Indirect Cost Snooping

October 26, 2009

I had a query from a reader today which put me onto something new. So I though a few of my readers might like the opportunity for yet more time wasting critical career-related research.
One of the many past times of the NIH-funded research scientist is best described as…whinging…about indirect costs. Otherwise known as “overhead”, the indirect costs of an NIH award are that bit of extra cash above and beyond the amount needed for the actual conduct of the research plan that is awarded to the University.
Scientists are exceptionally fond of one particular complaint which is “Where in the hell is my overhead going since you re-charge me for every dang thing I can think of that might be overhead costs?” Arguing about local mistreatment of your heroic golden goose scientist is all fun and games but there is another complaint which is even more entertaining because of inter-institutional warfare. It goes something like this:

“I hear [insert local institution, generally of the small, private, not-for-profit and exceptionally well-known variety] gets 100% overhead!!11!!” This is generally followed by much ranting* on topics such as the waste of taxpayer dollars, insults directed at the personal habits and scientific output of the institution mentioned and the additional laboratories that could be funded at “normal” overhead institutions for the same NIH dollars.
At any rate I was answering the aforementioned reader inquiry, which was about how to snoop on the amount of money awarded to specific projects. As we know one of the central failings of CRISP was the lack of information** about the size of award. I pointed out to the questioner that the CRISP-replacement, RePORTER, pumps out the Total Costs for each award listed. This number includes both the Direct Costs (i.e., the research budget) and the Indirect Costs (overhead) and I was explaining that unless you know the negotiated overhead rate for the institution in question you would only get a general idea about the size of the research part of the award.
I was next about to point out that ResearchCrossroads also only gives the Total Costs. Re-verifying this, I ran across the subject of the post. A link under their Search menu that allows you to:

Search Indirect Cost Agreements

It is a simple matter to search for your favorite institute whom you suspect of skimming more than their fair share of overhead. You don’t even have to get the full title right, a keyword will do. A couple of clicks and you have the last three negotiated overhead rates. No more speculating and rumor mongering needed, you can have the actual overhead rates (which do change periodically for reasons that are not known to me).
Happy Searching and Happy Kvetching!!
*Yes, sadly, Your Humble Narrator is not immune to such weaknesses
**All joking and prurient interest aside, it actually is very useful for newcomers to the NIH grant game to gain an appreciation not just for the topics and investigators that are funded by the NIH and its respective ICs but to know the size of the award as well. The size of an award is not supposed to figure in the merit review but…come on now. Program staff are also quite free with the “too big for britches” rationale.

No Responses Yet to “Indirect Cost Snooping”

  1. antipodean Says:

    115% in a former institution. They provided us with FA other than a library.


  2. Dear DrugMonkey, thank you for making breastfeeding such an educational activity.


  3. Although I don’t breastfeed, you certainly make me feel less guilty about my drawn-out morning coffee-in-front-of-the-compooter sessions.


  4. Thank you for answering your whiney reader’s question. I’ll bet she is very, very thankful to have you as a resource for all things NIH.


  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    My readers are not “whiney”, Isis. It’s all those other people who bang on about Indirect Costs and whatnot.
    I don’t know what you have going on at your place…


  6. Cashmoney Says:

    In a completely non-comprehensive peek, it appears that the smaller and less research-intensive public universities get a lower overhead rate than do the bigger universities. This seems backwards. Presumably one of the reasons the private universities and small research institutes get their eye-popping overhead is because of economy of scale, right? So why are the dinky public universities not making the same argument?


  7. VRWC Says:

    “people who bang on about Indirect Costs”
    And why not? After all the mission of the NIH is to fund biomedical research, not yet another professor of some humanistic pseudoscience, hired by the university thanks to the influx of overhead money. It’s a scam when we ask the Congress to increase funding for AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer’s etc., and in fact something entirely else is funded. Overheads should be capped to 25%, and the institutions told: “take it or lose it.”
    P.S. I have nothing against the mentioned pseudoscience. But let them raise their own support, rather than piggyback on substantial grants, typical to biomedical research.


  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    Not exactly sure what you are getting at here VRWC but Indirects are *supposed* to be for costs (indirectly!) related to the NIH funded research. There is nothing there that suggests it is permissible to take that Indirect money and use it to support other, non-NIH-funded research activities. Of course, money is fungible, I realize…


  9. JohnV Says:

    VRWC, I work at a non-profit research institute and our indirects were just renegotiated to 80% from 66%. As we are lacking a department of humanistic pseudoscience, our indirect costs are not being siphoned off to any such department.
    Our rate appears to be higher than that of universities which do contain departments of humanistic pseudosciences, so I’m not sure how much of a role said departments and their deadweight faculty contribute to the issue.


  10. VRWC Says:

    “The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.” Parkinson’s Law
    I have no doubt that the 80% (or even 800%) can be “productively” employed. As long as the NIH agree to this practice, it will continue. I used the example of “Arts and Humanities”, but the cheerful waste of resources is by no means restricted to such departments.
    Anyway, if something is related to planned research (either directly or indirectly), it can be itemized in the budget. To reduce bureaucracy, the mechanism of generalized “overhead” was introduced, so we don’t have to itemize janitorial services etc. This mechanism is abused, IMO, so perhaps it’s time to return to itemizing.


  11. My readers are not “whiney”, Isis. It’s all those other people who bang on about Indirect Costs and whatnot.

    HA HA HA! Ass.


  12. I rarely post, but I wanted to say thanks for sharing this information.


  13. Eli Rabett Says:

    Most university faculty don’t even start to think about what commercial rental rates for their labs and offices would be, let alone heating and cooling.
    Today most public universities charge about 40-45% of modified direct costs (everything but equipment and tuition), and privates are ~45-50%. It can get more complicated but there are things provided by the state that the publics can’t put in the F&A (overhead is so 20th century) cost base. These charges are seen when you review for everyone but NIH.
    The 66% MDC is probably right. I’ve also seen 100+% of salaries.


  14. Ally Buff Says:

    Complaining about whiners is natural. Complainers might be all set. Please, be tolerant. Whining is inappropriate.
    Of course, complainers could suggest obvious solutions (rather than complaining) as: lower food costs, share food (and many others) that might help preventing undue obesity for some and malnutrition or even death for many more.
    Oh no, forget it!. Those are old fashion, unwanted solutions. We are in a competitive world and the rules for competition are untouchable. Don’t you dare to challenge those…….


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