Money is required to conduct modern scientific research, and plays a very large role in determining exactly what gets done by scientists (see my earlier article in the Basic Introductions category on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”). To construct one new 3-4G synchrotron research facility costs billions of dollars, while a newly-appointed Assistant Professor might need only $150,000 for his or her first research project. Research grant funds routinely are spent by professional scientists for many different kinds of direct costs and for all indirect costs (see my recent article in the Money&Grants category on “Research Grants: What is Going on with the Indirect Costs of Doing Research?”. Without money, no experimental scientific research can be conducted in modern universities.
All granting agencies carefully review the budgets proposed by applicants for a research grant, and seek to remove any unnecessary or excessive items. They also have oversight and accounting controls in place to verify which expenses have been paid validly by the awarded grant funds. Science faculty receiving research grants additionally have university accounting rules and regulations for all expenditures of their grant awards. Faculty grantees do have the option to request rebudgeting of their awarded funds, so as to deal with unexpected contingencies and operational changes in their research plan; large changes must be approved by the granting agency, while smaller changes are reviewed and either approved or disapproved by the university financial office.
Despite all these regulatory mechanisms, some wastage of research grant funds still commonly occurs. Wastage here is defined as any expenditures that are not required for the direct conduct of the experiments and activities within an approved research project. This means that anything not bonafide (e.g., far outside the scope of the research project) or not necessary (e.g., purchase of an excessive number of laptop personal computers, travel to attend a dozen science meetings where no presentation is given, etc.) is a misuse of the awarded funds. Any such expenditure constitutes wastage of the research grant funds.
Different Types of Wastage of Research Grant Funds
For individual grantees at universities, there are at least 5 different major kinds of wastage of research grant awards: (1) unneeded and duplicated ordinary purchases, (2) purchases and expenditures that are made just to use up some unspent awarded funds before a grant period ends, (3) payments for too many measurements and assays to be conducted at external commercial labs, rather than in the home laboratory of the grantee, (4) misuse of research grant awards due to policies of universities, and (5) misuse of research grant awards due to policies of the granting agencies. Examples for each of these 5 are given below.
Some duplicated purchases are needed, but others are not so and must be categorized as being excessive. Most biomedical research labs need to have extra micropipetters as backups for when those in use need to be taken out of service for repair or recalibration; however, there is no need to have several dozen extras. This type of wastage constitutes an error by the individual scientist (i.e., Principal Investigator, Faculty-Co-Investigator, Collaborator, Lab Manager, etc.).
It is well-known amongst grant-holders that all awarded funds must be spent before the grant period ends. Direct banking of any unspent research grant funds beyond the grant duration is not permitted, and there is no encouragement to ever try to save money; it is commonly rumored that unusual individuals who try to return some unspent grant funds to the funding agency have all future proposed budgets significantly reduced in size. For this reason, it is commonplace for faculty researchers who have somehow underspent their award to buy additional research supplies during the last year of a grant just to use up any remaining funds. These purchases really represent wastage of the awarded grant funds.
Small laboratory groups always are tempted to save precious time by purchasing research work from external commercial service labs, thereby permitting their research staff to work on other activities. Typically, this involves payment to conduct data collection and analysis; the alternative is to train a graduate student or a research technician to conduct the needed operations in the home lab. It always seems easier to buy something rather than do it in-house, but when a Principal Investigator lets this approach exceed a certain level, it is wasteful of the awarded grant funds.
Wastage for unnecessary purchases due to university policies can arise from an absence of regulation, as well as from over-regulation. At some universities, old research equipment, ranging from ovens and chromatographs to microscopes and large centrifuges, is not reassigned and recycled for further use, but is simply dumped onto the refuse docks and picked up by garbage collectors, scrap metal dealers, or passersby. The absence of official mechanisms for re-use of expensive research equipment that becomes unused, but still works quite well, causes wastage of funds for new purchases (e.g., why pass along a 5-10 year old research instrument belonging to the late Professor Katsam, when new faculty member Smith can use his first research grant award to buy a new one?).
Another example of university policy-based wastage of grant funds is produced by some of the official rules for laboratory safety. At many institutions, the purchase and use of very expensive explosion-proof refrigerators in laboratories is required; faculty grantees can need several of these and typically try to buy only the much less expensive ordinary household refrigerators, but are not always allowed to do that. To whatever extent the special refrigerators are not actually required, this policy causes unnecessary purchases and represents wastage.
