‘In­di­rect costs’ hardly lux­u­ries

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - SHER­WOOD BOEHLERT For­mer chair­man, House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee (2001–2006) New Hart­ford, N.Y.

In his June 19 op-ed on fed­eral re­search spend­ing (“The high over­head of sci­en­tific re­search”), House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee Chair­man La­mar Smith lays out rea­son­able premises but reaches faulty con­clu­sions driven by ques­tion­able as­ser­tions. It’s im­por­tant to get this right be­cause the health of the na­tion’s re­search en­ter­prise is at stake.

Chair­man Smith is cor­rect in say­ing that tax­payer money should not be wasted and that pay­ments to uni­ver­si­ties should cover le­git­i­mate ex­penses re­lated to fed­er­ally funded re­search — and only such ex­penses. How­ever, he is off the mark when he sug­gests that fed­eral pay­ments for uni­ver­si­ties’ in­di­rect costs are out of con­trol.

First, there is lit­tle if any ev­i­dence that the per­cent­age of fed­eral re­search spend­ing go­ing to­ward in­di­rect costs is ris­ing. Sec­ond, fed­eral re­im­burse­ment for ad­min­is­tra­tive ex­penses has been capped at the same per­cent­age for the past 25 years. Third, lab­o­ra­to­ries have got­ten more ex­pen­sive to build not be­cause of mar­ble floors but be­cause much of to­day’s path­break­ing re­search re­quires more so­phis­ti­cated fa­cil­i­ties to, for ex­am­ple, avoid con­tam­i­na­tion or dis­tor­tion from vi­bra­tion. Fi­nally, in­di­rect costs are in­her­ent re­search costs, not some lux­ury add-on. Re­search does not get cheaper if you leave th­ese costs out; it just be­comes less likely to get un­der­taken at all.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed slash­ing in­di­rect costs at the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health — not to save tax­pay­ers money but to dis­guise the im­pact of its pro­posal to cut med­i­cal re­search spend­ing by close to a quar­ter. Chair­man Smith does the sci­en­tific en­ter­prise no fa­vors by try­ing to fur­ther this sleight of hand.

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