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A new report on U.S. academic research budgets concludes that research enablement and support functions -- which under federally awarded research grants are reimbursed under indirect cost rates negotiated by universities -- face risk.

The nonprofit research and strategy group Ithaka S+R released the report today, examining budget issues the scientific research field faces. It found that externally funded research has been the most resilient major revenue source for large universities during the pandemic.

It also noted that the Trump administration wanted to reduce indirect cost rates in an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful. The white paper’s authors viewed that attempt as reason to suspect “there could be some precarity in the indirect cost model.”

Several major private foundations declared in 2019 they would pay full overhead costs in their grants. But foundation grants rarely pay full costs of the work they support, the paper said.

“Indirect costs are a hugely complex topic that merit an examination of their own, but in brief external research funding does not pay the entire costs of the research enterprise,” the paper said. “Rather, other university revenue sources effectively subsidize the research mission.”

Going forward, much depends on the Biden administration’s actions, the authors concluded.

“Any decrease in available funding levels could impose further strain on university budgets and greater competition among researchers to secure necessary funding, while also reducing the contributions of the national research enterprise as a whole,” the white paper said.