gives institutions a particular kind of financial stake in research outcomes, and that twists the focus away from productivity towards profitability.
Let’s say you have two researchers. Both are publishing papers at the same rate. One person does mostly expensive bench research, the other is more a theoretician. Overhead makes it almost inevitable that the first person will be more valued because they bring in more dollars to the university, regardless of the relative amount or quality of the scholarship.
Overhead may be the root cause of the relentless push from university administration for their faculty, particularly new faculty in the tenure process, to do almost nothing but research.
Overhead distorts the way administrators measure research success: not by papers, or citations, or any other sort of measure, but by dollars. I’ve read more than once that some universities are outsourcing their tenure decisions to grant agencies. Didn’t get a grant? You’re fired. (Never mind that the proportion of grants getting funded at most agencies is at all-time low.) This can trump being a productive researcher by any other measure, like publishing papers. That pushes teaching off the radar, and outreach even further away.
Overhead creates perverse disincentives for particular kinds of funding. When we did a Google Plus hangout on crowdfunding last week, we talked for just a few second about how universities were not likely to support crowdfunding because they don’t get a big cut of the money raised. So you have this weird situation that institutions can be actively discouraging their faculty from pursuing money to do research – in a time when everyone is gasping for ways to support research – because the university wants money.
Now, I am sympathetic to the institutions and administrators. Finances are bad for a lot of universities. Pushing faculty as hard as you possibly can to get grants that bring in money is entirely rational, particularly given declining support, particularly public universities.
Overhead solves some problems, but has created others. And it’s so deeply embedded into the current granting structure in the United States that it’s hard to envision how it could be extricated or reformed. But it does not have to be that way. In Canada, it used to be that every nickel of a research grant went to the researcher (not sure if that’s still true). This was possible because there was greater provincial support to the universities.