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Big Science Is the Toxic Spoiled Brat of Academic Life

David Klinghoffer
Photo credit: Abhijitsathe, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Wow. Readers of Evolution News will recognize the name of biologist J. Scott Turner for his excellent book, Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. He’s also director of the Intrusion of Diversity in the Sciences project for the National Association of Scholars. He has an excellent and scathing article at Real Clear Science about funding for academic science, aka, what he calls the Big Science Cartel (BSC). 

The BSC is the spoiled brat of intellectual life. It expects and grabs a fortune from taxpayers, which goes not to research (maybe 50 percent does) but to support the woke universities that in turn spew venom at the country and the taxpayers. Three U.S. senators (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Richard Burr) have directed some resistance at the National Science Foundation, which “has harnessed itself to blatantly political aims, from the dubious ‘greening’ of our society and nation, to the toxic agenda of ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.’”

The Tip of the Iceberg

But as Professor Turner shows, that’s just the tip of the BSC iceberg. Addressing himself to the three senators who are already engaged with the issue, he explains how the country is being ripped off by the BSC, and what to do about it.

This tangled web is propped up by about $90 billion of annual federal expenditures, making the BSC a massive corporate/institutional welfare scheme. The NSF’s annual $9 billion budget is about a tenth of total federal expenditures for academic research. The rest is doled out by several other federal agencies with the biggest player among them being the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They all are prone to the same questionable behaviors as the NSF, and are just as corrupt. The revelation of massive kickbacks and royalty schemes involving “public” health is only the most recent example. 

A Kickback Scheme

The scheme has a name, a blandly harmless-sounding one. It’s called “indirect costs”:

Here is the problem: about $130 billion flows annually to universities to support their faculties’ scientific research. An expenditure of $130 billion for scientific research does not mean, however, that $130 billion is actually spent each year on scientific research. Your target should be the difference between the money spent and the money spent on actual research. 

The difference comes from a particularly tangled knot of collusion between universities and funding agencies. A scientist does not apply for research grants, the institution that employs him applies. Institutions, moreover, tack a surcharge, called indirect costs, onto every grant proposal. This surcharge averages about 50% of the budget for the actual research — what are called direct costs. So, for every $100,000 spent supporting the scientist and his work, the university takes in, on average, an extra $50,000 dollar surcharge. Of the $130 billion appropriated for research, therefore, only $80 billion of it supports research. 

Indirect costs have a legitimate role in defraying a university’s administrative costs of hosting a research program. But indirect costs also have long been a source of institutional flim-flammery and administrative mischief. The typical indirect costs rate of 50% far exceeds indirect costs rates for other countries’ national research programs. In the EU, indirect costs rates are 20-25%. In South Africa, which has a respectable national research program, indirect costs rates are around 15%. When American taxpayers and elected representatives see that our institutions of higher education typically bill the federal government for indirect costs at a typical rate of 50% (and some institutions charge indirect costs rates of around 90%), two questions should come immediately to mind. How did those exorbitant rates come to be? And what’s all that extra money being used for? 

With respect, Senators, those are the questions you should be asking. 

Indeed. Keep in mind, this is not just connivance to enrich the bilkers. That would be a comparatively mild instance of corrupt conniving. Much worse, it goes to support all the woke mendacity, having little to do with science, that flows more and more from our universities. I hope those good senators take note of Scott Turner’s advice.

Immediately and Mercilessly

As things stand, Big Science is “secure in the knowledge that the budgets will continue to double roughly every seven years.” This rotten state of affairs must be interrogated immediately and mercilessly. Read the rest here.