One David Korn of the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School has written a letter to Nature defending the indirect cost (IDC; "overhead") rates associated with NIH grants. It was submitted in response to a prior piece in Nature on IDC which was, to my eye, actually fairly good and tended to support the notion that IDC rates are not exorbitant.
But overall, the data support administrators’ assertions that their actual recovery of indirect costs often falls well below their negotiated rates. Overall, the average negotiated rate is 53%, and the average reimbursed rate is 34%.
The original article also pointed out why the larger private Universities have been heard from loudly, while the frequent punching-bag smaller research institutes with larger IDC rates are silent.
Although non-profit institutes command high rates, together they got just $611 million of the NIH’s money for indirect costs. The higher-learning institutes for which Nature obtained data received $3.9 billion, with more than $1 billion of that going to just nine institutions, including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Stanford (see ‘Top 10 earners’).
Clearly Dr. Korn felt that this piece needed correction:
Aspects of your report on US federal funding of direct research costs and the indirect costs of facilities and administration are misleading (Nature 515, 326–329; 2014).
Contrary to your claim, no one is benefiting from federal largesse. Rather, the US government is partially reimbursing research universities for audit-verified indirect costs that they have already incurred.
Ok, ok. Fair enough. At the very least it is fine to underline this point if it doesn't come across in the original Nature article to every reader.
The biomedical sciences depend on powerful technologies that require special housing, considerable energy consumption, and maintenance. Administration is being bloated by federal regulations, many of which dictate how scientists conduct and disseminate their research. It is therefore all the more remarkable that the share of extramural research spending on indirect costs by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been stable at around 30% for several decades.
Pretty good point.
But then Korn goes on to step right in a pile.
Negotiated and actual recovery rates for indirect costs vary across the academic community because federal research funding is merit-based, not a welfare programme.
You will recognize this theme from a prior complaint from Boston-area institutions.
“There’s a battle between merit and egalitarianism,” said Dr. David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute, a prestigious research institution in Cambridge affiliated with MIT.
Tone deaf, guys. Totally tone deaf. Absolutely counter-productive to the effort to get a majority of Congress Critters on board with support for the NIH mission. Hint: Your various Massachusetts Critters get to vote once, just like the Critters from North and South Dakota, Alabama and everywhere else that doesn't have a huge NIH-funded research enterprise.
And why Korn chooses to use a comment about IDC rates to advance this agenda is baffling. The takeaway message is that he thinks that higher IDC rates are awarded because His Awesome University deserves it due to the merit of their research. This totally undercuts the point he is trying to make, which is presumably "institutions may be private or public, urban or rural, with different structures, sizes, missions and financial anatomies.".
I just don't understand people who are this clueless and selfish when it comes to basic politics.