Newly appointed university science faculty members furnish their laboratory by purchasing brand new research equipment. It is not unusual that if there are 3 new Assistant Professors in one science department, that all 3 will mostly buy some of the same items. It is quite unusual that a university will see that much of this duplication is unneeded and wasteful, since these necessities can be provided by establishment of a common service room where each basic item is available for all to use (e.g., a pH meter, a vacuum oven, an ultracold freezer, light microscope, etc.).
A different type of wastage of research grant funds involves misguided policies of the granting agencies. These agencies all make extensive efforts to avoid any duplicate funding or overlapping of grant awards, but almost everyone knows of cases where this has happened anyway; there are so many research grants and so many scientists that it is extremely difficult to prevent this type of error and wastage. As one illustration of the complex nature of this problem, consider the routine formation of a small research group with several other faculty colleagues. The group project involves conducting 30 different experiments, with each of the 5 group members supervising 6 parts of the entire study; in actuality, some of the 5 work on 2-20 of these experiments, and some technicians work under several different supervisors. One large research grant is acquired for the group project, and this provides an equal salary contribution for all 5 faculty co-investigators. Some of these 5 scientists are successful enough to also have merited their own individual research grant(s), supporting projects that are described as being “related, but different” from that in the large grant awarded to the research group. In this example, it often is extremely difficult to determine exactly who does what, what time and effort are spent by each person on each activity, and, which grant should pay for what. In this complex situation there is a definite likelihood that some of the research expenses are being supported by more than one grant; any duplicated research support is redundant and unnecessary, and therefore is wastage.
A second example where policies of a granting agency create waste in their awards involves the fact that research grants often include a salary contribution for the Principal Investigator (e.g., 10-50%). If doctoral scientists are soft-money appointees, they must get their entire salary (i.e., 100%) from research grants; this is perfectly usual and honest. On the other hand, if a university scientist has a hard-money appointment (i.e., their full salary is guaranteed by some source, such as a state government), then any salary contribution by their research grant is unnecessary, makes no sense to me, and should be considered as being wastage. In that situation, the funding agency in effect returns some of the guaranteed salary to the source or to the university; for universities, this transfer or refund can result in all sorts of manipulations involving provision of salary bonuses, raises, and semi-unrestricted private accounts.
How Much Research Grant Money is Wasted?
The wastage problems described above initially might seem to be only minor in size and importance, and could even be thought to be somewhat unavoidable. Many readers then will wonder exactly how much money is being wasted? Since there are no official figures to cite, let us make estimates by considering the following simple and minimal theoretical examples. If the amount of research grant money wasted by any one faculty scientist is given as $500/year, then to obtain the national figure this must be multiplied by the many thousands of scientists doing grant-supported research studies. If the amount of grant funds wasted by any one university science department is given as only $5,000/year, then to get the national total this must be multiplied by the number of science departments at each university. In addition, we can look at the minimal $15,000 spent by each new faculty appointee setting up their new laboratory; this figure must be multiplied first by all the many new science faculty appointees each year, and then by the number of years being considered. From these simple estimates, it is obvious that many millions of research grant dollars could be wasted each and every year. The total amount of research grant dollars wasted must be described as being “substantial”!
Why does Wastage of Research Grant Funds Matter?
Any misuse and wastage of research grant awards necessarily represents taxpayer money that was misspent. Due to the limited amount of dollars available for supporting scientific research via grants, too many faculty scientists with worthy projects now can receive only partial funding or no funding at all. If the substantial amount of dollars in research grants now being wasted would be added to the pool of available funds, then (1) more scientists could get funded fully, and (2) more scientists could be able to have their approved projects funded. This change will result in more research and better research being done, thereby benefitting all of us.
To stop this wastage or at least greatly decrease the amount of wastage of research grant funds, changes must be activated in 3 quite separate locations: (1) funded faculty scientists on hard-money salaries, (2) the universities, and (3) the granting agencies. Like any other attempts to change the status quo, the several parties benefitting from the current substantial wastage of research grant funds will oppose any changes. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that increased efforts both by scientists and by the public will be able to make these needed changes into a reality.
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