In “Research giants win on federal funding” (Page A1, March 18), Tracy Jan reports on how the federal government helps those of us who do federally funded research cover so-called overhead costs, or the costs to maintain research infrastructure that are not easily attributed to a single grant. Because it would be easy to read this story and wonder whether, in arguing against the government setting a flat rate for overhead costs, places like MIT are simply being greedy, I want to address the following points.
First, not all research universities bear the same overhead costs. At MIT, of every federal dollar spent on research, 29 cents is a reimbursement for overhead expenses incurred in the course of that research. Why? Because the cutting-edge scientific equipment and facilities needed for the kind of research we are funded to do are very expensive, and their operation and upkeep are labor-intensive.
Second, many of the expenses associated with running a research university are not borne by federal funds at all. At MIT, donations, endowment income, and non-federal research funding cover many of the real costs of tuition, equipment, faculty salaries, building construction, and other needs.
Research is certainly expensive, but it’s worth it. Since World War II, up to 75 percent of economic growth in this country has come from technological innovation, and it is at research universities where foundational, life-improving discovery is made — and where entrepreneurs find the next big idea.
The writer is also professor of geophysics at MIT.