The Fleecing of America by Biomedical Research Administration

Troy Shinbrot shinbrot at nwu1.edu
Thu Mar 21 21:34:55 EST 1996


In article <4isd1d$7of at tali.UCHSC.edu>, mike.straka at uchsc.edu (Michael S.
Straka) wrote:

> >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). 

I agree with you so far...
  
> Thus, the money supposedly spent on research is inflated, and the 
> conclusion is that the research enterprise is overfunded.

...but I maintain it's a BAD IDEA for scientists to spread the word that
research is overfunded.  It is perfectly fine and correct though to
observe that administrative expenses are excessive, that researchers get
only a fraction of dollars allocated, etc.


> 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?

This has been covered in Science, among other places.  It ranges from 30+%
to 70+%; most schools charge about a half.

> >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?

I am always eager to hear actual evidence.  Without it, and given evidence
I have seen of growing publications, citations, technologies, etc., I am
going to go with what is supported.  As for 'per capita' basis, that may
be an inappropriate statistic.  No matter how smart or productive a
scientist is today, she cannot compete alone in molecular biology, in
high energy physics, in fusion research, or in any other highly advanced
field.  The mere growth of technology and increasing intricacy and
difficulty of these fields has demanded that more people collaborate on
every project.  It is a simple and unavoidable truth that it will take
hundreds of people to develop a cure for HIV, cancer or Alzheimer's, while
it only took a couple of people to develop penicillin and the polio
vaccine.  Shall we lament the decrease in 'productivity on a per capita
basis' or celebrate the progress that may make such advanced treatments
possible?

> >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
> >more.
> 
> 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.  

Fine.  I don't see anything wrong with choosing what data to present.  I
object to suggesting that investigators often fake data.

> >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!

I don't at all say 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'  I say let's fix
what's broke and not dismantle what's working.  Excessive administrative
overhead is a problem.  Excessive research spending is not -- in my field
there's a damn sight too little of the latter.  Likewise inadequate
research productivity and excessive falsification of data are non
problems.  I assume, by the way, that you meant to write 90th percentile,
unless you mean to suggest that all grants should be funded.

-Troy



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