Monthly Archives: March 2014

RESEARCH GRANTS: WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THE INDIRECT COSTS OF DOING RESEARCH?

Costs for University Science Research (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Costs for University Science Research    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Money is of key importance for conducting scientific research (see my earlier post in the Basic Introductions category on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”).  The tax-paying public is familiar with the use of research grant money to pay for the acquisition of chemicals, conduction of assays and measurements, procurement of research samples, purchase and repair of laboratory instruments, purchase of test-tubes and other research supplies, publication of research reports in journals, etc.  All these expenses are for the direct costs of doing research.  Most people are completely unaware that there is a second and very different type of expense in conducting a research study.

            Research grants to universities, technology institutes, and medical schools also pay for the indirect costs of doing research.  These include all the adjunctive expenses necessary to support using an active research laboratory to perform experiments (e.g., daily maintenance, distribution of regulated electricity, garbage collection and disposal, heating and cooling, painting, routine administration, safety activities and facilities, water provision and drainage, etc.).  There can be no question that these indirect expenses are totally needed for the conduct of experiments in university research laboratories; corresponding expenses also occur for scientists working at industrial research and development labs.

Indirect vs. Direct Costs in Typical Research Grants

            The amount of support used for indirect expenses is determined by periodic negotiations between each institution receiving research grant awards and the granting agencies.  These negotiations are held behind closed doors, and the Principal Investigators composing and submitting applications for a research grant have no input into this process.  The total indirect costs awarded by federal granting agencies are calculated as some agreed percentage of the total direct costs awarded by a research grant (e.g., 35-75%).

            The public also is not very aware that the direct costs awarded in support of any research project can be  less than half of the total dollars provided by a research grant.  For some large very well-respected educational institutions in the USA, the official indirect cost rate is over 100%.  In such cases, the total funds awarded to those institutions by any research grant actually is over double the commonly stated figure for the total direct costs.  For example, with an approved indirect cost rate of 125%, a grant awarding $500,000 for total direct costs also gives another $625,000 for indirect costs, meaning the total award is $1,125,000.  Hence, indirect cost awards can be a very substantial amount of money!

How do Science Faculty View Indirect Costs in Research Grant Awards?

             I personally know that many funded faculty research scientists at universities have large doubts about realities in the current system for paying the indirect expenses of their lab research.  One area of doubt is the official percentage figure for their institution, which often seems to be much too high.  A second common doubt concerns the actual provision of the specified important activities listed in justifications for the approved percentage figure for indirect costs.  Usually, funded faculty scientists choose to keep quiet about their misgivings, since these “involve something beyond my influence and control”.  A few individual faculty members do occasionally complain about deficiencies in routine services provided by their employing institution (e.g., “My trash has not been picked up for 3 days now!”), but they never go on to ponder the various probable causes and possible misuses of their research grant funds designated for indirect expenses  (e.g., diversion into other university accounts)

            These common doubt
s lead to suspicions amongst university science faculty that the provision of research grant funds for indirect expenses is peculiar and really must have some additional unspoken function(s) beyond paying for the adjunct costs of doing laboratory research.  This suspicion almost never is openly discussed, since most faculty scientists are much more personally concerned with their own research projects, and not with what their employer might be “receiving on the side”.  In forthcoming posts, I will discuss some theoretical possibilities which could explain what might be happening.

            The approved rates for indirect cost awards vary considerably between different institutions, as a function of their location, size, labor costs, number of faculty and other employees,  type of construction, etc.  As a blatant example of the very large variations in indirect expenses between different academic institutions, I once went to work with a faculty collaborator at a large academic institution in Philadelphia on 2 consecutive days.  I saw with my own eyes that his laboratory rooms had a daily damp-mopping of the floors.  I was totally astounded to see that happening because at my own institution the lab floors were never damp-mopped, and were wet-mopped only a few times each year.  The indirect cost rates at these 2 universities certainly differed, but not by such a huge amount!

Who Pays and Who Does Not Pay for the Indirect Costs of Scholarship and Research at Universities?

