How Indirect Are The Legitimate Costs Of Doing Science?

"What we will hear today is a story of taxpayer dollars going to bloated overhead rather than to scientific research. It is a story of excess and arrogance, compounded by lax governmental oversight."

By | May 13, 1991

"What we will hear today is a story of taxpayer dollars going to bloated overhead rather than to scientific research. It is a story of excess and arrogance, compounded by lax governmental oversight." Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) thus opened a March 13 congressional hearing investigating alleged misuses of indirect costs reimbursements by Stanford University.

In the two months since that hearing, payment of indirect costs has become a matter of public debate, not to mention public ridicule. These costs--a university's expenses for maintaining its physical plant, its personnel, its library, and other services that support research--are tacked onto individual grants. Reminiscent of the Defense Department's payment of hundreds of dollars for replacement toilet seats, the Stanford case in particular, and the indirect costs issue in general, have come to be perceived as a new high in bureaucratic bumbling, as well as the frittering away of scarce government resources.

Not surprisingly, the issue has also become a subject of great debate for both university administrators and academic scientists, three of whom offer their views in the following essays.

In one essay, University of Wisconsin physicist Marvin Ebel points out that faults in the present method for reimbursing universities for the costs of conducting research aren't altogether new. The American Association of Universities, for example, appointed a committee to study the system back in 1987. What's needed now, Ebel says, is a system that is both simple and uniform.

What also aren't new are the problems caused by the present system's inadequacies, according to Carl Leopold, a Cornell University botanist, who writes of a longstanding conflict between academic productivity and the acquisition of indirect costs.

In the lead essay, Thomas Edgington, president of the Federation of Societies of Experimental Biology, outlines a series of proposals for improving the current system of indirect costs reimbursement.

--Julia King


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