Who accounts for the cost of the Accountants?

Looks good, but what about the side effects?

There are an amazing number of things that make sense, locally, but are damaging when you take a broader view.   Habitually staying up late to get things done – that’s one I can personally attest to.   With a view limited to one evening, of course you get more done.  But, take the broader picture, and we see someone dragging out of bed the next day, being a little dull, and going to bed early.  Are there really extra accomplishments in the end?  Probably not.

Biofuels may be another example.  Grow crops to collect energy from the Sun, convert it to fuel, and power the world.   Sounds good and ecologically helpful, locally.  But, look at the entire system and it is much more dubious: The fuel crops compete with food crops, food prices rise and people descend into poverty.   Poverty, all on its own creates ecological damage, because poor people do not have the luxury of keeping their environment clean.

A cooking fire fuelled by wood is inefficient (only a tiny fraction of the energy goes to heat the food) and polluting (much of the wood isn’t completely burned and all the nasty partially-burned organics go everywhere).    And, getting the fuel can cause deforestation, erosion, and all manner of trouble.  Contrast this to a microwave oven in an advanced country:  much of the energy used goes into the food.  No smoke.  The electrical power is generated in some reasonably clean way (even dirty coal-fired power plants will have stack gas scrubbers to minimize the environmental damage).

And, growing biofuels causes environmental damage too.   More land is put to the plough, thus removing forests.  Erosion increases, pesticides get used, et cetera.  While I’m not an expert on the subject, it is clear that bio-fuels are not nearly as helpful as their proponents say.  Quite likely, they are a overall negative, hurting us more than they help.

Administration and accounting: it costs

So, what might we have in our research culture that makes sense (if you don’t think too hard) but is actually a shot in the foot?  Let’s start with budgets, research management, and accounting.

In a local view, no question, accounting and paperwork makes sense.  After all, you wouldn’t want some cheating researcher to take money that is supposed to cure cancer or solve global warming and use it for some private purpose: building a vacation house or buying erotic videos, for example.  That’s clear.  Every penny that an accountant saves from mis-use is a gain to society.  But, now let’s look a little more broadly.  How much does it cost to save this money?

For a start, we can look at one of my research projects.  For this project studying rhythm in speech, the Economic and Social Research Council is paying Oxford £276,000.   Of that, over 2.5 years, £159,000 is salary for my post-doc, part of me, a fraction of a collaborator, and a fraction of our local computer geek.  Beyond the salary, I have control of the not-so-massive sum of £8,000 which has to pay for equipment, computers, and travel to conferences so we can learn what’s going on in the field and tell other people what we’ve done.   The remainder, £110,000, is “overhead”, that goes to the University so that they can support my research and do my accounting.

Now, I have no control over the salary expenditures short of firing someone (and when your workforce is one-and-a-fraction people, firing someone is a disaster!).  So, the best the accountants can reasonably hope to do is to preserve the £8,000 of miscellaneous expenses.  And, even then, were I criminally inclined, I would be a fool to take it all.  The research council runs a review at the end of the project.  They will evaluate what I accomplish, and it is quite clear that if I were to accomplish nothing, I’d never get another research grant.   That £8,000 is necessary for the research, so if I spent it all on a vacation home (or whatever), I would accomplish nothing, the project’s outcome would be graded “unsatisfactory”, and I’d become unemployed.   Not smart in the long run.

Now, how much do the accountants cost?    That £110,000 of “overhead” goes to many places.  It pays for libraries, a network connection, about 50 square meters of floor space, heating, electricity, insurance, accountants, and administrators.  Many of those costs can be estimated on the open market.   I could buy the books and journal papers we’ll use for about £10,000.  Rent in Oxford would amount to about £25,000 over the 2.5 years of the project.  Network access, e-mail, backup services for perhaps £3000.   Heating, electricity, insurance and repairs shouldn’t be much different than what it costs for my house, which is in the ballpark of £10,000. That leaves (very roughly) £63,000 that might be spent for accountants and administrators.

Are there really tens of thousands of pounds of administrators watching over me?

Wow!  Could that be real?  Let’s look at it from the other side.  How many people can I identify who I could actually point to?

Our lab has an administrator who works hard for not much pay.  She supports a mix of teaching and research projects, but it’s a small lab and there aren’t all that many research projects or staff for her to support.  My project’s share of her is at least £4000 (over the 2.5 years).  And, then there’s the lab director, John Coleman.  He’s a professor (so he gets paid moderately well), but he spends quite a bit of his time doing budgets and administration (mostly unwillingly).  It’s hard for me to estimate exactly how much, but it’s a small lab, so it’s plausible that administering my project eats 5% of his time: that’d be £9000 (counting his salary and benefits).  Because if his efforts, I don’t have to spend much time on administration and finances, but there’s also 5% of my time, for another £6,000.   Going further afield, there are two people who are “research coordinators” for the Humanities at Oxford.  Their job is to help me get research grants and to help me do the paperwork.  My project is 2% of their jobs, so that’s another £3,000 or so.  Then, there’s the Research Services Office: their job is to feed the right paperwork to the government.  It has about ten people who keep track of about a thousand research projects: my share is at least £500.

I haven’t yet listed the people on the various central accounting teams (perhaps 50 people; my share is  perhaps £2,000) or the millions that Oxford spent on it’s “Osirus” accounting system recently (£1,000 or more is mine).  But all these numbers add up.  And, I have tried not to include the effort spent on getting the grant in the first place or evaluating it at the end.  What I’ve listed above is primarily related to the day-to-day running of the project.

The bottom line.

So, here’s the score.   On the plus side, the accountants can save some fraction of £8,000.  On the minus side, Oxford’s accountants and administrators are  costing £25,500 that I can identify, and maybe as much as £63,000.   And, there is more money spent on the other side of the fence.  Each Oxford accountant or administrator is matched against one in the government.  Remember Research Services whose job it is to feed paperwork to the government?   Well, there are people in the Economics and Social Research Council who spend their days asking for that paperwork and then reading it.  And for every Oxford accountant who keeps me on the straight-and-narrow, there is a auditor, and somewhere in the government there is someone who sets the auditing standards and reads the reports.

So, it seems that the accountants are not cost-effective after all.  From where I sit, the taxpayers seem to be forcing Oxford to spend something like £4 to keep me from mis-spending £1.  (And additionally, the government is also spending some directly.)  Can’t I be kept honest more cheaply?

Quibbles and Caveats

Am I stretching the truth here?   I think not, though I wouldn’t take these numbers too seriously.

  • All these numbers are crude estimates.   I could have made them somewhat better, but that would have taken quite a bit of time and effort — time and effort that I really should be spending working on my research.
  • Some of what the accountants do is not intended to keep me honest about the miscellaneous expenses that I can control.   Some of it involves computing the tax on salaries, and is therefore related (I suppose) to keeping me honest on the taxes I pay.   That’s a bigger pot of money (perhaps £35,000).  So, you could argue that (roughly speaking) Oxford is spending about £1 to make sure we pay £1 to Inland Revenue.   That’s still money wasted.
  • Oxford isn’t really to blame.  Probably it could become more efficient, but virtually all the accounting and administration it does is mandated by the government or accounting standards.  Oxford has only a little control over the sheer amount of administration and accounting that must be done.