Monday, July 14, 2008

No Man's Land

Despite the presence of the word 'Man' in the title, this is not actually one of those Gender Lens-y FemaleScienceProfessor posts. It is about research grants and what we can and cannot use them for, and in particular the phenomenon of having a legitimate research activity that falls between the cracks of funding agency restrictions and university restrictions. The subtitle of this post could be: The Accounting Gods Must Be Crazy

Grants obtained from federal agencies and other sources place restrictions on the types of things for which the grant can be used. This makes sense. If there weren’t these restrictions, professors might spend grant money on crystal vases for their yachts instead of on research. OK, so maybe I wouldn’t be too tempted to do that, but I might get jeweled collars for my cats.

The annoying – and at times surreal – part of grant restrictions is when a certain type of material or an activity is caught in the no-man's-land between funding agency and university restrictions. Examples:

Postage/Mail: As part of my research activities, I need to mail research-related items. I don't just mean that I need a few stamps now and then and am too cheap to buy them myself. The amount I spend on research-related postage is on the order of few hundred dollars per year for items that can be sent by regular (non-courier) mail. I think that NSF thinks that the university should provide postage from the indirect costs (IDC) that universities receive from every grant. The university, however, does not think it should pay for postage. I can see why funding agencies and universities don't want to pay this; the total sum for all investigators would be large.

In any case, my options for mailing are:

- Pay the postage myself if I want to use regular USPS mail;

- Use a grant and send the items by courier, even though this is more expensive and speed may not be necessary.

- Attempt a complicated (but ethical) third way that involves the small % of IDC that the university transfers to the department, which then transfers a minute fraction of this fraction to individual investigators and puts this money in an account that, with effort, I can learn exists. The funds are not transferred at any predictable time during the life of a grant, and we are never notified when a transfer occurs. In some cases, no IDC transfers are made within an entire year. If I ask nicely, the accountants might tell me whether I have such funds, and even how much I have in an account, and, if I am lucky and the accounting gods are happy, maybe I can even use the funds for mailing a package.

Photocopies: For one of my grants, I knew that I would need to photocopy some documents and images in a particular size and resolution that would require a specialized copy facility, so I budgeted for this in the proposal. A couple of months ago when it was time to make the copies, I found that I couldn’t. A university accountant had deleted that item from my budget and had transferred the funds I’d requested to another budget line. I didn’t notice it because my total budget didn’t change, and I didn’t get a line-by-line breakdown of the revised budget. [note: the budget we submit to NSF and the budget that the university goes by can be slightly different in terms of budget lines; this adds to the fun of proposal writing and grant management].

I discussed this with the accountant and explained, as I had also done in my budget justification submitted as part of the proposal, why I needed photocopies. He said “Oh, OK, that’s definitely allowable. I thought you just wanted to make regular photocopies.” Well, I do sometimes want to make regular photocopies, but I know better than to attempt to request funds for that. He sighed and said that he could, with effort, create a new budget line that would allow me to make the photocopies and charge the expense to the grant. And in fact he did so at my request and the problem was eventually solved.

More difficult and serious than mail and photocopies is the purchase of some necessary but prohibited items for labs. For example, a colleague of mine is writing an equipment grant. He has identified lab space, he has the necessary promise of matching funds from the college and department, and he has quotes for the analytical equipment, but he is not allowed to request funds for a table on which to put the equipment. He can’t just haunt garage sales or order a table from Ikea – he needs a sturdy, stable lab table of particular dimensions and materials. Tables, however, are considered 'office furniture'. What if he used the funds to buy a mahogany credenza for his office? He tried calling it 'lab supplies', but this type of grant proposal also prohibits that type of budget item. And he can forget trying to get funds to buy a chair for the lab. I said “You won’t need a chair because you’re going to have to put the machines on the floor”.

