07 June 2012

The root of problems

Why aren’t scientists rewarded for outreach? As Scicurious and Kate Clancey’s posts yesterday.point out, academics are pushed hard to do research, and are frantically busy people as a result. But why are they pushed so hard to do research in particular?

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.


Anonymous said...

Was discussing overhead w a PI who was also member of a particular NIH task force several weeks ago. According to hit, it overheads originated w govt funding agencies, NIH in particular I think. The idea was, if university faculty were doing federally funded research, then they should help offset institution's cost as well (I'd have to check but seems like this was 60s? I'm sure someone will correct me).

Principle was a good one, but this has perhaps developed into an unhealthy reliance by institutions on overheads. I think you're quite right that in some ways overheada can create peculiar incentives - and disincentives - for researchera and institutions alike.

Jeremy Fox said...

In Canada it's still true that federal research grants, at least from NSERC, don't need to budget for overhead. But there's still overhead paid. What NSERC does is total up the value of all the NSERC grants obtained by the faculty at a given university, and then pay the university a set fraction of that (I think 20%) as overhead. So if the faculty at Calgary collectively get $100 in grant funding, they get to spend $100, and separate from that, NSERC pays the university $20 in overhead.

Whether this weakens the perverse incentives you identify, I'm not sure.

Science Refinery said...

Sigh. "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" is really depressing. As an individual graduate student, it's sometimes difficult to imagine having an impact on such deeply structural issues like this. I'll console myself with the belief that the more we keep bringing it up, the more likely it is that the necessary changes will start to take place. So, of course, I blogged about it :)


Anonymous said...

love this post! i'm a new faculty at an R1 and our OSP takes.......59.9% of grants now! makes a million seem like gas money...so frustrating. may i re-blog this to my blog? newfaculty.wordpress.com

Zen Faulkes said...

Tiffany: This blog does is published using a Creative Commons license. it's the last thing on the right hand sidebar.