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Over our heads (Thomas Hyer)
(chuckle, original)

(This is a little over a year old, as is the topic.)
How is research actually conducted here at glorious Stanford University,
Beacon of the Industrialized West?  It's like this:  someone wants to
know something, and asks a Stanford scientist.  He hems and haws and
procrastinates, so they give him some money and tell him to go buy a big
lunch and, say, a cyclotron, and think about it.  This is where Stanford
enters.  You see, Stanford is not (despite the appearance it presents to
students) in the business of doing research.  Stanford is in the business
of what is called "full indirect cost recovery", which is a euphemism for
the inalienable right to growth and a good parking space for the
administrative body.  So this administration (that is, The University)
steps in and says, "I'm sorry, but overhead has just been raised to 107%.
To take that grant, you'll have to give us the top half of the cyclotron,
the guacamole off your burger, and your firstborn son's wisdom teeth."
"But I have a wife and six kids and a $550,000 mortgage on a two-room
bungalow," cries the researcher.  His pleas fall upon deaf ears.  He is
beaten and maimed, then forced to assemble the cyclotron by hand from
instructions transliterated from Japanese, attended all the while by an
average of six members of the support staff who take away every other
bolt as he works.
This is the situation which prevailed for about ten years, the Donald
Kennedy Administration, during which overhead rose from 56% to 78%.
(This is inevitable, you see, because administration becomes more and
more expensive as the state of the art progresses, whereas science can be
content to do the same things over and over.)  But one particularly
inclement September morning a man named Paul Biddle, who had supposedly
been standing guard over Stanford to protect the government from
excessive overhead charges, was rudely awakened from a pleasant
midmorning nap by an icy draught through his office window.  "Finest
damn climate in the world, eh?"  he raged.  "Can't believe everything
you hear!"
Armed with this insight, he did the unthinkable:  he suggested that the
same administration which heartlessly lured thousands of innocent
freshmen with bogus promises of endless halcyon days might also have been
less than ingenuous when he and his predecessor had trustingly allowed it
to unilaterally determine its own overhead rates!
This was, of course, a heinous lie.  Stanford had been a true pillar of
rectitude during its unchecked years, as it promptly proved by locating
the single accounting error which had slipped through its hairfine net of
self-surveillance:  $176,000 of depreciation on a donated yacht.  The
only one, that is, except for the sudden flurry of objets d'art
decorating the President's House.  But that was before we learned about
the receptions, to which we were not invited (a terrible breach of
manners).  Instead, it was around the time we found out about the
Trustees' yearly sojourns in Tahoe (to which, by the way, we were also
not invited).
The line of disclosured continued, with no worse consequences than a
televised session in which the entire House Subcommittee on
Appropriations, led by Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), lined up to pee on
Donald Kennedy.  The total financial loss was about $500,000, which was
about on par with the monthly amount paid to outside counsel (over and
above Stanford's permanent legal staff of 22) to help cover the retreat.
The important conflict was subterranean:  a fight over Memoranda of
Understanding prepared by Stanford and signed by Biddle's predecessor,
who shall here remain nameless because I can't remember his name.  These
MOU's are modification of the default federal rates for overhead
reimbursement in various areas (for example, libraries), supposedly based
on more complete studies.  Strangely, all the MOU's between Stanford and
the Navy (whose ONR is responsible for all federal negotiations with
Stanford) pointed one way... the Navy, flushed with its recent successes,
felt that it would be a nifty idea to renege retroactively on these
memoranda, presumably by bringing an Iowa-class battleship into the
On March 29, 1991, it was announced that on April 12 there would be an
announcement, announcing the result of negotiations on the new overhead
rate (since the ONR would not accept 78%).  On April 12, it was instead
announced that there would not in fact be such an announcement, and many
men in suits accused other men in suits of stalling, obstructing, and
generally wasting time, which sounds funny coming from someone with
nothing better to do than change into a suit every morning.
On April 26, an announcement was in fact announced.  The contents can be
deduced from the time-tested principle that you can't fight City Hall:
the ONR announced that it would pay what it damn well pleased, namely
55.5%, and if Stanford didn't like that, it would just have to fire all
of its faculty to stop their getting grants.  After exhaustive cost-benef
analysis, this alternative was found to be impractical.
Do scientists care?  Well, life goes on, with one exception:  now we get
to keep the guacamole.

(From the "Rest" of RHF)

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