I have complained before about the many hours of useless ethics training faculty must endure, even if I support the general concept of ethics training. I have complained about how we are told that we cannot use a printer to print a document for a project that is not related to the grant that purchased the printer, so if we have several grants we should buy several printers, or, one ethics instructor once admitted under torture, we could probably get away with one printer if we keep separate ink cartridges and printer drums (for laser printers) for each project.

I am not going to say that faculty are forced into unethical behavior by absurd rules that leave a no-man's-land in which we can’t acquire or use grant funds for items we legitimately need for our research, but I will say that we have to go through bizarre financial contortions just to get some really basic things done.


Mister Troll said...

Does your university transfer some % of the indirect costs to the department and/or faculty member? That would seem to be the easiest way to find some non-line-item money that could be used to purchase tables, etc.

Candid Engineer said...

I am wondering if your department or science field's grant structure is different than mine. In my grad lab, most student's projects were funded by different grant agencies. As for purchasing, most of us would be told to use the same grant (even if it didn't apply to our research) basically until it was out of funds, and then we'd all move on to the next grant.

Although it seemed a bit odd from a funding perspective, it made a lot of sense from a logistical perspective... and since we always used all of our grant money anyway, I wondered if anyone cared. Perhaps my advisor was playing with fire, and I didn't know about it? I'll have to talk to him about this if I ever get a job as PI.

Professor in Training said...

V.amusing post as always FSP :)

Our lab is also in a ridiculous situation right now. My PI has funding from two different federal agencies (VA & NIH) and he (rightly or wrongly) purchased our computers from his VA money although our salaries and most of our projects are funded by the NIH. We have just been informed that the VA will be coming this week to remove our computers AND they want to be present when we backup our files in case we steal some precious data. Not sure WHERE we are going to back up the data as we don't have new computers to use once the old onces are gone.

Got to love bureaucracy.

alh said...

We also have problems with this. Particularly with travel for research. We have to bring the equipment to the field site, and have a van and trailer to do so. The van was purchased on a grant. The same granting agency, however, does not allow us to pay for oil changes on it!

Anonymous said...

"I am not going to say that faculty are forced into unethical behavior by absurd rules that leave a no-man's-land"

No?, you're not going to say that? I would. My current favorite (and I think this concern is more rampant in medical schools, where folks can have 100% of their effort on grants) is the allocation of faculty effort.

I do think that this no man's land is an effort of warring funders to shift costs to each other -- it shows up in the faculty effort, because the Uni's would really like NIH to pay for everything, and the NIH would like the Uni's to pay for more. I actually believe that the Uni's are more at fault here, because they've gotten use to having their entire enterprise, and not just the specific project, subsidized by NIH funding.

(NSF probably operates a bit differently).

Candid Engineer -- If you were using federal funds, you were probably violating the rules. Private foundations & industry/pharma grants can be more flexible on these things, but there's no question that if one has multiple federal grants, using the money until it's used up and switching to a new grant is unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

When I was in grad school, i saw our PIs constantly having difficulties with the accounting department. A PI would spend some money from a grant (on something that was approved from that account) and the money would be taken out of an entirely different account, sometimes from another professor, for no reason. My salary was paid from a grant, and for a while, they ran out of money to pay me. My professor was livid. The PIs had to be vigilent about watching their money or it might just float away to god knows where, but at the same time, they could never obtain current information regarding the amount of money in their accounts. As I left school, there was a big push from the faculty to get complete access to accounting information, just as you would log in to your personal online banking and view your account balance. The PIs didn't ask for control of the money, just to be able to see it. That plan got denied.

And on the related topic of professors (un)ethically using grant money, my husband's adviser in grad school used grant money for personal expenses, including buying graduation gifts for his students. We have a 27 in. flat screen TV in our house right now that was given as a gift, and it was bought with grant money. It was under the $1000 cap that requires the university to track it as inventory. We didn;t find out about the source of the TV until well after graduation, and the whole thing made me very uncomfortable. (but not enough to turn the professor in, I guess I am a coward in that respect, not wanting to rock the boat). I also resent that a professor would place an unethical burden on his students.

Anonymous said...

