[Beowulf] Station wagon full of tapes

Lux, James P james.p.lux at jpl.nasa.gov
Tue May 26 09:31:12 PDT 2009

Rgb wrote:
> Sure, but why wouldn't it be cheaper for e.g. NSF or NIH to 
> fund an exact clone of the service Amazon plans to offer and 
> provide it for free to its supported research groups (or 
> rather, do bookkeeping but it is all internal bookkeeping, 
> moving money from one pocket to another).
> Amazon has to make a profit.  Granting agencies don't have to 
> pay the profit that Amazon has to make.  Amazon has to take 
> substantial risks to make its profit.  Granting agencies have no risk.

Here you run into a political problem.  There is a significant faction that believes that government should not be directly competing with private industry, especially if the competition is "unfair" in the sense that the government doesn't have to make a profit.  That political reality turns into funding restrictions for such useful infrastructure things. 

One way it gets resolved is that government contracts with industry to provide the service (e.g. it's not the dept of transportation building interstate highways, it's bunches of commercial contractors).  This is, of course, just shuffling the money around a bit.

Even in university research, there is a "profit", except that it's usually called something like "management fee" or "award fee", because the institution as a whole doesn't turn a profit.  E.g. CalTech is a non-profit educational institution that runs Jet Propulsion Lab for NASA, and collects an award fee for doing so, the amount of the fee depending on how good a job we do here at the lab. Note well that the fee, by law, cannot be a proportion of the work done (that would be an illegal cost plus percentage fee contract...) Lots of our costs are allocable to the NASA work, and are directly reimbursed.  Those things which are not properly charged to NASA, but which CalTech decides to spend their money on, are as carefully guarded (if not more so) than the profit in a commercial entity. (example of something CalTech can spend its money on that NASA doesn't reimburse for: free box lunches for employee appreciation day, or the like.)

There are certain things which it seems that are natural government functions (in the sense that government SHOULD be doing it directly): national defense (e.g. hiring mercenaries seems be a bit beyond the pale..) and the like.

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