            Usually. only faculty scientists having a research laboratory are required to pay for indirect expenses via their research grants.  Faculty members researching in other areas of scholarly endeavor mostly are not required to pay for the indirect costs of their investigations.  Those others include nearly all faculty working in art and music, classics, computer science, history, library science, linguistics, literature, and statistics.  This also can include some scholars working in astronomy, economics, engineering, environmental science, mathematics, psychology, or social science.  In all such cases, their indirect expenses must be paid by some other institutional funds, and presumably are seen as simply representing the routine costs of university business.  One should note here that smaller non-federal granting agencies often do not provide any payments for indirect expenses, yet most universities still are happy to receive those awards; the indirect costs for these smaller grant-supported investigations certainly still exist, but are being paid by some other budget.

            Indirect expenses for faculty offices, teaching activities in lecture and laboratory classrooms, and small conferences held in a campus room, normally are paid by the university as a normal operating expense.  It is only faculty scientists conducting research in laboratories who are required to pay for the indirect costs of their experimental investigations.  Senior science faculty members studying  education in their science courses are not charged for the indirect costs of these investigations.

Concluding Remarks

          Several conclusions now can be drawn: (1) research grants are used to pay for indirect expenses by all science faculty researching in a laboratory, (2) many scholarly investigations by faculty not needing to work in a research laboratory have their indirect expenses paid by some internal budget at the same institutions, (3) research grant awards for indirect expenses at some institutions exceed the amount given for direct expenses, and, (4) direct experience with paying for indirect expenses leads many Principal Investigators to have questions and suspicions that some type of hidden purpose or scam might be going on with the current system for using research grant funds to pay for indirect expenses.

            With this brief background, we now must ask several very important questions!   Why are only faculty scientists doing laboratory research being asked to obtain external funding to pay for their indirect expemses?  Is this done simply because grants are available for scientific research, but funding programs supporting scholarly studies in many other disciplines are smaller and less available?   Why are the indirect expenses for scholarly studies by many non-science faculty paid by institutional funds?  Why are the indirect costs of faculty scientists doing laboratory research investigations not also being paid by the employing institutions?  Where 2 different funded faculty scientists share a large laboratory room, does each grant provide support for only 50% of the indirect costs that would be awarded if there was only one occupant, or does each award pay for 100%?  Quite frankly, the more questions one asks about this topic, the more new queries arise; true answers to these never-asked questions probably would be both very interesting and very distressing.

            I will close by stating my own sincere conviction that something just does not make sense here!  In several later essays, I will try to provide further insights and discussions about indirect costs, especially  in the context of the current shortage of funding for research grants.  These will include controversial proposals for useful changes in the present policies and practices for the payment of indirect costs.

 

GO BACK TO HOME PAGE    OR    SCROLL UP TO MENU

                                                           UNDER THE WEBSITE TITLE

WHAT IS THE FUN OF BEING A SCIENTIST?

What is Fun in Science?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What is Fun in Science?    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

              Since most adults know so little about science and research, I thought it would be good to briefly present how scientists have fun with their job activities.

            Most research scientists, including me, have not won a Nobel Prize, are not heading a research institute, have never acquired research grants for many millions of dollars at one time, and publish a moderate number of good reports in professional science journals each year (i.e., rather than the minimum of 4-6 publications demanded yearly from “star scientists”).  Most professional researchers, whether working in academia or industry, generally enjoy their work despite the presence of several frustrating job situations that perplex their research activities (see my earlier post on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so very Hectic” in the Scientists category).