It depends on your research area, but you should consider the possibility of a small industrial grant. In my subfield of CS, these are a little easier to get than NSF grants, and the money can be used for anything. (You're expected to do the research proposed in the grant application, of course, but if you have extra money you can use it for whatever research-related purposes you want.)

This can be really useful: you can buy alcohol for retreats and conferences, tickets on non-US airlines, etc. I know several people who work on small industrial projects for the sole purpose of getting some research money to fill in the holes in NSF grants.

Odyssey said...

Amusing post. As a fellow NSF grantee I've run into similar things, although I suspect much of it is more a result of the university than the NSF. Blame Cost Accounting Standards. Each institution has negotiated with the Feds to create it's own set of rules regarding what can and can't be charged to a grant. We can't buy computers unless we leap through several flaming hoops and jump over a crocodile infested river... Computers! How do you do science without them? Oh yeah, my university won't buy them for us with IDC $'s either...

Ms.PhD said...

Yes, this is one of the things that is most terrifying about life in academia. I think the sheer stupidity of things like this might literally cause my head to explode.

Your story about the accountant who deleted a line from your budget is the stuff of nightmares. What if it had been something time-sensitive and much harder to fix??? We could make horror movies for academics from stories like these.

I have worked in places where overhead costs were enormous, but it paid for for mail, photocopies, and printing (etc). You had to get twice as many grants to subsist at a minimum level, but at least some things were not a daily source of headaches.

Infrequent migraines vs. daily minor headaches? I'm not sure which is worse.

I have also worked in places like yours, where the time it takes to request money to ship a package could easily eat up a day of salary, which defeats the purpose of whatever money is being 'saved' by these penny-pinching policies.

I particularly love the lab furniture issues, as we have had the same kinds of problems with what would be, in the average American home anyway, relatively basic necessities of life.

My personal favorite is the $500k machine that can't run without a $500 PC, but since nobody budgeted for the PC, we can't use the $500k machine for anything other than a giant paperweight.

This is state-of-the-art research, people. Look at us go!

Not exactly the speed of light.

lmmoskal said...

Sometimes when I read your blog, I feel like we academics live in parallel universes. My husband and I spent Saturday buying tables and chairs at IKEA carrying them and assembling them in my lab (with the help of some happy graduate students). We were resolved to this situation after I spent most of my Friday talking to numerous administrators (without avail) to try and figure out a way to get $200 from $130000 budget to get tables and chairs so that students can sit down to operate the equipment we are purchasing with the grant . I determined that to get the $200 would probably require at least one more day of my time, plus time to go and find the furniture at surplus, plus time to direct the movers as to where to place it in my lab. What’s $200 out of my pocket to keep my sanity? At least I can claim it as a work related expanse on my taxes…I hope…

grad student said...

As someone who is navigating this sort of thing for the first time (grad student applying for dissertation funding) I am constantly shocked and appalled by the university accounting system.

One of the fun ones? When you have a grant and go to do your research (I'm in a field where we do fieldwork), you often have to wait to actually see your money. So students have to put their expenses on a credit card...and pay the interest out of their own money. Nice huh?

I just found your blog recently and I love it!

Isis the Scientist said...

This post made my heart hurt, FSP. I think indirect costs are a huge scam. Our university takes a portion as indirect costs and yet we are still forced to pay for regular services like mail, phone and fax use, office supplies, etc. I often wish my indirect costs would stop paying the salaries of accountants and start paying for things that are more useful to me.

River Tam said...

My husband and I were wondering about the separate printer for each grant. Does that mean we also need a separate computer for each grant as well? Professor in training's story suggests that this might be the case. I definitely need a larger office....

And don't get me started on the time and effort reporting. We had a training session at my university that consisted of the accountants telling us we might have our funding yanked and possibly go to jail if we did it wrong, but couldn't tell us how to do it right. Thanks.

chemcat said...

