The Pampered Pets of Big Science

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported on the shattered career of “renowned AIDS researcher” Jeffrey Parsons, a psychologist who spent most of his career at Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY). The Post’s story was about the settlement in a long-running civil case over Parsons’ use and abuse of grant monies. The settlement left Parsons’ career in ruins, saddling him with a personal debt to the federal treasury of $375,000. In a telling detail, to which I shall return momentarily, Hunter College was assessed a $200,000 liability of its own, also payable to the federal government.

The Jeffrey Parsons saga goes back nearly two decades. According to his Wikipedia page, Parsons’ research chronicled “the health risks associated with HIV transmission and HIV-related health outcomes.” Behind that dry description was a rolling, decades-long bacchanalia of alcohol, drugs, and sexual antics that makes the “bro culture” that got David Sabatini the bum’s rush look like a Sunday School outing. You can read the sordid details in a 2021 story by the Chronicle of Higher Education, aptly titled “The Biggest Mess.”

The obvious question arises: how was the “Biggest Mess” allowed to build over the span of so many years? The short answer is that Parsons was enabled by a cabal of high-level administrators at CUNY, Hunter College, and the Research Foundation of the City University of New York (RFCUNY). They were drawn in because it was very profitable for them to do so. Parsons was a research rainmaker for Hunter College: over his twenty-two-year career at CUNY, he brought in about $55 million in grants, mostly from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That is not to say that taxpayers got $55 million of research for their involuntary “investment” in Parsons’ work. Hidden in plain sight in that number is a dirty little secret: about $20 million of that went directly into CUNY coffers as “indirect costs.” In research grants, these are assessed as a percentage surcharge on the “direct costs” that go to support the actual research. Hunter College’s indirect costs rate is 56% of direct costs.

[Related: “The Knowledge Machine That Failed”]

Indirect costs assessments are legal, but they are also a notorious source of administrative flim-flammery. The Parsons case is an example of this. CUNY administrators allowed Parsons to charge expenses that, ordinarily, would be disallowed under federal spending rules on grants: holidays to exotic locations, drunken parties peppered with outlandish sexual behaviors, frequent visits to gay bars, drugs, and humiliating demands made to subordinates—in one case, a demand that a newly hired researcher fellate a male stripper. This was all in the name of “research,” paid for out of what Parsons called his “lush fund,” which had been set up for him by CUNY and RFCUNY administrators.

The “lush fund” allowed everyone to maintain the fiction that federal spending rules were being followed, even as they were being flagrantly violated. And for many years, it worked, until the “toxic AF” culture in Parsons’ research group could no longer be ignored. And where did the “lush fund” come from? According to the settlement, indirect costs monies were used to set up a discretionary account that Parsons could tap to circumvent federal restrictions on indirect costs spending. Fraudulent reporting of outside consulting income by Parsons’ employees topped up the lush fund even more.

Parsons took full advantage of his personal cookie jar, charging explicitly disallowed costs to the lush fund, like his vacations, his parties, travel for family, double-billed invoices, and other infractions. Hunter College also had its share: it used indirect costs funds to pay Parsons “retention bonuses” of around $90,000, also disallowed by federal rules governing indirect costs spending.

[Related: “Science: Are we getting what we’re paying for?”]

The parties may have settled and signed their non-disclosure agreements, but that should not be the end of the story. Abuse of indirect costs money is a widespread problem that is corrupting the academic sciences. There is a great deal of money and power at stake. Indirect costs rates for American researchers are two to five times the rates for other countries with national research programs. In American universities, indirect costs are hedged about with impenetrable and collusive agreements between universities and federal funding agencies, all based upon vague and unverifiable projections of indirect costs expenditures. This gives universities considerable leeway for administrative mischief, which has included subverting the intellectual independence that scientists need to, well, do science. When administrators are called out on this, they accuse critics of having no idea what they are talking about, claiming that indirect costs monies are tightly governed and scrupulously audited, and that abuse is impossible. The Parsons story cuts the rug out from under that scam.

Indirect costs abuse has destroyed the integrity of the academic sciences. To restore integrity, the oxygen has to be cut off: allowable indirect costs must be slashed. Donald Trump proposed a cap of 10% for NIH grants, which was a good place to start, but it met fierce resistance from high-profile university administrators. In the end, the administrators won, and Congress actually rewarded them.

