Everyone is looking for ways to keep research money on the table for the science these days. I watched the end of the OSTP budget request presentations yesterday and caught both the NSF and NOAA announcements. In both cases, and in the breakout sessions, each agency made a point to mention that only ~6% and ~4%, respectively, goes to administrative costs in their budget. The subtext, of course, being that they channel almost every tax dollar they can directly into the science.
But. That money for science doesn't all go to science, does it? In any discussion of declining science budgets, the issue of university overhead is always a topic that comes up. Each institution negotiates its own overhead rate with the Feds, mine happens to be just north of 50%. This means that for ever dollar I bring in, a little more than 50 cents is deposited into the university.
Fascinatingly (to me, anyway), this number manifests very differently between NIH and NSF. NIH budgets take only the direct costs (those $$ spendable by the PI) into account when the project is reviewed. For NSF, reviewers get the total budget, with both direct and indirect costs factored in. Theoretically, proposals with higher overhead rates can be penalized in the NSF case, whereas these costs are obscured from review in the case of NIH.
That little tidbit aside, overhead money ALWAYS comes up in conversations about federal research budgets. "Reduce the overhead rate and we'll all get funded!" While that all sounds well and good, the conjured images of overhead-funded Dean's Maseratis is so ridiculous that it's hard to engage anyone spouting that view with a straight face. So what does overhead really do?
Among many things, overhead has two major functions: 1) pay for the research enterprise, 2) fund start-up packages. Point 2 is pretty straight forward - a research career isn't going to get off the ground without funds to create data prior to the first grants rolling in. The first point, however, is where many people seem to have a blind spot. It's a blind spot often created by not having to worry about the costs that this evil overhead covers. Also, it is often unclear how much it actually costs to keep the lights on and the research supported. If we ignore support staff who are funded off overhead money (a major cost) and just focus on the lab space, what does that cost?
How many benches does your lab occupy? How about equipment use (because, recall, the crowd funding movement comes without start-up funds)? Service contracts? I can only speak from my experience, but overhead not only covers the costs of my bench space and all that is associated with that, but certain costs that I can't use fed money for. Software? Computers (in most cases)? Service contracts for equipment in my lab can run north of $20K annually (which is relatively small) and luckily we get much of that covered from college overhead. And we're not even talking about specialized bench space (laminar flow hoods?) or activities that need to be conducted in physically separated spaces.
This is the reason that I can't take people seriously when they claim that the current academic model is just a way for universities to gorge themselves off the federal government. These proclamations are often tightly coupled with a flagrant lack of appreciation for what the infrastructure of the research enterprise actually costs. Maybe you can convince the general public to donate $20,000 for a project. Maybe. But it better get done fast if you're bleeding out at a base cost rate of $900/mo before you pay for staff, reagents, equipment or computers.
Research doesn't happen in a vacuum. Without an appreciation for the actual cost, and not just what comes out of the direct costs budget, this independent research ideal is hamstrung before the race even starts. Making improvements to the way we do research is an admirable goal, but strutting about like only morons can't see your new clothes already has a story.