Science Suffers while Salaries are Safe??

When I am considering supporting any organization, one of the first things I want to know is what their overhead percentage is. In other words, for every dollar I donate, how much is going to the actual work that organization does and how much is paying for mail, computers and the Director’s salary. There is huge market pressure to get these overhead costs as low as possible in every non-profit organization out there. If I get an answer back from a charity that says they are “wasting” more than 20-25% of my donation on overhead, I walk away. Lots of people do.
Our government does not have the same sense of fiscal responsibility that we as individuals do. The federal and state governments frequently sponsor research at universities. This is a very good thing. Universities have something called indirect costs, which they deduct from incoming grants (grants less than 20-25K are usually immune). Indirect costs are the same thing as overhead. This is money the tax payers are donating for scientific research in the form of grants that never actually goes to research. Indirect Costs are not new. They were an issue in the 80s when I was in grad school, and probably before that. Time magazine even wrote an expose on indirect costs back in 1991. If the indirect costs were reasonable, I would have no complaint. Every group has to pay some basic bills. But the indirect costs at universities ranges from 50-70%!!
That means if a brilliant researcher is donated 1 million dollars by the tax payers in the form of an NSF grant, he will actually receive only a half a million dollars or less. This is NOT the sort of organization I would normally donate money to. Agencies can refuse to pay indirect costs, and most universities have policies in place for how to deal with this. ( you can see an example for the University of California).
In this time of fiscal trouble, it seems wrong to me that our tax dollars are willingly being donated not to the source we thought they were, but to pay the 150-400K salaries of deans and others at Universities.
If we agree as a nation that we need to subsidize Public Institutions of Higher Education, I am in agreement with that- and we do. But there needs to be transparency in how and where that money is being spent.

If universities are facing increasing deficits because of decreasing enrollment and higher costs, they should be getting creative about cost cutting and savings, not sitting down and negotiating higher Indirect Cost rates with Federal funding agencies, like many recently have. Scientific research and innovation are the things that will continue to make us strong- the government should be looking for ways to funnel more money in that direction, not less.

Eating outside of the box

Todays article on the choices being faced by the unemployed to eat or to pay other bills got me thinking that maybe it was time to tackle the problem with a little outside the box thinking. There is no doubt that the food stamp program does unimaginable good for the recipients. The editors of the NYT Times recently pointed out that not only does the food stamp program feed people, but it also does direct good to assist with stimulating the economy as well. While there are a lot of people starting to emphasize with those struggling to make ends meet, including a CNN reporter trying to live on the SNAP ( food stamps) budget for a month, I have not seen many people trying to address the problem raised by one woman in the CNN article:
“Sears stretches her food budget by buying cheap and sometimes fatty meals. She said she doesn’t like doing that but can’t avoid it. With food prices high, she said, grocery shopping is stressful.

“We get like the mac and cheese, which is dehydrated cheese — basically food that’s no good for you health wise,” she said. “Everything is high in sodium and trans fats … and that’s all we basically can afford. There’s not enough assistance to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight.”

Advocates for the hungry say many people on the food stamp program opt to buy less-healthy foods because they can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables on such a tight budget.”

What if we look at other method for getting food into people’s hands and on their tables instead of just looking to spend more money at the grocery stores ? We are lucky to live in a nation with a long growing season and lots of good soil. Even in the depths of cities, there are many gardens and green areas. Because of this, the American Community Garden Association lists 120 community vegetable gardens in New York City alone. What if we added funding and support for gardening to the fod stamps program? Let the program help pay for staff that can assit, mentor, and administrate the gardens (people need jobs, right?) and people who volunteer in the gardens get a portion of the harvests. They get fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for a few hours of work each week. The peak growing season is summer- when students are out of school. This would also provide and activity that even younger kids can participate in and they will learn useful life skills as well.

Don’t live in an area with a community garden? Allow food stamps to pay for seeds, basic gardening tools and items that individuals in rural and/or suburban areas could use to plant provate gardens. Allow regional areas to purchase and loan out garden tillers that folks who want to plant in their yard can use. If we are worried about enough people being able to use a tiller, or the tillers getting abused or stolen, then again- hire people who can travel the rounds of food stamp recipients’ houses to till a garden.

Want to make the impact really lasting? Build a social media site and some print pamphlets with gardening tips, cooking tips, recipes and information on canning and preserving food. It would need to have some non-online resources as not everyone can afford to be online, or has the time to cruise the net at the library every week.

Want to really surprise people? Make it easy for home gardeners to band together to sell excess food in small farmer’s markets, or to trade zucchini that they grew for carrots that someone else had success with.

This is not an unprecedented idea. During World War I and II, the Victory garden program called for people to grow food at home or close by to assist with the conservation of oil being used by the war efforts. Today, the Liberty Garden program also calls on individuals to grow food in backyard gardens to help conserve energy and to make eating more eco friendly.

By implementing a “garden growing” portion into the SNAP program, we will not only alow people to eat in a more healthy way, we will also add jobs and be more eco friendly. Seems like a certain win on all facets.