             What exactly do research scientists have fun doing?   I will briefly list below only  selected examples of common types of fun with being a faculty scientist in a modern university.  Certainly there are some other types of fun, and corresponding examples are found for research scientists in industrial settings.
                         (1) Working on experimental research in one’s own research laboratory, as contrasted to working in some other scientist’s lab, is big ego fun.
                        ( 2) Making discoveries via conducting experiments is fun, because that is the classical goal of almost all research work.  Being the very first to discover something (e.g., a new star or planet, a new species, a new enzymatic modulator, a new polymeric nanomaterial, etc.) is a complete thrill for any scientist; all the sweat and tears along the way then are made to seem quite unimportant.
                        (3) A science breakthrough differs from a simple discovery by forming a new concept, setting off further studies in a new direction, overturning some established viewpoint, unexpectedly inventing a new and better assay system, etc.; breakthroughs are great fun for creative scientists, especially when they are a surprise (i.e., not everything in scientific research can be planned or predicted).
                        (4) Working closely with students, postdocs, research technicians, and collaborators is fun because a well-organized lab group is almost like having a second family.
                        (5) Seeing a former graduate student or postdoctoral fellow you have trained go on to become a very successful independent investigator always is professional fun, because some credit still must be given to their older mentor even if many years have passed.
                        (6) Being put in charge of a research group or a research facility, or, being elected to a leadership position in a science society, is fun because it is public recognition that a scientist has expertise, problem-solving skills, reliability, and good judgment.
                        (7) Publishing a long and detailed research report in a science journal is much fun, and often seems to young scientists to be quite analogous to all the work in giving birth to a baby.  Being invited to write a review article or to contribute a chapter for a new edited book reflects a growing reputation amongst peer scientists, and always is fun even though it involves enormous additional effort.
                        (8) Going to an annual science society meeting or an international science congress is a very common enjoyment for faculty scientists; it is exciting to present a platform talk or a poster display, and, to hear seminars given by very famous scientists and later to converse with them; these enjoyments are often surpassed by the personal fun of chatting with old friends and colleagues from graduate school or early positions.
                       
(9) Doing a good job with teaching in basic or advanced courses certainly can be challenging, but often is fun for members of the science faculty.

             One big ongoing piece of satisfying fun for scientists is to personally conduct experiments successfully.  This necessitates very much coordination of hands, eyes, and brain, and involves technical skills, practical experience, and mental alertness; one must deal with design of experiments, on the spot evaluation of data as it is being produced, and, careful and complete analysis of all the research results.

            Many research instruments are fascinating and enormous fun to operate.  Using some fancy, expensive, and complex instrument with success actually is a type of fun analogous to playing with a toy made for adults!   Some research instruments, such as modern radio-telescopes and various multidimensional spectroscopes, require the operator to be very well-versed in computation, both for control and operation of the instrument, and for analysis of the data output.  Skillful mastery with using these research instruments is not something every scientist is able to achieve easily.

            Science really is people.  The chief scientist (Principal Investigator) must spend much time and patient effort to enable all the different graduate students, Postdocs, technical assistants, and visitors to learn how to be part of a research team; after doing this successfully, the research work is purely fun.  Lab parties are commonplace, and can be originated on the occasion of a new grant, someone’s birthday, a big new publication, an official holiday, etc.; all costs usually are paid by the chief scientist, but there also can be some private parties to which the boss is not invited.

            Most research scientists are happy just to achieve renown and peer recognition from other scientists working in their branch of modern science.  It is not necessary to win a Nobel Prize [1] or a Kavli Prize [2] to become either a research leader or a very famous scientist.   Only a few researchers win one of these very prestigious honors each year.   It is widely recognized by professional scientists that the selection committee for Nobel Prizes in the sciences sometimes overlooks some very accomplished researchers who are truly outstanding [3].  Winning such a big honor can have both good and bad effects; it is not unusual that scientists winning one of these great awards suddenly find that it becomes more and more difficult to do further great research work because so very much attention, innumerable invitations, and enormous regard always are being directed onto them.

            Many of the different types of fun during a science career do not simply happen, but necessitate that the scientist has considerable dedication, patience, energy, determination, and flexibility.  Typically, fun occurs in conjunction with lots of hard work.  Being good at solving problems and having good luck always is a big help for research scientists working in both industries and universities.  Scientists can increase their fun and job satisfaction by finding a work environment that suits their individual characteristics, interests, and abilities.  Being a successful research scientist is not always easy, but one indeed can have considerable fun along the way!

