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Researchers and officials at the University and four other schools facing a Congressional investigation into research costs defended their use of taxpayer money yesterday, but said some changes in the way research grants are administered may be necessary. "The tone of some of the stories that have appeared is that what is being revealed is that universities are ripping off the government," Physics Professor David Balamuth said. "I don't think that's precisely true." The probe by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations comes after federal auditors discovered that Stanford University may have overcharged the federal government for research overhead costs by as much as $200 million during the last decade. The probe focuses on the use of indirect overhead funds, which are the expenses universities charge to the government for use of buildings, maintaining research facilities and administrative costs associated with research. A congressional aide said this week that the subcommittee will extend its review of the use of indirect research funding to the University, Harvard University Medical School, University of California at Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California. Administrators at the five schools singled out for scrutiny said the government itself may be responsible for some of the problems at Stanford because of vague policies, which leave the door open for arguable claims. "It's important to note that part of the problem that all of us see is that a lot of [the research contracting guidelines] are open to interpretation," said Jesus Mena, a Berkeley spokesperson. "It's a two-way street." Dennis Dougherty, who is a former University comptroller, said that although any audits of the research institutions could be "time consuming and expensive," they may have positive results. Dougherty, who is currently senior vice president for administration at USC, said the investigation could result in clearer funding guidelines, which would ensure that university administrators use federal money prudently. "If the outcome of this investigation is to adopt more strict and more objective [funding guidelines] than are currently put forth, [the investigation] will have indeed succeeded," Dougherty said. A Congressional aide to Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), who heads the subcommittee, said this week the investigations may indeed show that such policy changes are necessary. But Jim Culleton, vice president for financial operations at MIT, said the broad federal guidelines were developed to allow universities some freedom in research methods and to complement unique university research teams. Narrower policies may restrict that creative freedom, he said. "[Stricter guidelines] might produce more order, but it might make flexibility less possible and may lead researchers to sometimes miss opportunities," Culleton said. Administrators at the schools said they have not yet received official notification of the probes. Most, including those at the University, said they are not taking any proactive measures to prepare for the pending investigations.

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