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Medical research can’t be done in the dark. But should taxpayers be covering the light bills at university labs across the country?

The Trump administration’s answer is no. The president has proposed a massive $7 billion budget cut for the National Institutes of Health over the next 18 months. And Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price said this week that he may find those savings in the “indirect expenses” that NIH funds, which includes everything from buying lab equipment to paying the electric bills for thousands of academic research labs from Harvard to Ohio State to Stanford.

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  • I am a health economist who has gotten a number of NIH & AHRQ grants for health services research. None of my work involves any expensive lab equipment, yet my university receives the full indirect cost rates. This is actually a disadvantage for me b/c it limits the amount of researcher time & data purchasing fees I can build into the budget. I do need a strong computer hardware/software infrastructure but that would be much less expensive than high-tech lab equipment. There might be a way to award different indirect cost rates based on the nature of the research being done.

  • We lose an average of $.50 on the dollar for every direct cost dollar we get, with our indirect cost rate of 49%. Let me restate that: we lose money every time we do research…and we lose about $.50 on the dollar after the indirect’s are collected; in other words indirects are paying for about half of the overhead costs of doing the research. no more can be taken away or only the rich schools with large endowments will be left standing

    • What is really needed is a complete overhaul of the funding system. It’s like the income tax, lots of accretions, but not much editing. Not sure why the loss is so heavy, sounds like a major flaw – either in the amount asked for or trying to do more with less than funded? Either way, the whole system seems broken. Btw, the bigly endowed manage 65% and beyond.

  • These grants are larded with salary money that can come from other sources, especially for MD’s. Jeez, 35 years ago my university medical center told MD’s holding RO1’s that when the soft money ran out they were on their own, so the smart ones picked up a stethoscope and joined the University Medical Practice Group to pay their salaries. Fair enough, they brought in the patients they should get the rewards, The ones that expected a free ride from the University after the soft money ran out soon found themselves looking for new jobs. Also, the NIH should provide training grant money for each postdoctoral research fellow for no more than 3 years. Some guys are career postdocs, bouncing around from place to place, looking for whomever has some training grant money. Time for these dudes to either find a tenure track position, or, as im my case get out of academia altogether and get a nice 40 hour/week job in Phat Pharma, which for me was a no brainer.

    • It is still far and away the norm for MD’s in academia to take on a clinical workload to supplement their salary or free up grant funding to fund their labs. I wouldn’t say the grants are “larded with salary money,” either. The K08 awards for early career physician-investigators can only pay a max of 90K towards the investigators salary. I have to agree with you on your point about the post-doc hamster wheel though.

  • Dear Editors: the recent article published by STAT related to indirect costs incurred by universities on NIH awards did not address the reason that indirect cost rates at universities are so much higher than those at non-profits and foundations. The reason is that research universities have a much larger infrastructure because they conduct research that uses large machines, instruments, and service centers, and all those items require high usage of utilities. To maintain such facilities and equipment also requires a fairly large amount of funding. These costs are not charged directly to sponsored awards because the administrative and fiscal tracking of such costs directly would end up costing the government more than charging these costs as indirect costs. Indirect costs are charged to awards as a percentage of the direct costs and this percentage is negotiated on a regular basis with the federal government. The government reviews all costs charged to awards (direct and indirect) on a regular basis and all federal awardees with expenditures of $750K or more annually must undergo a single audit for those costs on an annual basis.

    In any event, although indirect cost rates at universities may appear to be high, it is due to the infrastructure utilized to conduct the cutting edge research undertaken. Research does not take place in a broom closet and researchers don’t work for free. It costs money, a lot of it. The consequences of divesting from research would be quite negative for the US (closing of some universities, fewer students educated, reduction of US prominence in science, fewer discoveries, drugs, machines, and technology). I think we all can agree that it would be wonderful to reduce the number of regulations to reduce administrative burden, but don’t expect universities to be able to continue producing world class research without covering their overhead.

    • I can relate in one area. When I was a grad student and post doc, when we had two order two dozen rats for experiments from the breeders, it was no harder then ordering two dozen pies from Pizza Hut. Then in the 1980s, based on a VERY small number of animal misuse cases that were well publicized by PETA, the feds came down hard on universities. Going from a one page order form the universities now require reams of paperwork, including not only housing conditions, but also detailed experimental procedures, pain management and other criteria akin to what might be in a 50 page clinical protocol. The protocols are reviewed by the equivalent of an IRB, that is perfectly willing to turn you down, and delay that long awaited PhD a few more months.

  • Is this making America great again?

    Lets see so far we have this administration wanting to :

    increase military spending 50 billion even though we already spend $380 billion more than any other nation

    cut medical research.

    strip the neediest children of CHIP by repealing obamacare and excluding them from the replacement

    raise rates of medical insurance for the elderly / retirees

    build a dumb wall that people can go over or under

    cut federal funding for our childrens future and reduce or eliminate the cores

    get rid of environmental protections

    allow our private internet data to be sold to the highest bidder

    make the CEO of Exxon our Secretary of state.

    shall I go on? are we great yet?

    And the metaphor of indirect costs paying for lightbulbs is just that a metaphor. they don’t pay for just lights and heat… America and our principles are under attack. they are trying to steal from the poor and give to the rich in everything they do! WAKE UP

  • In my experience the expression “size matters” does not apply to lab research. There is no relationship between the size of the lab, the number of lab techs, post docs and grad students and the quality of the work output. I’ve seen Nobel Prize winning work come out of labs hardly larger than a broom closet, with a single tech and low overhead.

  • Let me begin by stating that I am against every decision Trump and his administration have made so far, but on this one, I do have to agree. The reason is that US Universities (State and Private) have become extremely lucrative organizations. There is absolutely no reason why they can’t pay their utility bills!
    Universities which get NIH research grants and funding get to take ALL the credit for the research results, which ultimately builds their reputation and income from tuition. Our tax dollars should not subsidize profitable organizations; including all of Trump’s business.

    • In addition, many universities have developed patent and licensing agreements that allow them to realize significant benefits from research supported by NIH grants. Overheads are worthwhile and necessary for the conduct of research, but the negotiated rates that exceed 50% (or pick a percentage) are most often negotiated by larger universities to the detriment of other smaller ones and, if any, their non-profit partners.

    • This article shows a basic misunderstanding about what indirect costs are actually used for. We lose money on every grant, even if we get our full federal negotiated rate. The costs which indirects partially cover are more than the light bills. They are all of the staff not covered by the direct costs of the grant: research administration, computers, human subjects protections for human research and clinical trials, animal care facilities, and personnel to ensure that all of the regulations imposed on us by the government and other sponsors are taken care of in a compliant manner. None of these things are funded directly by grants, and none of the costs are fully covered by our indirect rates.

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