"If you have to ask": Ten sure-fire ways to lose money on research

Normally collegial discussions took a nasty turn after I suggested that most universities lose money on sponsored research.

Incredulous: “I don’t believe it. My department tacks a 50% surcharge to all my contracts; how can they lose money?”

Defensive: “Here are all the reasons that doing research is a good thing, so what’s your point?

Defensive with an edge: “Why are you attacking research?

Let’s be be clear about it:  if it’s your institution’s mission to conduct research, then spending money on research makes perfect sense.  In fact, it would be irresponsible to deliberately starve a critical institutional objective like research.

On the other hand, there are not all that many universities with an explicit research mission.  But there is an accelerating trend among  primarily bachelor’s and master’s universities to become — as I recently saw proclaimed in a paid ad — the next great research university. The university that paid for the ad has absolutely no chance to become the next great research university.  Taxpayers are not asking for it.  Faculty are not interested. Students and parents don’t get it either.

The administration and trustees think it’s a great idea.  Research universities  are wealthy.  Scientific research requires new facilities and more faculty members.  Research attracts better students. Best of all, federal dollars are used to underwrite new and ambitious goals. Goals that would be out of reach as state funding shrinks. As often as not, the desire to mount a major research program is driven by a mistaken belief that sponsored research income can make up for shrinking budgets. It’s a deliberate and unfair confounding of scholarship and sponsored research

If your university is pushing you to write grant proposals to generate operating funds, then alarm bells should be going off.  Scholarship does not require sponsored research. Chasing research grants is a money-losing proposition that can  rob funds from academic programs.  It’s an important part of the mission of a research university, but for almost everyone else, it’s a bad idea.  It’s a little like shopping on Rodeo Drive:  there’s nothing there that you need, and if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.

How is it possible to lose money on sponsored research?  After all, professor salaries are already paid for.  The university recovers indirect costs. Graduate and undergraduate students work cheap.

A better question is how can anyone at all can possibly make money on sponsored research. Many companies try, but few succeed.  A company that makes its living chasing government contracts might charge its sponsors at a rate that is 2-3 times actual salaries. Even at those rates, it is a rare contractor that manages to make any money at all.

On the other hand, a typical university strains to charge twice direct labor costs.  Many fail at that, but the underlying cost structure — the real costs — of commercial and academic research organizations are basically identical.  There is a widespread  but absolutely false assumption that underlying academic research costs are lower  because universities have all those smart professors just waiting to charge their time to government contracts. The gap between what universities charge and what sponsors are willing to pay commercial outfits is the difference between making a profit and losing a lot of money. Just like intercollegiate athletics, sponsored research programs tend to lose money by the fistful.

Let me say up front that the data to support this conclusion are not easy to come by.  Accounting is opaque. Sponsors know a lot about what they spend, but relatively little about what their contractors spend.  It is in nobody’s interest to make the whole system transparent.  But my conversations with senior research officers at well-respected research universities, paint a remarkably consistent picture.  With very few exceptions, it takes $2.50 to bring in every dollar of research funding.

Fortunately, the arithmetic is easy to do.  If you know the right questions to ask, you can find out how much sponsored research is costing your institution. Here are ten sure-fire ways to lose money on sponsored research. You do not need all of them to get to a negative 2.5:1 margin.  If you are clever just a couple will get you there.