There is also a cultural lesson to draw from the Parsons saga. We live in a culture of victimhood, where supposedly oppressed groups—racial minorities, women, the sexually heterodox—have become the pampered pets of our institutions and society. They are sacralized, never to be criticized, called out, or held to standards that bind everyone else. Parsons got away with his malfeasance because he was a flamboyantly gay libertine, and so became just such a pampered pet, to be protected at every turn by those responsible for ensuring our institutions promote science, not the toxic miasma of our new religion: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion™.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • J. Scott Turner

    J Scott Turner is Emeritus Professor of Biology at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of The Extended Organism: the Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000, Harvard University Press), and Purpose and Desire. What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (2017, HarperOne). He is presently Director of Science Programs at the National Association of Scholars.

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5 thoughts on “The Pampered Pets of Big Science

  1. …”where supposedly oppressed groups—racial minorities, women, the sexually heterodox—have become the pampered pets of our institutions and society.”

    As a white dude, I’m calling foul.

    Because I can “pass,” I have seen and heard People of Color, women, and LGBTQ folks be routinely passed over for years.

    Back when I was an academic press book publisher I wrote a tenure letter on behalf of the first professor to do her dissertation on Toni Morrison. No one thought that Morrison should be in the canon at the time. This racism continues to this day.

    I went to Bronx Science and then to Ivies. And I can tell you that affirmative action wasn’t the issue – it was mediocre legacies. And guess who gets funding and job offers? Not the former.

    And… your homophobia is showing.

    Grow the eff up.

  2. It wasn’t just Trump who tried to reign in overhead — Obama tried to reign it in as well, and also gave up.

    The classic scandal was 30+ years ago at Stanford, where it funded both the university yacht and the President’s wedding.

    But there is a larger issue here which a lot of people are missing — funding for AIDS research (like all funding) is inherently finite, and AIDS is an issue of concern to the gay community. While not the death sentence it once was, it’s still a problematic STD.

    So every dollar he spent flying to Fiji to go scuba diving was a dollar that an honest researcher couldn’t have to research a vaccine or cheaper drugs or something that would help with AIDS and hence help the gay community.

    In other words, it’s not just that DIE protected the flamboyant gay professor, but the larger gay community was harmed by it because they were denied the benefits of AIDS funding.

    The other thing I noticed was how STUPID (or arrogant) Parsons was. It wasn’t like he went to a conference on Fiji and then extended his stay through the weekend to go scuba diving — people have been doing that forever and it’s legal as long as you pay for the extended hotel stay yourself because you’re already there. Nor was it like he attended conferences which included a scuba diving outing funded through the conference registration fee — that’s legal although I have problems with it.

    It isn’t even like he spent a couple of hours chatting with the Fiji health authorities about the status of AIDS on Fiji and what they were doing about it. There could have been a good deal of alcohol involved in this — I’ve seen it happen — but at least he theoretically would have been doing actual research.

    No — he just went there for scuba diving. Unless he was impaired by alcoholism and/or drug abuse (which is possible), this is true arrogant stupidity. I say that because I’ve seen a *lot* of people attend conferences they never otherwise would simply because it permits them to travel to an exotic venue on someone else’s dime.

    1. Thanks to the both of you for your comments, and many good points. The nub, as you both perceive, is the abuse of indirect costs money, which so far American universities have managed to get away with. Someone who brings in so much money will of course be loved, no matter what. The question is what universities will do to keep the money flowing, and this is what’s colored by Parsons being a protected pet precisely because he was gay. Sabatini (cis hetero) also brought in lots and lots of cash, but was given the bum’s rush, on violating what arguably was a dumb rule on workplace relationships. Parsons was allowed to get away with (fiscal) murder, enabled largely by his university.

  3. The author brings up a good point that is rarely made. DEI just doesn’t stop when faculty get hired or promoted. A faculty member in the favored groups is virtually guaranteed to make tenure.

    NSF has a long history of showed favoritism to women (e.g., the Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education (POWRE) program from the 1990s). Also the HBCU-EiR program that only applies to historically black colleges and universities. White and asian males need not apply, but the favored groups can submit any proposal to a program whites and asians can apply too.

    The indirect costs associated with government grants has always bothered me. It explains why faculty who do research and publish, but haven’t brought in the big bucks have difficulty making full professor. The colleges want that indirect money.

    1. See Item #25 on the complaint:

      “Parsons obtained more federal grants, at higher funding levels and across a broader range of research areas, than any other Hunter researcher.”

      He wouldn’t even have had to be gay for them to love him…

      And the question I’m wondering about is *if* he was truly impaired by alcohol and/or drugs — it happens — was Hunter deliberately ignoring it because he was bringing in all this money.

      Yes, it may have been a “libertine gay lifestyle” — or it may have been someone caught in the downward spiral of addiction. I am by no means a prohibitionist but these things do happen — and as a psychologist, he’d know what to say to anyone wanting to express concerns about his substance use/abuse.

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