An update on capping indirect cost payments on NIH grants

An RBR Writing Program post by Torrey Truszkowski

Indirect cost payments, also known as overhead or facilities and administration costs, are a critical part of research grants and pay for the upkeep and administration of research facilities. The Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget proposed a 22 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health, with much of the cut coming from instituting a 10 percent cap on indirect costs. However, the sustainability of science relies on the current system of indirect cost recovery and would be damaged by such a drastic and sudden cut.

There are reforms to be made to the indirect cost system, but this requires a thoughtful discussion of the issues and implementation over time rather than the proposed draconian cut. In a recent hearing held by the Science, Space and Technology committee of the U.S. House, committee members expressed interest in reforming the system, but did not address the effects of suddenly implementing a two-thirds cut in indirect costs paid by National Science Foundation and NIH grants. By focusing on transparency and decreasing waste, the hearing missed the main point – that without enough transition time and a clear, fair plan for supporting research activities, a cut like this will cause severe damage to the research enterprise.

Absorbing tens of millions of dollars in funding cuts due to an indirect cost cap may not be possible for universities without a concomitant and widespread loss of research jobs. The scale of lost reimbursements from the suggested cap is simply too great to be made up by cuts to the university’s bureaucracy or by shifting around internal finances. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, said in a hearing in front of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. Senate that a cap on indirect costs would be dangerous for the extramural community. The House appropriations committee with jurisdiction over NIH funding included language in a recent bill preventing the administration from capping indirect costs; however, it is not clear if this prohibition will make it into final legislation.

Cutting indirect cost payments will damage the ability of scientists and universities to conduct research and find innovative, new solutions to complex problems. A thoughtful discussion on reforming the indirect cost system would be beneficial to the system, but a draconian indirect cost cap would imperil global U.S. leadership in biomedical research. Fully funding scientific research, including indirect support for facilities and administration, is critical to the future of U.S. research.

Torrey Truszkowski is concerned about the sustainability of science, both from within the scientific community and as research is disseminated to the public. Torrey is currently completing her Ph.D. at Brown University in Neuroscience. She hosts Nerd Nite RI and was featured in Research Matters! at Brown. Torrey can be reached via Twitter (@TorreyTruszko) or email (

The RBR Writing Program is intended to help graduate students and postdocs receive policy writing experience. For more information, contact RBR Director Chris Pickett.

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