IT isn't one of those immediately compelling issues, like arms for the ``contras'' or whether to build the ``star wars'' defense. Nonetheless the question is important: Should the United States government cut back on the money it gives universities for administrative costs of scientific research projects it finances? And if it should, by how much? Both government and universities benefit from these projects. By funding them, government gains knowledge useful for both military and peaceful purposes. And it helps ensure the development of future scientists.
By conducting the research, universities strengthen their scientific departments proportionately, attracting able professors, graduate students, and scientifically inclined undergraduates.
The administration, as part of its effort to trim the budget deficit, intends to limit its reimbursement of administrative costs to 26 percent of research contracts. Originally this ceiling was to begin tomorrow; after strong protests from universities, the starting date was postponed to July 1. In another year the limit is to be trimmed to 20 percent.
The political and financial pressures to cut the nation's budget deficit are enormous. Yet the issue ought to be considered on its merit, by its contribution, rather than as its potential for budget subtraction.
Fair to say, too many universities have been ascribing to the administrative ledger charges that belong elsewhere and getting Uncle Sam -- and the taxpayers -- to pay costs that universities themselves should shoulder. Further, this practice has been growing.
Washington is correct in insisting that these administrative expenses be held to modest levels, and that they relate directly to the research.
Yet funding should not be cut back precipitously. Over the years many universities have built such government support into their budgets; they require time to readjust their budget process so as to prevent significant funding problems of their own.
Whether all administrative costs should be held to the same percentage of overall research grants is questionable. Individual circumstances may warrant differing treatment for different projects.
Further, different methods of accounting are used among different projects. By loading charges into the research part of the grant, it would be possible for some administrative costs to be held fairly easily to 20 percent of the amount of the actual research -- and yet have taxpayers wind up paying too much money. Government should thus look more closely at the entire costs of the grant, not just the administrative expenditures.
Finally, if Uncle Sam is really serious about cutting unnecessary research costs, he ought to focus on reports of top-heavy administrative outlays in those research-and-development projects that private industry -- especially defense contractors -- charges to the government. Neither universities nor private industries should take advantage of the American taxpayer.