My baptism in the conflict between academic productivity and the acquisition of indirect costs occurred some years ago when my university unilaterally canceled a research grant made to my laboratory by the Rockefeller Foundation. The shock to my research program was hardly mollified by a vice president's explanation that the cancellation was necessary because the foundation had refused to pay indirect costs. The unpleasant possibility that the university administration might be more interested in collecting overhead dollars than in fostering academic productivity had not previously occurred to me.

My second lesson about the tension between productivity and indirect costs came when a senior administrator in my university recommended to the Office of Management and Budget that it would be better to decrease the numbers of research grants than to limit the amount of indirect costs permitted in federal grants. Now the battle lines became more visible. The university administration expressed...

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