Some professors solve the conflict between teaching and research by doing neither. But though academe's ability to absorb administrators is prodigious, it is not limitless -- which means that rank-and-file professors must log hours with students and, the grant-givers willing, spend time in the lab.

Still, not a bad life, many would say, and this view seems to be supported by the long lines of PhD youngsters waiting to replace the tenured masses from the expansionist boom of the 1960s.

Over what, then, are elite universities collectively rumbling with frenetic alarms and rueful prophecies?

The superficial answer is that they're aroused by a revised government regulation known as Circular A21, by which the feds require the profs to account for all their work time when some or all of it is supported by federal grants. It can't be done with any honesty, the savants have responded, conjuring up complicated scenarios of professors chatting with students while car-pooling to work, hospital bedside conferences that combine research and teaching, and other intertwinings of various academic roles.

The outpouring of emotion then goes beyond time-card issues and raises claims of great additional bookkeeping costs for hardpressed universities. Thus, it's estimated that Stanford will have to spend at least $250,000 to set up an accounting system to satisfy A21 and that its annual report load will go from 3,000 to 80,000.

Reacting to such reports, the nation's honorary pinnacle of research, the National Academy of Sciences, in a statement that suggests a foam-at-the-mouth committee session, has declared that the new rules "would further constrain the already limited flexibility in research thrust, increase the administrative burden, reduce morale among teaching and research personnel, and provide a cumbersome, meaningless documentation in terms of percent-of-effort for a continuum of scholarly activities." Meanwhile, in an address that has made him a hero of academe, A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale, declared that "never have I seen the lash of federal regulation applied to a crucial area of the nation's intellectual life with such seeming indifference to financial and human consequences."

In response to these rhetorical barrages, James T. McIntyre Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget -- birthplace of A21 -- insists that the time-reporting requirement isn't at all onerous. "The government . . . is not insisting on 100 percent accuracy," he's written. "Rather, we look for an honest approximation of the allocation of total work. This needs to be done only once a semester to be acceptable. All we ask is that faculty members make a good faith effort to allocate their work among the various categories."

The government-university gulf on this issue is so broad that it's fair to suspect that something other than time reporting is involved -- and it is. What's basic to the controversy, but rarely comes out into the open, is the extent to which the federal government is financially responsible for the universities that do most of this country's basic research. The government pays for that research on a project-by-project basis and then puts in something extra to pay for "indirect costs" -- such as administration, light and heat -- that necessarily accompany work in the laboratory. What's happened in recent years is that the universities, scratching in hard times, have been upping their indirect costs to the point that perhaps as much as half of federal appropriations for scientific research never gets to the lab.

It is never said openly that the feds strongly suspect that the government's relatively bountiful science budget is being mined for unintended purposes. But that's much on the minds of the authors of A21's requirement that research grantees account for their time, which, in turn, would permit Washington's bookkeepers to get a grasp on the increasingly out-of-control bills for indirect costs.

The problem, though, is that the federal government wants the universities to conduct research -- and has created an academic constituency that performs such research -- but government still embraces the myth that the care and feeding of science is basically a university responsibility.