Research proposals are by necessity narrow in focus, and once awarded require that funds be allocated as described in the proposal on penalty of having these funds withdrawn. When funding rates are low it becomes increasingly important for investigators to demonstrate that their research proposals are unlikely to fail and therefore constitute a good investment. This requires evidence of the successful application of their research plan in the form of preliminary data.
As a result, nearly one-third of any research plan will propose experiments that have already been performed, and a research proposal will not be funded without preliminary data (despite what the grant might say). To generate these data investigators must unofficially devote a significant portion of their current research funds and allotted time over the first two years of a five-year operating grant, to put in place the backbones of their second and third research proposals. This amounts to a gross misallocation of funds, creates an unnecessary administrative burden on the investigator, and significantly limits progress on the original (funded) research plan.
Instead of funding long-term ambitious projects that redraw our current worldview and spark scientific and technical innovation, taxpayers end up funding a series of incremental short-term projects that colour in the spaces. While arguments can be made for the importance of both, access to infrastructure, equipment and expertise, resulting from earlier investments in the basic sciences has afforded us the unique opportunity in the United States and Canada to be trailblazers and innovators, creating the technologies and new industries that will guarantee our future economic prosperity. Growth, in this regard, is currently being stifled not only by insufficient investment in the sciences (as is often discussed), but by a ballooning and self-perpetuating administrative process that ends up costing more than the research itself.
At research-intensive institutions such as Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess, Dana Farber and Harvard Medical School (all located within five city blocks of each other, in the Longwood Medical and Academic Area in Boston, MA), indirect costs constitute approximately 76% of any total award and pay for facilities and administrative costs of the research institution. At this Research Crossroads site, you can input your favorite research institute and search their respective indirect cost agreements for yourself. This means that for every $100 of federal research spending, another $76 dollars is collected as overhead. While a certain amount of indirect costs are needed to support the research infrastructure, 76% is exorbitant (and, incidentally, reduces the total number of awards federal agencies can provide).
At major Canadian universities the current reimbursement rate of indirect costs is roughly 22%.* While it is true that ensuring regulatory and safety compliance, managing intellectual property, renovation and maintenance of research spaces, training of staff in animal care and ethics… etc. are unavoidable university expenses, it is also morally problematic when a significant portion of taxpayer money originally allocated to promoting scientific advancement for a specific research program is becoming absorbed into administrative fees at the recipient university. Indeed, the now common title of “principal investigator” instead of “professor” reflects the shifting role of researchers at biomedical institutions as administrative heads rather than academic leaders. Indirect costs need to be capped at 40%, and research equipment and administrative facilities centralized within each department, as will be discussed in my following post. In the interim, I would love to hear what you consider fair and why.
*This is a change from the original post, see comments below.