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.

Microfunding Research

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece to kick start some thinking about innovative ways to fund research. One of the ideas was to have a site where you can raise money from several supporters, ala musicians seeking funding to make a record. Seems the site already exists: Fundable.org is a site set up to allow you to request sponsorship. If you get the required pledges by your due date, then they actually charge people and send you a check. If the pledges do not add up, everyone’s pledge is canceled and you are out of luck. This is bordering on “so simple it is brilliant”.

As Kevin Kelly recently pointed out, if you are a musician you can make a decent living with 1,000 True Fans. Since research often involves a little more capital expense, you could probably do good and interesting research with just two to three thousand True Fans. If researchers work together and share capital resources, a little less is not unfeasible.

Can you cure cancer this way? Unlikely. But could new, innovative and interesting discoveries whose investigation government science agencies consider too risky be made this way? Without a doubt. From browsing the site, I have not seen any scientific research projects, but if people can get someone else to pay for their ski trip and their vet bills, someone has to be willing to pay for interesting research.
Who wants to give it a whirl? If we post a project, I will be sure to let you know.

Drop.io tests- come and play please

I have added a Drop.io widget to the page, to test some of the interesting functionality. Feel free to send me something interesting… a poem, a picture of your dog, a virtual gift. Please do NOT upload anything you do not already own the copyright to. It WILL be deleted post haste. This is a public box, so do NOT upload anything you do not want the rest of the world to see( if you don’t care if the rest of the world gets a good glimpse of your latest odd piercing, I don’t mind looking- but others will see). Please remember that this is a public blog and do not upload anything explicit.

I also want to test the voice to mp3 functionality. I will probably be calling later and creating something ya’ll can listen to, but you can try it out as well. Just dial 646-495-9201 x 91355 and leave me a message, or leave a message for the world.

Hmm…. this may turn into an interesting experiment into human nature, graffiti and self control….

Reviews of the technology and the experience in a future blog post. Feel free to comment and leave your thoughts about the user interface/experience.

Supporting the Intellectual Life

I had recently written a post here, about how frustrated I am with the publish or perish cycle and how the focus on ROI by Granting organizations was shifting pure science from research to development.

The more it rattles in the back of my brain, the more it eats at me. It is not that development is a bad thing. Development has improved YouTube, so that more and more users can watch without having it crash. Development adds new features to AmieStreet, so that now I can send 10$ gifts to my friends ( I have a couple extra still– comment here if you are interested….). I am sure that development played a role in making the brand new Calphalon pots and pans I got for Christmas as amazing as they are. But without research, we soon stagnate and falter.

So how do we support researchers who want to do cool things, without creating another beaurocracy that slows them down? Since the Corporate mindset has invaded governments and the social ethos everywhere..( and with the recent move to block all but government sponsored video sites, I am now convinced this is even true in communist China), the current focus on ROI will prevent major funding agencies and large groups of people from supporting the sort of pure research that will take us to the next level.

At first, I thought- why not have a fund that is “Feed the Research”, instead of “Feed the Children“? People will donate 3.50$/month without thinking too much about it. Set it up in paypal and get the word out, you could actually fund something interesting. But then you need an oversight board- who decides what gets funded and based on what criteria? Oiy– back to large group mindset again. We already decided this was trouble. What about the model used by DonorsChoose, to fund small projects and the needs of teachers? Here the Teachers post what they need, donors get to choose who they want to fund and when all the money for a project is raised- voila! But these are small scale projects, and it is a whole lot easier to raise 500$ for classroom materials, than 500,000 for some seemingly whacky research project. Then there is Sellaband– a site where bands who want to record post music and fans who want them to record. Fans who like them invest in the band, until the band has raised enough( 50,000) to get a recording session. But here the fans are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts- they get profit sharing later– which take us back to the ROI issue.

I know there has to be a way to make this work, a way to fund pure research that will revolutionize our world over and over again. I am a child of the 60s and 70s SciFi, dang it.. I grew up on the Jetsons and I want my jetpacks and rocket cars 😉 How would you model this so that good research could thrive without the tentacles of profit and ROI strangling it?