The Real Costs of Research

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Science  26 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6106, pp. 467-468
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6106.467-b

In their 27 July Editorial (“Iceberg alert for NIH,” p. 390), H. R. Bourne and M. O. Lively assert that “faculty, administrators, research institutions, and NIH must work together” to address the challenges of research funding during a time when the nation is struggling to regain its fiscal health. However, they mischaracterize the way institutions handle faculty salaries, indirect costs, and building of facilities.

Current data suggest that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal research agencies do provide critical support for salaries, but the majority of salary is still paid by the institutions. A recent survey of its members by the Association of American Medical Colleges showed that the percentage of full-time faculty salaries derived from sponsored-program funds was, on average, only 15.4% (1). When full-time faculty holding MD degrees are excluded, the figure rises to 32%. This is consistent with NIH's own data (2) and similar to the results of an annual salary survey conducted by the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology, which found that percentage of faculty salary support from federal research grants has declined in recent years (from 38.3% in 2003 to 37.3% in 2009) (3).

In addition, the assertion that indirect costs lead universities to speculatively build facilities, rather than invest in faculty, misconstrues the calculation of indirect costs and the motivations of universities. According to data from the National Science Foundation, the university share of support for research conducted by its faculty has grown faster than any other source of support over the past two decades, even as institutions are increasingly faced with state budget cuts and other financial pressures (4). Universities assume the upfront risks and costs of building new facilities, so it is not an activity they undertake lightly or without serious consideration of current and future needs. Although universities may recover some of the costs of the building, depending on how the building is used, surveys conducted of Association of American Universities institutions reveal that the primary motivation of institutions to construct new buildings is to replace aging, outdated facilities and equipment to meet current research needs, rather than in anticipation of growing research funding. Moreover, the cost of research and of regulatory compliance has increased, but there has not been a commensurate increase in the reimbursement of indirect costs (5), resulting in billions of dollars of additional funding from universities to cover the full costs of research.

Finally, universities invest substantially to “nourish their own faculty” beyond providing facilities and administrative support. A 7-year study of new faculty hires at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry showed that the school had to add about 40 cents on every grant dollar to cover all the costs of research, and recovered only 81% of its facilities and administration costs and none of its start-up costs during this time (6).

Research stakeholders—universities, scientists, trainees, and agencies—have much to gain by thinking creatively and collectively about improving regulations, reengineering the training and workforce pipeline, and communicating the positive benefits of research. But when considering how best to allocate limited resources, it is time to stop portraying institutions and investigators as being in competition with each other for research dollars and begin to talk about the full and real costs of research, as well as the need for sustained national investments in discovery to improve the nation's health. Otherwise, we are indeed only rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.


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