‘Indirect costs’ hardly luxuries
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.