Is your alma mater really a procuress?

In one perverse recommendation, a prestigious NRC panel shows what it really thinks of biomedical research

“The Procuress,” a 17th century painting by Jan Vermeer.

In the course of one perversely ignorant recommendation, a recent National Research Council (NRC) report (1) talked about agencies that “procure” academic biomedical research. From the report’s grand title, “Research Universities and the Future of America,” you may suspect “procure” was a way to avoid the crass verb, “buy.” Instead, I flashed on “procuress”—crasser yet, but redeemed by this magnificent painting, by Jan Vermeer.

By implication, albeit not explicitly, the NRC panel’s recommendation (number six out of ten) characterizes biomedical research faculty as Vermeer’s skilled and attractive harlot (in yellow, her right hand about to receive a coin), the NIH as her lusty john (red jacket, one hand on the harlot’s breast, the other proffering gold), and the research university—which we used to call alma mater, or “nourishing mother”—as the procuress (black hood, satisfied smile). The alma mater/procuress (research university) takes money from the john (NIH) to procure the harlot (researchers) and to rent a suitable room (think research lab). The simpering fop (left)—in black silk and lace collar, raising a glass to the romantic couple—has remained an enigma for 350 years. Later I shall unmask his 21st century identity.

In 2010, four members of Congress asked the NRC to recommend the “top ten actions” government and research universities should undertake in order “to help the United States to compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century.” Few will argue against some of its recommendations—for instance, that we should: stabilize federal funding for university research and graduate education; raise total US research and development to 3% of GDP; increase cost-effectiveness and productivity of university-based research; remove regulations that increase costs and impede creativity; improve PhD graduate programs; offer education to all Americans, regardless of race; and ensure US benefit from international students and scholars in our research enterprise. A few additional recommendations sound too vague, like long-sought secret gardens. The NRC may know where the garden keys are hidden, but doesn’t tell us (2).

Of the report’s recommendations, number six reeks of ignorance so rank it will take your breath away. Quiet but deadly, it boils down to this: “The federal government and other research sponsors should strive to cover the full costs of research projects and other activities they procure from research universities in a consistent and transparent manner.” For non-cognoscenti, a word of orientation is in order. Research costs are often divided into “direct” and “indirect” categories. “Direct” costs (for researcher salaries, materials, equipment, etc.) are those necessary to get the research project done, while “indirect” costs denote “facilities and administration”—F&A, which includes research administration, lab maintenance and utility bills, and research environment. Because funding agencies pay only part of the “full” indirect costs, the NRC report contends, universities cover the shortfall by taking money from student tuition fees and clinical care revenues. In contrast, if the funding agency fully covered indirect costs, universities could “allocate . . . resources more strategically for their intended purpose” (1).

That sounds fine, but here’s the poison: “Federal coverage of a higher portion of indirect costs would, at the margins, shift part of federal research funding from direct to indirect costs, so there will be no net change in cost to the federal government.” In other words, funds for performing actual research would be reduced. Full agency funding is critical, according to Charles Holliday, chair of the NRC panel, who identified the losers with crystalline clarity: if funding agencies can’t pay more, he said, “we’d rather see more of [their money] go to pay the full cost [of supporting research]. . . . Yes, if that were the only option, then cut the amount of money available for research” (3).

What might this mean in practical terms? My former employer, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), receives indirect cost payments on NIH grants at a negotiated rate: 56% of direct costs. According to a UCSF official (4), however, the “full” indirect costs (as calculated by UCSF) would amount to 77% of direct costs. Thus, if the NIH paid the same total amount to the university, the NRC’s recommendation would reduce money available to the labs that perform the research by about 21%. Is that a good idea? Would diverting one fifth of all research grants to students or clinicians be a good bargain for society? Investigators already use that money to perform first-class research. Is that purpose really less worthy than those of the university’s students or doctors?

Moreover, Holliday’s committee completely ignored a serious problem with their analysis: of the indirect costs paid from university coffers, a substantial proportion (as much as 54%; 4) relates neither to NIH nor to other federal grants. Instead, much of the shortfall relates to grants from foundations and other private sources, most of which pay indirect costs at substantially lower rates than the federal government (4). Is it likely that the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and other private funders will heed the NRC’s delicately phrased request that they “strive to pay the full costs of research projects . . . they procure from research universities”? No. Will universities refuse their grants, even when the indirect cost reimbursements remain inadequate? No.

In any case, how can the NRC committee assert so unequivocally that sources outside the university must pay all research costs? Shouldn’t a research university contribute some of its own money? Indeed it should, for excellent reasons:

  • The prowess and accomplishments of a research university’s investigators substantially enhance its reputation, attracting students and alumni donations.
  • Creating, imparting, and implementing knowledge are closely connected, each activity increasing the others’ quality. Universities derive great benefits from connecting teaching, research, and community service, such as medical care.
  • Universities already make every possible effort to enhance efficiency and reduce actual indirect costs. Paying indirect costs from funds previously allocated to laboratories will certainly diminish research, without increasing efficiency.

