Counting Research Dollars

While it's difficult to compare the quality and volume of research conducted at major universities, there is one parameter that many agree does an adequate job of describing both: the amount of money directed annually to fund research activities.

This critical number has a major impact on a university: it can affect the number and quality of students that apply for admission, as well as faculty that join its scientific ranks, because it indicates the quality and competitiveness of the faculty and their ideas.
For these reasons – among others – it is important that research dollars be counted the same way from institution to institution.
It's time to have a level playing field.

There are several different ways that research grants can be counted, but the primary two involve awards and expenditures.
Adding up the amount of awards received allows for a lot of room for creative counting. If a university is awarded $5 million over a five-year period, does it count all the money the year in which it was awarded? Does it count the money evenly throughout the duration of the grant? Or does it count the full amount for each of the five years it is on the books?

The second way to count research grants – and this is my method of choice – is through expenditures. In other words, how much money did a university actually spend on research in a given year. I like this method because it shows the economic impact a research institution has through the purchase of new equipment and the payment of salaries that support its research enterprise. It also solves the question of how to count multiple year awards.

However, even this approach has issues. This method does not directly differentiate between earmarks and competitive grants – the latter being earned through scientific quality and integrity and the former through good lobbying. Some schools may count the cost of overhead not provided by the grant that must be paid by the school. Others might count grants allotted by the government for teaching or public service through outreach activities.

This is why it is essential that there be a clearly defined method that can be applied to all universities across the board.
The National Science Foundation has such a method.

Each year, the NSF collects data from nearly every research university in the country. Included in their formula are all research expenditures taken from funds appropriated by any level of government, private industry, gifts and other internal funding sources. These expenditures include both direct costs, such as salary and equipment, and indirect costs, such as overhead and administration.

Whenever a university is asked to report on the dollars spent on research – whether by the National Science Foundation, journalists or the Idaho State Board of Education – this is the formula that should be used. It allows very little wiggle room and ensures that any comparison between institutions is of apples to apples. And because nearly every research university in the country – and all of them in Idaho – already does this report, it adds no extra work for the institutions' offices of research.

The next time you hear about the amount of money coming into a university for research purposes, ask where the numbers are coming from, and remember that not all methods of counting are created equal.

Jack McIver is vice president for research at the University of Idaho, which is classified by the Carnegie Foundation for "high research activity."

This opinion piece was submitted to the Idaho Statesman as a "Reader's View" piece.