[1]  The Nobel Prize, 2014.  876 Nobel Laureates since 1901.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/index.html  .

[2]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  The Kavli Prize – Science prizes for the future.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.kavliprize.no/artikkel/vis.html?tid=27868 .

[3]  E. Westly, 2008.   No Nobel for you: Top 10 Nobel snubs.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow.cfm?id=10-nobel-snubs .

 

GO BACK TO HOME PAGE   OR   SCROLL UP TO MENU

                                                            UNDER THE WEBSITE TITLE

 

WHAT ARE THE LARGEST LIMITATIONS TO FREEDOM OF RESEARCH?

 Some Research Topics Still Cannot be Investigated!  (http:dr-monsrs.net)

Some Research Topics Still Cannot be Investigated!  (http://dr-monsrs.net) 
                   

           Research freedom is the totally open choice of scientists and scholars for what to investigate, exactly how it is studied, and what to conclude from the experimental data gathered.  Freedom of scientific research is inherently fragile.  Traditional restrictions in classical science involved the adequacy of financial support, presence of religious or political dogmas, availability of technical means to gather certain experimental data (i.e., capabilities of research instruments), duration of time needed for the investigation, availability of certain samples, and, public health and safety concerns.  Thus, the limitations to research freedom generally involve money, time, technology, official regulations, and various authorities.  All these classical restrictions still are active today! 

 

            Many current restrictions to research freedom for scientists at modern universities have a practical nature.  These can make it very difficult or even impossible to conduct some research studies by scientists working at an academic institution.  Common examples of these limitations include:

(1)     ability to acquire funding from research grants, such that support is available in a sufficient amount to fully conduct all the proposed work;

(2)     only insufficient time is available to conduct the needed experiments, because their duration takes much longer than the usual period of any research grant (i.e., the project needs more than 5 years of support to be completed);

(3)     the required research experiments are deemed too dangerous to be conducted at a given institution or facility;

(4)     where the needed experimental data can be obtained only at one or two very special research facilities in the entire world, scheduling priorities might be such that it is necessary to  wait for several years before data collection can begin;

(5)     although a research grant would provide the large funds needed to purchase some very special and very expensive large research instrument, there is no suitable building available on the present campus for its installation; and,

(6)     the proposed experiment necessitates violating some official prohibitions or laws established by the national government agencies (e.g., DNA cloning, stem cell studies, chemical synthesis of certain toxic materials, etc.). 

            In fact, there often are some paths for determined researchers to bypass these restrictions. Working on a research project in a small group of other funded scientists can provide more funds than are available from any one research grant.  Some scientists still are able to successfully pursue construction of a book with long-term research studies by obtaining a number of consecutive research grants, such that each of these enables production of one or 2 chapters at a time until the full set is completed; this tactic is common for very successful scientific researchers, but necessitates strict discipline, a well-defined focus, and much good luck with the current research grant system.  If some special research instrument is needed but has not yet been developed, then one could invent (i.e., design, construct, and test) and use the very first one.  Other researchers work with a collaborator in some other country having different regulations, thereby enabling very special facilities to be used or forbidden dangerous experiments to be conducted.  Where the roadblock is located at the local institution, frustrated scientists must also think about the possible necessity of moving to a new employer where there is more flexibility.  All of these difficult problems and possible work-arounds mandate that research scientists have a strong personal commitment to their research project, along with much patience and a steadfast determination to succeed. 

 

            Another general category of limitation to research freedom is based on human psychology.  This concerns restrictions in the mind of most research scientists.  All research scientists, whether young or old and famous or relatively unknown, are hesitant to openly disagree with eminent other scientists who have stated some view or published some conclusions that differ from their own convictions.  It is striking to realize that many young students or non-scientist adults viewing this same situation often will have little hesitation to disagree with the eminent expert.  All of us are taught to conform, be respectful, and be obedient to authority, but research scientists must break through this psychological barrier and learn to think more independently in order to be creative and able to find hidden truths. 