Finally, how did the NRC panel manage to come up with this perverse, short-sighted recommendation? The simple answer: recommendation six directly reflects the ignorance and prejudices of this panel’s 20 members, who included a retired Du Pont CEO as chair, plus seven other business people; ten university administrators (presidents, chancellors, etc.); and two working scientists (5). With only two of 20 members engaged in actual science, the panel bills the indirect cost issue as a business calculation to clinch a lucrative bargain for universities: “If the government covers the full costs of research it procures, universities will be able to hold steady or reduce the amount of research funding they contribute from other sources, such as tuition revenue or patient clinical fees.” But championing this calculation lays bare a shameful fact: the NRC panel doesn’t know where research money comes from or how low indirect cost reimbursements paid by private funders of research can be. Among prestigious university presidents and captains of industry, such ignorance betrays serious deficits of both curiosity and business sense. Luminaries like these should know better.

To explore the NRC panel’s prejudices, I’d like to hear it answer (honestly) these questions: Are business and academic research essentially equivalent activities, best managed in identical ways? Does research funding simply purchase a product that can easily be predicted and quantified? Why did the panel ignore the cherished benefits research bring to universities, the non-government private sources that support academic research, and the impossibility of getting more research for less money?

Now let’s return to Vermeer’s painting. Of course the artist cannot have known that his 17th century procuress, harlot, and john would reincarnate in the 21st century as key players in the US biomedical enterprise: respectively, as research universities, academic biomedical scientists, and the NIH. And in his wildest dreams Vermeer could not have imagined the identity of the reincarnated fop, with his lifted glass and foolish simper. His painting suggests a brothel tout in cahoots with the procuress, a tout who surely shares her cynical disregard of what either harlot or john will get from their transaction. Now, in the 21st century, his fop has unmistakably reincarnated himself as . . . none other than the NRC panel responsible for recommendation six! Precisely the kind of person, we now see, who could berate a spendthrift procuress for paying part of the rent for the brothel room from her own funds, and insist instead that the entire rent come out of the john’s fee, which (so he says) will not increase. He would think it’s fine for the poor harlot to get less money for her performance, because the procuress gets extra dollars to spend on something else. Besides, a harlot’s heart of gold allows her to perform just as well, whether she is paid or not. Are scientists’ hearts not made of similar stuff?

Shame on the NRC for appointing this panel! Somewhere, surely, it could have found 20 individuals less ignorant and disdainful of the purpose, practice, and funding of biomedical research—and, by extension, all science? If not, our society’s movers and shakers are hardly better informed than its poorest untutored dregs.

NOTES

1. National Research Council report, Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security, National Academy Press, 2012. Pdf available on web.

2. One of these is a “strategic investment program” to fund initiatives “in areas of national priority.” The reader will also wonder exactly how can we persuade states to make their public universities autonomous and agile enough “to navigate an extended period with limited state support,” or get business and the academic research enterprise to interact more effectively.

3. J Mervis, The Real Cost of Research—and Who Pays, ScienceInsider. The blog includes quotes from an interview with Charles Holliday, chair of the NRC committee responsible for the report discussed in this post. Blog posted on the web 15 June 2012, 2:16 pm.

4. Interview with Eric Vermillion, Vice Chancellor of Finance at UCSF, 2 July 2012. Federal grants and contracts pay for about 58% of UCSF’s research (assessed in direct costs), but the federal government pays about 74% of the portion of indirect research costs that are reimbursed by all funding sources put together. The federal government pays indirect costs at a rate (in proportion to direct costs) slightly more than twice the average rate paid by other funding sources. As a result, UCSF itself foots the F&A bill to the tune of about 35 cents for every federal direct research dollar expended by investigators, on the average, but pays 57 cents for every non-federal direct research dollar. Consequently, non-federal sources pay for 42% of UCSF’s research (in direct costs), but research funded by these sources accounts for a much larger percentage (54%) of the total F&A cost UCSF must pay to keep all its externally supported research going. Bottom line: following recommendation six of the NRC report at UCSF would cut the researchers’ share of the federal research dollar by more than one third, while that share would decrease, by considerably more than half, research funded by non-federal sources. The university could then spend the money “saved” for other purposes, while research itself would wither away.

5. A Public Voice, Online Newsletter, National Academies Names Research Universities Committee. Web 1 July 2010, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

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About biomedwatch
Professor Emeritus of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco

One Response to Is your alma mater really a procuress?

  1. Amy says:

    I stopped reading after I got to the part about the panel’s including ten university presidents.

    Henry, I don’t think you get it. The universities housing these scientists have long been playing a game that is now coming to an end. The day of graduating students $30-70,000 in debt is ending, in part because the number of students and student-parents available on voting day is vastly larger than the number of research scientists at the polls. They universities are going to grab from the scientists, and they’re going to succeed. I wouldn’t think this is the last round of it, either.

    Furthermore there’s going to be plenty more consolidation, with research concentrated further and more universities turning into lecturer-sustained teaching facilities, meaning that rather than having the better funding you call for, more scientists will be out on their asses.

    I have to say that my sympathies are limited. While I was lucky enough to get through without debt, I’m increasingly competing (as a writer) with people overseas willing to work for a few dollars an hour. I’ve paid my own health insurance for nearly two decades; I finally have disability insurance. Retirement? At this point I hope someone will still employ me when I’m old. God knows how my daughter’s going to go to college; she’s only nine, but she assumes she’ll live at home, because she doesn’t want any more debt than she has to take on. She’s seen what it does to her babysitters. She puts her allowance in the bank, saving it to pay college tuition. Do I think she should pay more to support someone’s research? No. No, I don’t. I can think of several other candidates who ought to pay more, but the kids? No.

    You had a long, lucky, and well-remunerated career: your timing was excellent. Today’s young scientists: not so lucky. It’s going to be hard for a long time.

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