Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Senators Coburn & McCain are suddenly computer scientists

Senators Coburn and McCain have criticized our sister institution, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) for being awarded a research grant from the National Science Foundation's Computer & Information Science and Engineering directorate.

The research grant was awarded to a faculty member in UNCC's Software and Information Systems Department to study how to digitize information on human movement, support visualization of those data, and facilitate interactive communication. Coburn and McCain sneer at the project because the movement being studied comes from dancers and the interactions involve choreographers and potential audience members.

Coburn and McCain don't tell you that the project was competitively awarded after undergoing extensive scientific peer-review that involved computer scientists and NSF scientific panels.

Coburn and McCain also criticize the administrative costs of the project, writing "administrative expenses are unusually high for this project... The project’s lead researcher noted that the university is taking a 44 percent cut to cover 'overhead expenses.'"

However, the Senators have mistated the administrative costs. UNCC charges an overhead (facilities and administrative) rate of 44 percent against the applicable direct costs of on campus research projects. If all of the direct costs were applicable (they aren't), UNCC's administrative "cut" would be just under 31 percent of the total costs. Also, NSF grants often involve contributions of resources from the applicant institution (institutional cost-sharing), making the effective cut smaller still.

Also, the 44 percent cost rate, which is set through an agreement between UNCC and the U.S. government, is hardly "unusual." For example, the comparable overhead rates for on-campus research at the University of Oklahoma at Norman and the University of Arizona are each higher at 50 percent and 51.5 percent, respectively. I couldn't find similar criticism from the senators of their home-state institutions' indirect rates.

Coburn and McCain can't get many of the basic facts of this project correct, yet they would have us substitute their judgement for the expert assessments of NSFs scientific staff and reviewers.

Perhaps the senators could tell us how much taxpayer-funded staff time they allocated to digging this stuff up.


jimcaserta said...

The 'overhead' is 'overhead' to the degree that paying rent, marketing the parent organization, building infrastructure are 'overhead'. You are right to point out that nearly all grants - publicly or privately financed - have significant chunks taken out by the parent institutions. If they had talked to anyone who's written & gotten a grant, they'd know that.

Dave Ribar said...


In the overhead, you can include all of the paperwork that institutions must maintain and file with the government as well as all of the compliance issues that they face (e.g., protection of human subjects).

I've reviewed many grants and contracts for the government. University overhead rates tend to be much lower than other organizations.