 

            Another very serious limitation to research freedom fortunately does not occur in all nations within the modern world.  This is a governmental restriction about what research questions can be asked or what conclusions can be derived from new experimental results.  Either situation obviously goes totally against the very foundation of scientific research, since in the search for truth absolutely anything and everything is open to question regardless of its widespread or longstanding acceptance.  The classical modern example is Lysenkoism in Stalin’s USSR (Soviet Union), where the conclusions of one research scientist were incorporated into state policies such that they could not be disputed or even questioned by other scientists [1].  Research freedom completely ceased to exist in this subject area (i.e., inheritance of acquired characteristics).  Fortunately, these politicized governmental mandates were later removed so that research freedom in modern Russian science again has bloomed.  

 

            The most recent example of a sad loss of research freedom is Germar Rudolf [2].  As an enthusiastic graduate student in chemistry at a German university research center, he decided to conduct research investigations seeking chemical evidence for use of gassing in certain “death camps” run by German military operations during WW2.  His extensive and careful chemical assays unexpectedly produced only negative results for the use of cyanide gas, but control situations at on-site locations were positive with the same chemical tests.  From the experimental data, Rudolf then drew the straightforward conclusion that cyanide gassings were not conducted where everyone else was certain they were done.  His German professor refused to publish Rudolf’s thesis results and tried to terminate his degree candidacy.  Rudolf’s conclusions from his chemical research studies directly contradicted and violated German national laws forbidding such statements and beliefs, even if presented as a summary of scientific research findings; he was later indicted for violation of these anti-science laws, lost his court case, and wound up in prison for several years.  Today, the same dogmatic laws and restrictions now exist in several other nations, as well as continuing in Germany.  Undoubtedly, other young researchers also are encountering this difficult situation where their freedom as a research scientist is very limited by a national policy on some mandated dogma. 

 

            Where scientists are not 100% free, there can be no research freedom!  The search for the truth is never finished, and demands freedom for scientists and other scholars to ask any questions and draw any conclusions so long as the experimental evidence supports those views.  Research is at its best when it is unrestrained by either political convictions or arbitrary dogmas.  Even established conclusions and universally accepted concepts are open to questioning and further testing.  The nature of science is such that research conclusions are not determined by political mandate, religious dogma, or arbitrary individual beliefs, but rather are built and progressively modified from the total range of experimental results gathered by many different scientists. 

 

[1]  The Skeptic’s Dictionary, 2013.  Lysenkoism.  Available on the internet at:
http://www.skepdic.com/lysenko.html .

[2]  Rudolf, G., 2012.  Resistance is Obligatory.  Castle Hill Publishers, Uckfield, United Kingdom, 367 pages. 


               

GO BACK TO HOME PAGE   OR   SCROLL UP TO MENU

                                                            UNDER THE WEBSITE TITLE

 

WHICH GRADUATE SCHOOL SHOULD YOU ATTEND TO BECOME A SCIENTIST?

 

What Should I Investigate in Graduate School for my Ph.D.?  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What Should I Research in Graduate School for my Ph.D.?           (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            Your decision of which graduate school to attend in preparation for a career in scientific research will be of vital importance for the rest of your life.  Typically, you will work there for 3-8 years to construct a thesis, defend it successfully, and thereby earn a Ph.D.  Your thesis advisor will guide your endeavors, and functions as an academic parent; you will learn many practical skills, as well as what to do and what not to do in the mentor’s lab.  Your graduate school, doctoral thesis, and research activities will establish your professional identity as a particular kind of scientist (e.g., atomic physicist, cell biologist, solar astronomer, solid state chemist, theoretical physicist, virologist, etc.).

 

            Selection of which graduate school will be best for you is made difficult because so many variables are involved.  There are 4 main features that must be evaluated by you in order to  make this choice wisely: (1) presence of outstanding well-funded faculty scientists with busy laboratories; (2) size, scope, and organization of the graduate training program, particularly for the area of your prospective interest; (3) experimental facilities and research instrumentation available, including special equipment required for scientific investigations in your major field of interest; and, (4) reputation and track record of the department, school, and past graduates now working in scientific research. 

