26 May 2010

How Overhead Corrupts Science and Promotes the Radical Agenda.

Turtle and elephants supporting the world. Go here for commentary.
Dr. Jones. Consider the case of Dr. Jeremiah Jones, "Jerry" to his friends, an up and coming herpetologist (snakes, lizards, etc.) at the University of the Antipodes (UTA). Dr. Jones wants to study the Great Turtle (right) on whose back, he believes, the world really does rest. Brushing aside objections that there is no such beast, that the earth is a sphere, not a plate nor even a hemisphere, orbiting the sun sans Turtle, he submits a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) [1]. The proposal is well crafted, and to his colleagues' amazement, mirabile dictu, the Foundation awards Jones $250 K for a year's preliminary investigation. If the results are promising, he is encouraged to submit a follow-up proposal requesting the standard 3-5 years' funding.

Figure 1. The overhead scam. When Professor Jones was awarded an NSF grant, the University of the Antipodes took 35% off the top. Graduate student salaries and fringe benefits (2 × $25K) included in "Research;" Dr. Jones' summer salary, $18K, and fringe benefits, in "Dr. Jones."

Figure 2. The overhead scam as shown in Figure 1, but with UTA incentives and NSF award criteria added. Incentives encourage Dr. Jones to jump through whatever hoops the foundation decides upon. These include promoting social engineering under the rubric of "Broader Impacts."
Indirect Costs. UTA's administrators are, of course, delighted by Dr. Jones' success. They should be. For every dollar (excluding major equipment) Dr. Jones requested, they added an additional 55¢ as "indirect costs" (Figure 1) [2]. In the present case, UTA's take was about $88 K, more than enough to pay Dr. Jones' salary for the year in question. Since he will continue to teach, UTA in effect will secure his services as an instructor gratis.

"Overhead," as indirect costs are often referred to, was originally envisaged as a way of encouraging universities to promote faculty research, essentially by defraying the cost of maintaining their laboratories. That was the theory. In practice, indirect costs effectively go into the general operating fund. By "effectively," I mean that, while there are activities upon which overhead cannot be expended, bricks and mortar, for example, the uses to which it can be put are gratifyingly numerous. UTA consequently encourages its employees to seek extra-mural support. The incentives (Figure 2) are both positive and negative: pay raises, promotions and reduced teaching loads for those who bring back the bacon; stagnant salaries, increased teaching and, in some cases, outright dismissal for those who don't.

In recent years, and like most other public universities, UTA has had to deal with shrinking state appropriations. As a consequence, overhead returns have become increasingly important. As on many other campuses, a fraction of the total is returned to individual departments. These returns can be critical, serving to supplement university allocations that for many departments cover little beyond salary line items. In short, what began as a device to facilitate research has become a sine qua non. Or, to put it another way, overhead is the crack cocaine of the academy. It is highly addictive, and it distorts everything.

Dr. Jones' Budget. It comes as no surprise that Dr. Jones' award (Figure 1) includes money for research: transportation to the Edge of the Earth (and access to the Turtle), salary for two graduate student assistants, equipment, publication page charges, reimbursement for monies expended (travel, registration, food, lodging) while attending the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR), and so forth.

Because Dr. Jones' appointment at UTA is for the academic year, the grant also includes summer salary, which he otherwise would not receive. Summer salary is calculated as 2/9 of what he draws for the ten months he is officially on campus. To this, and to the salaries of his graduate students, UTA tacks on an additional 30% to cover fringe benefits, a figure previously negotiated with the Foundation.

Outreach. Dr Jones' award also includes funds for "Outreach." From the ranks of UTA's "underrepresented" (women, blacks, Hispanics) undergraduates, Dr. Jones will select individuals to work in his lab as interns. Along with his graduate students, they will also participate in presentations at inner city schools and at the local community college that minority high school graduates often attend before transferring to UTA. The message will be that science is for the "underrepresented;" the objective, to increase their presence in UTA's biology program. Pursuant to this objective, Dr. Jones and his high school / junior college faculty counterparts will establish a formal program with a suitably catchy acronym. For the moment, his colleagues' participation is stricty pro bono. But down the road ..., visions of government funding dance in their heads. Likewise, at the SSAR meeting, Dr. Jones and his students will man a table touting minority / female opportunities in biology at UTA. Convenient to these efforts is the fact that one of Dr. Jones' graduate students is Hispanic; the other, female.

