[Beowulf] Academic sites: who pays for the electricity?

Jim Lux James.P.Lux at jpl.nasa.gov
Wed Feb 16 10:56:03 PST 2005

At 09:22 AM 2/16/2005, Robert G. Brown wrote:
>On Wed, 16 Feb 2005, David Mathog wrote:
> > In most universities services like electricity, water, and
> > A/C are paid for by the school.  To do so they take "overhead"
> > out of every grant.  Partially as a consequence of this they
> > typically have a very poor ability to meter usage on a room
> > by room basis.
> >
> >
>I don't have a really perfect solution to this dilemna, and indeed I
>think it is a bit premature to expect one.  When SOME institution does a
>real CBA on the total cash flow associated with grant-funded
>cluster-based research projects, including the more esoteric benefits
>such as "institutional prestige" (which is serious business, don't
>forget -- a weight factor that affects ALL grants submitted from an
>institution) perhaps we can start to think about which clever idea for
>recovering costs is realistic and fair.  In the meantime, budgets of the
>groups that actuall pay these costs continue to get a wee bit strained
>as the number of nodes and associated costs continue to spiral upward.

Such issues come up ALL the time in any government funded research.  And, 
the more govermnent oversight, the more data you have to collect on such 
"burden" and "overhead".  An extreme might be a Defense Department (or 
NASA) Cost Reimbursement type contract (Aka Cost Plus... note well.. There 
are NO government contracts that are cost plus percentage of cost.. they're 
illegal... The fee amount is fixed, or based on award criteria, but does 
not depend on on the amount spent, except perhaps in a negative fashion 
(bust a spending cap, and your award/incentive fee gets smaller))

In such cases, the funding source is VERY interested in just how you 
calcualated "cost", and therein lies much accounting. There's a sort of 
pendulumn type swing back and forth for certain types of costs (and 
management philosophies).  Do you count telephone service as an overall 
burden (raising your "overhead" percentage, but reducing the project's 
"Other direct costs (ODC)") or, do you chargeback the project for the cost 
of the phoneline, plus usage, plus some management "tax"?  The latter 
reduces your overhead percentage, but increases the "direct costs".  Same 
dollars flow either way, but in the latter case you WILL spend more time 
accounting for the other direct costs.  I suppose that in academia, the 
grantee might be sheltered a bit by the institutional processes, but in 
most other environments, it's been a reality for a long time.

Different companies have different philosophies on the approach, and either 
works, and will generally pass muster with the auditors.  It does make 
evaluating proposals a bit trickier.

Taken to an extreme, we have the health care industry approach of "code and 
cost every item", so that the acetaminophen they give you after delivering 
a baby or having your gall bladder removed shows up on the bill as 
"Dispense acetaminophen, 2 tablets at 100mg" and "Administer acetaminophen, 
100mg", each with separate charges near $10.  Sadly, that $10 probably is a 
realistic cost, too, considering that some non-zero amount of time was 
spent to enter the transactions into a database, requiring the use of 
trained "medical coders" who know the procedure codes for everything, as 
well as the capital and operating costs of the terminal and computer 
they're using.

I'm sure that clusters in industry face the question of Cost/Benefit 
analysis, including infrastructure impact.  Certainly this is the case for 
desktop PCs and mainframes in at least one industry where my wife is employed.

Questions such as David raised are only going to become more and more 
common as the drive for "accountability" increases.  Even within government 
agencies, such as NASA, the drive for "Full Cost Accounting" (which 
essentially imposes the same controls that have always been imposed on 
vendors on cost reimbursement contracts) is causing great pain, not because 
the costs actually change, but because it is a huge cultural and mental 
shift in how one plans ones work.

James Lux, P.E.
Spacecraft Radio Frequency Subsystems Group
Flight Communications Systems Section
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mail Stop 161-213
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena CA 91109
tel: (818)354-2075
fax: (818)393-6875

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