Money for experimental research plays a very large role in modern science. The key importance of money is due to: (1) research studies are very expensive, (2) without money, almost no experimental studies can be conducted, (3) not all good ideas are able to be funded by the granting agencies, and, (4) large portions of research grant awards are not being spent for actual research expenses.
Most research support in the USA comes either from federal grants to universities and small businesses, or from internal budgets for research and development in industrial companies. The sum of all this dedicated support for experimental research studies is many billions of dollars each year; this huge figure clearly demonstrates the great importance of scientific research for the good of all people. In Fiscal Year 2011, the grand total of all grants awarded for support of research by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) was $5,103,500,000 . The total research and development outlays for all nondefense studies from any sources in this same period were over 65 billion dollars . These billion dollar sums prove that modern research indeed is very expensive. Special fundung programs, often requiring establishment of a multi-user facility, have been set-up for applications to purchase very large and particularly expensive special research instruments.
Research grant funds are spent by scientists for the purchase of supplies (e.g., chemicals, blank DVDs, specimen holders, test tubes), acquisition or usage of some special research equipment (e.g., regulated very high temperature ovens, chromatography columns and systems, personal computers), and, purchase of business travel (e.g., to collect specimens or data in the field, to attend annual science meetings). They also are used to pay for telephone usage and copying costs, employment of laboratory personnel, support of graduate students working in the laboratory, provision of partial salary for the grant-holder (i.e., Principal Investigator), adjunctive costs of performing experiments (e.g., utilization of an institutional or regional research facilities, the costs of monitoring radiation exposure, care and housing for research animals), etc. Unless someone pays, all these activities would stop.
Although there are federal and institutional oversight controls to verify which expenses are bonafide and necessary, the inherent nature of the present research grant system means that large amounts of money are not being spent for direct support of the actual research experiments (i.e., therefore, my view is that they are being wasted!). Some of these wated funds are spent on redundant or unnecessary expenses. Other wastage comes from the frequent absence of organized mechanisms for re-assignment and re-use of expensive research equipment that is no longer needed (i.e., why pass along a 5-10 year old working research instrument belonging to the late Professor Jones, when the new faculty member, Assistant Professor Smith, can buy the very latest model with his newly awarded research grant?). It is well-known amongst grant-holders that all awarded funds must be spent; there is no official capability to bank any unspent research grant funds, nor is there any encouragement to ever try to save money and then return unspent portions of the awarded funds.
The very largest inappropriate expenditure of research grant funds in my view is for payments of indirect costs. Direct costs for scientific research are those necessarily spent to conduct experiments (see the many examples given above). Indirect costs are those needed for such purposes as cleaning, heating, cooling, painting, and maintenance of the lab room(s), safety inspections, administrative activities, disposal of garbage and chemical waste, provision and drainage of water, etc.). All of these expenditures for indirect costs are very necessary for the research conducted by faculty scientists, and certainly must be paid; however, I do question exactly who should pay for them. At universities, many faculty in mathematics and computer science, the non-science faculty, and scholars working in library science, music, and art all need the same type of services listed above; however, the indirect costs of these faculty mostly are paid by some institutional entity. Only faculty scientists holding a research grant and using a laboratory are required to pay for their indirect costs; senior doctoral scientists working at teaching and writing books, but no longer doing any laboratory studies, are not asked to pay for their indirect costs. This selective targeting seems very peculiar to me.
At some academic institutions research grant payments for indirect costs are even larger than those for the direct costs. Hence, big portions of research grant awards are being diverted away from their nominal purpose. I must conclude that the payment of indirect costs by grants awarded to support scientific research constitutes a large waste of research grant funds and is not necessary. My conclusion is very unusual since both the granting agencies and the universities agree to this peculiar policy. I suspect, but cannot prove, that many working scientists holding research grants agree with me; I do know from talking with numerous university faculty scientists that most believe that current indirect cost rates are unrealistic and must be way too high.
All of the research grant awards now being misdirected to pay for indirect costs would be much better spent if they were used to permit more awards for direct costs to be made that (1) provide full, rather than only partial, funding, (2) give funding to a larger number of worthy applicants than is presently possible, and (3) enable some funding programs to extend for at least 10 years, instead of the 1-5 year period of support that is typical at present. I will discuss all these issues and ideas for their solutions much further in later posts.
 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2013. Research funding at the National Science Foundation, FY 2011. Available on the internet at:
 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2013. Trends in nondefense R&D (research and devlopment) by function (FY 2011). Available on the internet at:
BACK TO HOME PAGE OR SCROLL UP TO MENU UNDER
THE WEBSITE TITLE