Broader Impacts. Given a choice, Dr. Jones would not have included Outreach in his proposal. If pressed, he will tell you he thinks affirmative action is a good idea. Like most of his colleagues, Dr. Jones is a good liberal and, being white and male, feels a not inconsiderable obligation to help to right the wrongs of generations past. However, he will also tell you that studying theTurtle will be difficult (and dangerous) enough without the added burden of Outreach. But Dr. Jones had no choice. His proposal, like most others, was evaluated according to two very different criteria: "intellectual merit" and "broader impacts." The latter, he understands from Chapter III of the NSF's 2009 Proposal Guide, divides broadly into two categories:
  1. "Integration of Research and Education."

  2. "Integrating Diversity into NSF programs, projects and activities."
Regarding the extent to which proposals address these categories, the Guide poses the following questions:
  1. "How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?

  2. "How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?

  3. "To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?

  4. "Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?" [Emphasis added]
Elsewhere on the Foundation's website, Dr. Jones finds a document listing specific activities [3] that "broaden the participation of underrepresented groups."

Dr. Jones knows that the trick is to address as many of these objectives as possible in a way that relates naturally to his research. Initially, Dr. Jones will focus on items #1-3 above, and, in the case of #3, on educational partnerships. In the future, he intends to add scientific partnerships to his quiver.

As everyone knows, the Edge of the Earth is ringed by the Great Arabian Desert. To the north, half way round the world from UTA, lies the city of Al Arabica. With the local university, Dr. Jones hopes to initiate a collaborative relationship that will involve faculty and student exchanges. Not just the Great Turtle, but reptiles generally, and desert ecology, more generally still, will be the partnership's focus. Dr. Jones imagines that he can tie this part of next year's proposal to global warming. Sex determination in reptiles is known to be temperature-dependent (Janzen, 1994). As the world warms, male/female ratios will decline. But what about species in environments that are always hot? Perhaps desert reptiles can offer clues as to how this adverse consequence of climate change can be countered? An added bonus, Jones hopes, will be the international nature of the collaboration, and with a nation upon whose friendship (and petroleum) the United States depends. This year, he will lay the necessary groundwork by having a University of Al Arabica biologist join him en route to their historic encounter with the Turtle.

Summary. Overhead anables government acting through the funding agencies to coerce research grant recipients into engaging in social engineering. These activities have nothing to do with the proper purpose of research grants, which should be to promote scholarly activity — period. The universities, to which the contracts are awarded, have a tangible financial interest in seeing to it that their faculty apply for such funding and further that the latter jump through whatever hoops the funding agencies require. Let me put this more precisely with reference to Figure 2. Increasing university incentives to secure funding (because of overhead) feeds back to increase the diversion of time, effort and dollars from research to Broader Impacts.

Three related points in closing:
  1. NSF's mandate is defined by Congress. "Increased participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics]" is the third of eight items [4] describing the Broader Impact Criterion in this year's NSF authorization (H.R. 4097). Responsibility for using research grants for unrelated societal purposes thus lies with the politicians.

  2. One consequence of promoting "underrepresented groups," as opposed to worthy individuals who happen to belong to such groups, is that it politicizes scientific inquiry in ways that historically have led to bad science and outright abuse. Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the "barefoot professor," having been promoted by the Soviet establishment because of his peasant origins, was, in effect, a product of affirmative action — in a different place, at a different time and under a different name — but affirmative action nonetheless (Roll-Hansen, 2005). And it is worth remembering that the traditional academics who sponsored him eventually reaped the whirlwind. In addition, Soviet genetics was destroyed utterly. In the U.S. today, promoting "underrepresented groups" feeds the radicalism already rampant on the nation's campuses.

