The Fleecing of America by Biomedical Research Administration

Michael S. Straka mike.straka at
Thu Mar 21 15:09:17 EST 1996

On 20 Mar 96, Troy Shinbrot <shinbrot at> wrote:

>In article <4ipmre$2gld at>, hrubin at
>(Herman Rubin) wrote:

>> Not only were just about all reasonable proposals funded, but the 
>> government deliberately set out to increase the number of research
>> universities, and even research groups in non-research departments.
>> Money was made available for this, even more readily than supporting
>> investigators.  Also, there was a Congressional mandate to "spread
>> the wealth", even if there were no good candidates. 
>> The universities screamed that accepting the government funding cost
>> money.  It does, but should the universities not pay anything?  In short,
>> a massive overhead system was instituted, and universities not only ended
>> up not paying for research, but making money on the overhead they charged.
>What a fantasy!  How many people reading this have witnessed within the
>past 2 decades anything resembling a situation where the government has
>tried to overfund research and universities have screamed for the
>government to stop?  I can see our university president now, "Please,
>please, no more money!  We can't take any more!  Stop, stop!!"

I think you totally miss the point here, which is: a tremendous 
amount of money goes to institutions which conduct research; however,
only a fraction of that money goes directly to scientists.  Some time
ago universities dreamed up the idea of charging overhead on grants,
ostensibly to cover their costs.  It can be reasonably argued that 
institutions incur expenses while *allowing* faculty scientists the
opportunity to conduct research on their premises, using their 
infrastructure, staff, etc.  However, overhead inceases the amount
of money extracted from the govt, it penalizes, in effect, grant 
recipients, and it leads to an overall decrease in the efficiency of 
the conduct of research.  Out of all the monies disbursed to 
institutions in the form of grants, only about 2/3 or less (on average) 
goes directly for the purpose of research (salaries, eqpt, supplies).  
Thus, the money supposedly spent on research is inflated, and the 
conclusion is that the research enterprise is overfunded.

BTW, I'd be interested to hear about overhead rates at other 
institutions.  Here (University of Colorado Health Sciences Center,
Denver) it is 51.1%.  Anybody care to go for the record?

>> >Where is the research atmosphere destroyed? It's more fertile and active
>> >than anytime in history.
>> This is very definitely not the case.  There is a greatly increased 
>> amount of secrecy, so that someone else will not steal the grant 
>> proposal.  There is the pressure to make progress; research sometimes
>> stalls, ideas do not work, etc.  So investigators keep results back
>> so that they can use them on a new grant, and will often fake or select
>> data to make thir progress look good.  In research, it is necessary to
>> be able to admit that the approach one has taken is essentially of no
>> value.  Whatever strategy this takes is bad.
>And another fantasy follows.  Some scientists are very secretive, some are
>very open.  Has no bearing on scientific productivity, as measured by
>citations, by numbers of papers published, by numbers of significant
>technologies developed, by numbers of diseases cured ... you pick your
>measure, it has gone up.

Wrong.  On a per capita basis, productivity has in fact decreased.  I'm
afraid I don't have references handy, but I know they exist.  Alex?

>As for the assertion that "investigators ... will often fake or select
>data ..." this is both false and cheap.  Investigators do, almost always,
>select what data to show.  Investigators very rarely fake data.  I can
>count the number of substantiated allegations of fakery over the past
>decade on the fingers of one hand, and even those (for example,
>Imminishi-Kari) are disputed.  Scientists have if anything shown
>themselves to be _less_ prone to cheating than the general public, not

Oh really?  And how have they done that, pray tell?  It would certainly
be nice to believe, but...

I think a more accurate statement would be: the present system of grant
review/funding has molded scientists into becoming expert spin doctors.  
Not exactly data fabrication or manipulation, mind you, but simply not 
being entirely forthcoming when discussing results or ideas.  And who 
can blame them?  In my view, the system selects in favor of those who 
go to any length to succeed; ie, more and more, nice guys finish last.  

>> >This is a plan to destroy research, not free it.
>> I disagree completely.  The federal government, which cannot be trusted
>> any further than I can personally throw the Washington Monument, can wipe
>> out the funding for research immediately.  Research money has to compete
>> with welfare, and a budget is made without considering anything other than
>> the total.  Space research is one place where the governtment throttling is
>> clear; the millions of people who want to fund space activities on a larger
>> scale cannot do this without convincing a majority of Congress.  Let the
>> people who want to fund research do this, and let them not have to fund
>> federally run charity.  Instead of having 300 half-research universities,
>> have 100 full-research universities, and let these universities do their
>> research without federal restrictions.  It is vital for the future of 
>> research that no governmental minions have any say in allocation.

>And for the finale, the Department of Statistics at Purdue University is
>going to send back all of the government charity that has supported Herman
>Rubin.  Hopefully they will revoke his internet account which was
>developed and is supported by government funds as well.  Good news.  Let's
>hope the minions can find a University President who can find a way to
>spend the windfall.

So I guess what you're saying is "if it ain't broke don't fix it" ?

You seem to be satisfied with the status quo, and that's fine - you 
are entitled to your opinion.  Just keep in mind, however, that there 
are scientists (many of us) who think the system IS broke.  And don't 
complain when your next grant is in the 10th percentile and doesn't 
get funded.  You can chalk it up as a "learning experience" and have 
at it again!  Knock yerself out!

-Mike Straka, PhD
Instructor, Dept Pediatrics
UCHSC, Denver

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