 

            The task of picking a good graduate school is a generic problem in matching varied students with the different training programs and atmosphere at each educational institution.  Just as any young prospective scientist has individual characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, it must be recognized that each graduate school also has a distinctive character with advantages and disadvantages.  You should learn to list all these latter factors on a sheet of paper as objectively as you can; if your list is complete, then there should be no surprises later.  I have previously discussed some situations that are frequently negative in graduate school programs leading to a Ph.D. in science (see earlier post on “Graduate School Education of Scientists: What is Wrong Today?” in the Education category), and hopefully this might be useful for your evaluations. 

 

            The more information you can gather the easier will be your final decision.  Where is this info found and how is it retrieved?  Not everything that is very important for your choice is either publicized or obvious, so you will have to force some items to come out into the light.  Talking with currently enrolled students at the graduate school can provide much valuable information about the working atmosphere there.  Talking with other students who are in any graduate training program also often is informative.  Faculty members at your undergraduate college should provide some useful impressions and opinions.  Similarly, discussions with science faculty at  the prospective graduate school always are quite instructive; before meeting them, be certain to look up their research publications in science journals during the past few years .  The more facts and opinions you obtain, the better! 

 

             Your final selection must be confirmed by a personal visit to the campus.  That can be arranged with any graduate school, and is absolutely essential!  Your day-long stay should include time for attending a class or two, visiting a teaching laboratory, meeting a few current graduate students and postdocs, observing the available housing and nearby neighborhood, having lunch in the school cafeteria or departmental lunchroom, talking to some faculty scientists who have graduate students working in their lab, visiting the library and computer facilities, etc.  Do not hesitate to ask current students to see their mentor’s laboratory, to explain exactly what they are working on, to show you where they reside, and, to tell you what they perceive as the best and most difficult features of being a graduate student at that location.  Some appropriate graduate program official should be asked about the placements of their recent doctoral graduates with both postdoctoral positions and first jobs; you want to be at a school where all your hard work and special training pays off by starting you on a good career course, whether in academia, industry, or elsewhere. 

 

            Practical considerations often guide or restrict your choice, and these sometimes outweigh all other considerations.  Practical factors include the availability of financial support programs, previous personal contacts with members of the faculty, proximity of the school to some desired employment site or living quarters, distance from your parents’ residence, past association of a family member with a particular school or department, professional reputation of research by certain professors at the school being evaluated, announcement of a new program in exactly the research specialty that has your personal interest, etc. 

 

            Graduate school is a good place to learn and explore, but it is not the best time to begin to wonder about what you will do later as an independent adult.  Choosing between different graduate schools is best done after you have firmly decided that:  (1) you definitely want to be a research scientist, and (2) certain parts of science or certain research questions hold a large personal fascination for you.  Although I do know that many applicants to graduate schools nowadays have little feeling for what they will work on for their thesis project and future research investigations, I must state that it is definitely my opinion that being less certain about either of the 2 decisions listed above makes your choice of a graduate school much chancier.

 

            No graduate school is perfect, but some certainly are better than others for you.  Make certain you decide upon the training program and opportunities that are best suited for you.  This need not be the school with the most prominent reputation, the most Nobel Prize winners on its faculty, or the largest financial resources.  Some graduate students need more guidance and individual support than others, so be sure to select a school with those opportunities.  Your final selection should be a decision that is very personal, well thought out, and, elicits enthusiasm and excitement in you; as always, it also must be compatible with the different practical realities.

 

            Good luck with making a satisfying choice!  If you later find that you have made a big and bad  mistake, you usually can switch your thesis advisor, move to a different department at the same university, or transfer to a different graduate school.  Should you wish to ask non-specific questions to Dr.M about this topic, please leave these as a comment to this posting; Dr.M reads every single approved comment submitted to this website, and will briefly answer your questions.

 

GO BACK TO HOME PAGE   OR   SCROLL UP TO MENU

                                                            UNDER THE WEBSITE TITLE