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The author makes an unjustified claim: I don't know what the tariff for higher education at UNLV is nowadays, but you can be damn sure that every $50,000-a-year Philosophy major at Harvard is subsidizing a hell of a lot of electron microscopes for the glamorous—and much less profitable—Molecular Biology majors.

This is nonsense. The materials scientist who bought a $1M electron microscope received a grant for roughly $1.8M. The university took $800K or so as "overhead".

I wish more people were aware of what congress is really funding when they claim to give money to science.




As someone with a BS in Molecular Biology, I have to say that there is nothing glamorous about that degree.


It really does depend on your standard of comparison. Cosmology? Yeah, I guess you're right. Philosophy (or for that matter any humanities department)? Guess who gets more "serves them right" jeers if a a university decides to close down the department


Ahh yes, classic argument technique: reply to nonsense with nonsense[1]! Fantastic move. Oh wait.. there is one thing tho, which I presume you're OK with: it's a total logical fallacy.

The nonsense here is the perfectly reasonable part of overhead, like that it covers electricity for the microscope, legal, hr, accounting and so on offices that need to be done for any organization, buildings to house the stuff, people to keep the lab clean, and so on. The 40ish% overhead you describe is pretty darn low, considering the overhead percentages in a lot of companies that take contracts are 2-4x over materials and skilled labor time.


Regardless of whether 40-70% of grant money going to overhead is reasonable, there is still the point that most science is funded by medium-large scale grants, and no doubt some of that overhead goes towards maintaining facilities used for teaching Molecular Biology undergrads.

I'm not sure what fraction of a humanities professor comes from the University vs. outside funding agencies, but it's at least a commonly held opinion in the sciences that research money is subsidizing humanities instruction, rather than vice versa. Anyone have any detailed analysis to the contrary?


A couple of things here that suggest that there may be more going on than your simplistic explanation (but no i don't have numbers):

1. Humanities (e.g. arts programs) along with sports are large generators of alumni donations. These are certainly large chunks of money that aren't even considered "science funding saves the world" type thinking.

2. Humanities and other non-science programs contribute to the overall prestige of a school. Whether or not this is deserved is different from the truth of it -- a good reputation is good for all forms of grants.

3. A simple thought analysis on how much overhead a humanities professor really needs compared to his science counterparts shows there is a huge lack of cost from the humanities groups: no equipment to house and power, no labs (but books, galleries etc, i don't know where more money would be needed: a good lab building or a good library), fewer RAships (but roughly equal numbers of TAships), no need for extra infrastructure to be built (cooling towers for compute clusters, etc), no need for special legal teams to cover the risks, no need for special accounting to sate the governments crazy reporting needs, no need for non-academic staff (programmers, lab specialists, etc). Im sure there are others.

Basically, from the universities I've worked at, the vast majority of overhead goes to general building/grounds maintenance, specialized services for the groups bringing grants, student programs, general infrastructure, and sure, some to the humanities, why not -- all those LAS majors probably don't pay tuition at all.


Other organizations may rip off the government much worse than universities. So what?

It does not change the fact that science grants are subsidizing the rest of the university.


Hey look, another logical fallacy: The strawman.

I was not just talking of government contracts. When large companies contract with other companies they don't quote overhead rates, but internal to any company I've ever heard of, the standard overhead to account in a bid is 2-4x the cost of resources.

Second, your completely illogical reasoning ignores a basic fact that universities are a proven model of getting research done at a much lower rate than companies (e.g. national labs, contractors and so on), and that model includes having some portion of science grants ending up helping subsidize other parts of the university.


Please pay attention. The original author claimed philosophy students are subsidizing electron microscopes. I disagreed with this claim. You agree with me that the science grants are subsidizing the rest of the university, rather than the other way around.

Second, your completely illogical reasoning ignores a basic fact that universities are a proven model of getting research done at a much lower rate than companies...

If it's proven, then perhaps you could provide some proof?


Ok let's try approaching this a different way for a moment. If all of that $1.8M in your example went to the electron microscope, and there was no overhead, how would any of the following be funded:

- the building housing the scope?

- The electricity used by the scope (non-negligible in this case)

- The staff to run it

- training to use it

- maintenece

- hr/legal/accounting services regarding the grant itself?

Furhter, without the above services, not only do you need to fund that stuff, you must now take time away from actually researching to hire those people (for free!), to manage those people and resources, and essentially not do science in order to save science from the evil humanities leeches.

My point, and the point you are conveniently being a disingenuous about, is that you can't just take some money and "do science" there is always going to be other factors necessarily involved.

As for proof of universities vs companies: I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but it is pretty strong. We do lots of research for various government groups, and I find it telling that when we first started working with the DOE on big grants, the were shocked at our overhead rates, which are half the national labs, and much less than other companies. Yet they are happy with our level of research, and have given us more research because they get a better "bang for their buck".

Similarly we had some pretty specialized work that needed to be done for one of our projects, so we considered having SAIC or Honeywell do some of that work. We couldn't because to get one engineer for 50% (half of every work day for a year) cost $500K (after overhead). For that we instead hire a good engineer, an appropriate work environment for him, and still had $200K to more tasks down the road. (not to mention the ability to get more grants in which that work is done now).


Of the items you mentioned, only rent, electricity and legal/accounting services pay are paid for by overhead.

HR services are charged directly to the grant - if a grad student receives $20k in salary (+ health benefits), the university charges about $50k to the grant. The staff to run the machine, training and maintenance are not paid for out of overhead. Also, PIs need to do their own grant accounting.


That depends on the university then. Some places do in fact pay staff from general college funds (aka the result of overhead). Either way, you are completely and utterly ignoring my question: How do you propose handling this things other than the overhead method, and how do you expect to find a way to do so cheaper than than a university, given that all other entities which can meet the governments requirements for getting grant charge so very much more?


...how do you expect to find a way to do so cheaper than than a university, given that all other entities which can meet the governments requirements for getting grant charge so very much more?

I'd relax the government's requirements and allow more entities (including individual PIs) to get grants.

I'd also demand that universities itemize their overhead costs. Every commercial property manager successfully itemizes the cost of a building, electricity and cleaning services. Every outsourced HR agency itemizes employee payroll costs.

As a taxpayer, I'd like the government to properly audit these services and bar any universities which overcharge from getting further grants.


You know that all the public universities already do this right? The books, including salaries are 100% public in many states for (at least for the state universities). Why do you think they are so much cheaper than the companies and Private PIs that do get grants? (BTW that thing you wish for exists: look at SWRI for example). The only requirement to get grants is the ability to convince the grantors that you can do the work more effectively than the other applicants.




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