  1. Reduce senior personnel productivity by 50%: university budgets are by and large determined by teaching loads, a measure of productivity. It is common to adjust the teaching loads of research-active faculty. Sometimes normal teaching loads are reduced by 50% or more.  It is, some argue, table stakes, but a reduced teaching load is time donated to sponsored research because funding agencies rarely compensate universities for academic year support.
  2. Hire extra help to make up for lost productivity: Courses still have to be offered, so departments hire adjuncts and part-time faculty.
  3. Do not build Cost of Sales  into the contract price: The sales cycle for even routine proposals can be  months or years.  Time spent in proposal development converts to revenue at an extraordinarily small rate. In nontechnical fields and the humanities where research support is rare, the likelihood of a winning proposal is essentially zero.
  4. Engage in profligate spending to hire promising stars: Hiring packages for highly sought-after faculty members can easily reach many millions of dollars.  A sort of hiring bonus, there is little evidence that this kind of up-front investment is ever justified on financial grounds.
  5. Make unsolicited offers to share costs: Explicit cost-sharing requirements were eliminated years ago at most federal agencies.  Nevertheless, grant and contract proposals still offer to pay part of the cost of carrying out a project.
  6. Allow sponsors to opt-out of paying the indirect  cost of research: An increasingly common practice is to sponsor a research project with a “gift” to the university.  Gifts are not generally subject to overhead cost recovery, so a university that agrees to such an arrangement has implicitly decided to subsidize legal, management, utility, communication, and other expenses, and
  7. Accept the argument that indirect costs are too high: The  meme among federal and industrial sponsors is that indirect costs are gold-plating that must be limited. Rather than believe their own accounting of actual costs of conducting research, they argue that universities, should limit how much they charge back to the sponsor.
  8. Build a new laboratory to house a future project: Sponsors argue that it is the university’s responsibility to have competitive facilities.  But that new building is paid for with endowment funds or scarce state building allocations that might have gone toward new classrooms or upgraded teaching labs.
  9. Offer to charge what you think the sponsor will pay, not what the research will cost:  Money is so tight at some funding agencies that program managers are told to set a (small) limit on the size of grants and proposals independent of the work that will be actually be required.
  10. Defray some of the management costs of the sponsoring agency: It has become so common that it is hardly noticed.  University researchers troop into badly-lit conference rooms to help program officers “make the case” to their management.
The list goes on. It is so easy to turn a sponsored research contract into a long-term commitment to spend money for which there is no conceivable offsetting income stream that institutions routinely chop up the costs and distribute them to dozens of interlocking administrative units.  The explosion in the number of research institutions has all the elements of an economic bubble.
  • It is motivated by a gauzy notion that all colleges and universities are entitled to federal research funds..
  • It is fed in the early stages by accounting practices that make it easy to subsidize large expenditures.
  • It has the cooperation of funding agencies who know that the rate of growth is not sustainable.

Virtually everyone involved in university research knows that the bubble will burst.  A colleague just showed me an email from his program director at a large federal research agency.  It said that — regardless of what he proposed — the agency was going to impose a fixed dollar amount limit on the size of its grants. But in order to win a grant, he had to promise to do more.  His solution: promise to do the impossible in two years instead of three.  Just like the famous Sydney Harris cartoon,  a miracle is required after two years. At least there would be enough money to pay the bills while a new grant proposal was being written.

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8 comments
  1. Suresh said:

    “Scholarship does not require sponsored research.”

    I’m a little puzzled by this point. While I agree that process of gaining inspiration and coming up with new ideas doesn’t require sponsored research, how is one to support even a single student, or find the money to go to a conference to present said scholarship, or even buy a computer on which to write up one’s new ideas ? Admittedly the amounts are not large, but maybe you’re proposing a scaling back of research agendas so that much smaller sums of money can be used to conduct research at all ?

    • richde said:

      It’s exactly the right question, Suresh. If academic budgets were not squeezed by such things as subsidizing sponsored research and underwriting losses from sports programs there would be funds available for these kinds of activities.

      I should also add that “sponsored research” is a big tent and there are programs at NSF and other agencies that (Research Experience for Undergraduates, for example) that actually support academic missions.

      Perhaps the simplest answer is that just like everything else, sponsored research needs to pay its own way.

      In any event, it is a healthy discussion to have.

  2. Donna Holmes said:

    I recently attended a social event at which a friend, who is the dean of a college at a local state university, made the key point you make in your discussion here: that federal research grants and contracts actually cost universities money, even taking into consideration the indirect costs included in these grants. My shocked response was, basically, What???

    I’ve been an academic researcher in the sciences since the late 1970s, yet this revelation came as a complete surprise to me. It seems like such a basic bit of information about how the system works – yet so few faculty researchers seem to be aware of it. I appreciated being able to find your blog when I pursued the topic further – it seems well reasoned and supported.

    • richde said:

      Thanks Donna. That’s my experience too. I’m tracking this in more detail on my higher ed blog http://innovate-edu.com

  3. I am getting ready to send a student to Colorado State. I understand that research is part of the universities mission, but the more I read about research universities the more I get the impression that students are nothing but a necessary evil at these universities. Digging deeper, I realize that a portion of my tuition dollars are funding the same research that takes priority over my child’s education.

    I would like to see public universities firewall funding for things like athletics, academics, research, etc and make these programs self-supportive. If a research project is unable to attain funding, maybe it is what most of us call a hobby.

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