Since I' have joined my dept 5 years ago, the university's indirect cost rate has gone up 3%, we now pay separately a service fee for each order, we pay a higher rate for benefits, we are charged our summer benefits separately instead of having them pro-rated, and we started to pay students' tuitions. Those also went up, to the point that it is now cheaper to hire a postdoc. This is a state school in theory with the mission of training the state's workforce-- and it's not Berkeley. Our best students are OKish, but definitely not the top. Our worse are a waste of time. Given the situation, what is my incentive in training people when I can hire techs and postdocs?
One of my best friends is at a research place with 80% overhead. But, that pays for facility fees and for 50% of a secretary (who's so good that he can help with grants and papers! imagine that!), and things work at her place. Here, it can take years to have a safety shower fixed (it's been 5 and counting...)
Our overhead fuels the university's expansion. My grant is probably being used to pay for the new parking garages!

Niket said...

I think the institute should allocate some x% as "petty cash" that should just require receipts and money be paid with no questions asked. That, IMHO, is the most economical way of doing things.

Here, in India, I get Rs. 5000 (about $125) as petty cash. When this money gets disbursed is quite haphazard... but I typically get that sum twice a year (I think... I know about this only when I submit my bills and find that my previous amount got lapsed because I didn't use it).

I know such money could be misused, for example to buy a 27in TV (Anon 10:07:00). But 9 out of 10 times, it will be used for legitimite reasons: photocopies, high resolution printouts, booking emergency taxi for departmental visitors, paying carpenter to repair a table for 1/1000th the price (labour is cheap in India) of a new table, etc. The hassels and paperwork avoided in these cases far exceeds the 1-in-10 case of fund misuse.

chemcat said...

my department refuses to let PIs have their own procurement card (a credit card, effectively) for fear of abuse. Abuse can be defined in a weird manner: I got in trouble for "sneaking" a Toblerone bar in a $ 500 bill from Home Depot (I treated my hungry student, and didn't think of crossing out the 90 C). A colleague of mine famously had a visit from Campus police because he brought his laptop home!
Anyhow, I agree that they should simply do some random checks and trust people. And provide clear, easy, common sense rules.
We do get a tiny percentage of our grants as discretional money, but 1- it's tiny; 2- it recently went from being allocated at the start of each grant year to being allocated based on weird calculations on when the grant is actually spent. It's a mess.

Uncle Al said...

Management is about process not product. Management enforces Rules. Relevance is irrelvant. Fundable research has guaranteed results. All discovery, being off the PERT chart, is insubordination.

If you need a table get a lab bench, optical bench, workbench, modular isolation platform.

When the boat sinks you, chained to its oars, will drown. The fat, bald, sweating drum beater has a flotation device. Thus endeth the lesson.

EliRabett said...

Although I have not used it until now, one interesting variation would be to donate what you estimate you will use of your own money each year to the department, with the understanding they will let you buy whatever you want with it. The reason this is useful is that is a charitable contribution and not subject to the 2% exclusion for employee business expenses.

Anonymous said...

To 10:40:00 AM, I agree with you about using unfettered funds to complete the gaps. We make sure the private agency specifies our funds are unfettered.

To 10:07:00 AM, I agree with you the TV is wrong. But, I think it's also possible we don't know the whole story. I don't know the PI in question, but I can easily picture that a PI pays out of pocket for equipment... lab tables... that should be charged to a grant but can't be, because of somebody with a small mind making a rule that subverts the aims of the grant. For the convenience of his or her (let's say her) employer the PI works around this. It could be the PI keeps her own balance sheet that it never occurs to her to explain to her subordinates -- because after all, the switch is something she does in the interest of finishing the project. I'm not saying the switch is right. I'm saying hypothetically, it could be.

Apart from that ethical question, IMHO it's an ethical problem that nobody in the budget office stands up like a grown-up and approves for PIs to buy (for example) lab tables. We have work to complete here but the staff who are supposed to be helping it happen are making decisions most reasonable people would agree are hampering the work. This unethical practice in the budget office creates the administrative situation that tempts good people to go to absurd ends to keep their balance sheets even. (And it wastes time too.)