  3. Governmental manipulation of science is not confined to social engineering. It can also involve the promotion of specific hypotheses that are politically / ideologically congenial to the politicians. Regarding the leaked East Anglia emails, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, the doughty editor of Energy and Environment, had this to say in a memorandum submitted to the British Parliament:
    "The CRU [Climate Research Unit] case is not unique. Recent exposures have taken the lid off similar issues in the USA, the Netherlands, Australia, and possibly in Germany and Canada. There may be a systemic problem here, and it would be neither fair nor helpful to make CRU and the UK Meteorological Office the sole fall-guys. It is at least arguable that the real culprit is the theme- and project-based research funding system put in place in the 1980s and subsequently strengthened and tightened in the name of 'policy relevance'. This system, in making research funding conditional on demonstrating such relevance, has encouraged close ties with central Government bureaucracy. Some university research units have almost become wholly-owned subsidiaries of Government Departments. Their survival, and the livelihoods of their employees, depends on delivering what policy makers think they want. It becomes hazardous to speak truth to power." [Emphasis added]"
Boehmer-Christiansen could just as easily have been speaking of Lysenkoism, which stood in opposition to the "bourgeois science" of Morgan and Mendel.

Dr. Jones and his Great Turtle project are, of course, "fig newtons" of this author's imagination. But the NSF policies referred to are real, as the reader can readily confirm by following the links. Americans are just now awakening to the fact that government has for decades been betraying their interests in every possible way, squandering their money, in particular. The excesses of the apparatchiks who dole out research dollars are no exception. Just another entry in a list that is both long and depressing.


1. At the Foundation's website, one learns that
"The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 'to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…' With an annual budget of about $6.9 billion (FY 2010), we are the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing."
As of this writing, NSF's budget is projected to rise to $10.7 billion by FY 2015.

2.Indirect cost rates (modified total direct costs — excludes capital equipment) are negotiated individually between individual universities and the Foundation, and therefore vary from one institution to the next. Noll and Rogerson (1997) provide rates for a representative sample. For the 70+ (I didn't count) schools listed, the rates ranged from 31.5% to 77%. The data are for the year 1992. Since then, rates have come down a bit, but not by much. For example, in 1992, the University of Michigan rate was 59%; in 2009-2011, 54.5%. In 2012, it will increase to 55.5%

3. Among activities addressing the Broader Impacts requirement, the Foundation lists the following:
  • "Establish research and education collaborations with students and/or faculty who are members of underrepresented groups.

  • "Include students from underrepresented groups as participants in the proposed research and education activities.
  • .
  • "Establish research and education collaborations with students and faculty from non-Ph.D.-granting institutions and those serving underrepresented groups.

  • "Make campus visits and presentations at institutions that serve underrepresented groups.

  • "Establish research and education collaborations with faculty and students at community colleges, colleges for women, undergraduate institutions, and EPSCoR [Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research] institutions.

  • "Mentor early-career scientists and engineers from underrepresented groups who are submitting NSF proposals.

  • "Participate in developing new approaches (e.g., use of information technology and connectivity) to engage underserved individuals, groups, and communities in science and engineering.

  • "Participate in conferences, workshops and field activities where diversity is a priority."
4. The complete description of the Broader Impact Criterion in H.R. 4897 is as follows:
  1. Increased economic competitiveness of the United States.

  2. Development of a globally competitive STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] workforce.

  3. Increased participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM.

  4. Increased partnerships between academia and industry.

  5. Improved K-12 STEM education and teacher development.

  6. Improved undergraduate STEM education.

  7. Increased public scientific literacy.

  8. Increased national security.
Note that #8, national security, replaces “How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning?”


Janzen, F. J. 1994. Climate change and temperature-dependent sex determination in reptiles. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA. 91: 7487-7490.

Roger G. Noll, R. G. and W. P. Rogerson. 1997. The Economics of University Indirect Cost Reimbursement in Federal Research Grants. Northwestern University - Department of Economics. Stanford University Department of Economics WP 97-039.

Roll-Hansen, N. 2005. The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science. Humanity Books. NY.

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