Wednesday, February 03, 2010

No Use

Apparently, if we write in the budget justification of a proposal that we will use the funds to buy a computer, that is not acceptable to some of the budget overlords. Use is an ambiguous and unsatisfactory word to justify purchase of potentially unethical devices like computers because, although a computer could be used for research purposes specific to the grant that would purchase the hypothetical computer, it could also be used to do nefarious things like writing a paper for a different research project, reading e-mail from undergraduate students, writing a new proposal, or blogging about how vexed one is by accountants.

The upshot: If the budget justification somehow slips through and gets to NSF and the proposal turns into a grant, I would not be allowed to purchase the computer requested in the budget because the computer is a "non-special item" and is insufficiently justified.

BUT:

If we write in our budget justification that we need the funds to buy a computer, we might be allowed to skip on over to the Apple store or website to purchase a shiny new computer. Or so they say. The accountant told me that he can't guarantee that I'd be allowed to buy the computer, but that it would be more likely if I wrote need instead of use.

Perhaps by the time the proposal is funded, if it is ever funded, the accounting rules will have changed and need will no longer be sufficient. Perhaps I will be told that I should have written that I really need the computer or that I have urgent grant-specific needs that can only be satisfied by a particular computer that I know from my 57 hours of ethics training must only be used for the specific research project related to the grant that purchased the computer. And I will have to sign in blood, or at least digital blood.

Recent experience has shown me that it is not possible to be too paranoid or cynical when it comes to dealing with the university accounting system.

18 comments:

Klaas said...

In the UK "critical" is very popular.

Anonymous said...

"really, really need" will surely catch their attention.

Odyssey said...

I find it ironic that the accountants send us edicts on how we can't buy computers off our grants (direct costs) via email using computers bought in part off our grants (indirects).

We have the same "you must use this computer only for work related to the grant that paid for it" rule. So, I have two computers paid for and dedicated to one project, another for a second project, yet another for a third, and two extremely old computers bought from start-up funds 13 years ago for lab personnel to use for email, surfing the web and developing new, unfunded, projects. These take up approximately 18 linear feet of my allotted 24 linear feet of bench space, resulting in six people sharing 6 linear feet of bench space.



I also have a bridge in San Francisco I'd be happy to sell to the highest bidder.

yolio said...

It actually sounds like you are getting good advice. I am sure that many of the subtleties of academic communication appear equally preposterous to your accountants.

Anonymous said...

Why would you buy a Mac? (They suck)

I usually write into my grants: I WILL purchase a WORKSTATION for COMPUTATIONAL ANALYSIS. It works every time. I buy a new laptop every year (it is amazing how much better computers get each year).

Anonymous said...

Doesn't your University have a surplus department? You can get great computers for free (or very cheap) - the ones the administrative staff rejects because they are a year or two old (after all they can buy new ones with your overhead anytime).

siz said...

Hey anonymous 10:35. Macs don't suck, they are TEH awesome and anybody who doesn't know that, obviously has never used one in the past 5 years.

I love PC people who cling to the myth that they are better then macs. It's kinda sad.

Anonymous said...

... love your use of the word "vexed" here! LOL

I have had Macs since I switched in about 1990. I can't remember ever having to reload my OS or having to get rid of malware. Still, I try not to gloat about it, so I'll stop there.

- OutofthePipeline

Space Prof said...

My MRU has also reached this conclusion and tries everything in their power to prevent computer expenditures on grants. They want you to buy them with your research incentive funds (in essence, a time-averaged kick-back) on things like this.

The other thing they like to do is hide the computer purchase as "cost sharing funds." When a project requires cost sharing, my MRU is willing to buy the computers for the project and call those purchases their part of the cost sharing allocation.

Alex said...

If a computer purchased on a grant is later used to make a graph or figure being presented in a class related to the general field of the grant, is that a Broader Impact?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Two points:

(1) The people who pull these cockamamie "rules" out of their asses have absolutely no understanding of Circular A-21, and that there is nothing in the federal laws, regulations, or rules that requires that a piece of equipment--whether it's a fucking spectrophotometer or a computer--only ever be used for the purpose of pursuing the specific aims of the grant(s) that it was charged to.

(2) Whenever one of these administrative functionaries tries to lay some fucking stupid "rule" on me they have pulled out of their ass, my response is always, "I will be happy to accommodate this requirement, if you can point me to a federal law, regulation, or rule, or a *written* institutional policy, that requires it." They almost always back down.

Anonymous said...

hi, since there are lots of professors reading this, I am just wondering if I have not been contacted for an interview does it mean bad news? ( I am a grad school applicant)

Anonymous said...

If only it stopped at computers. My OSP is just looking for faculty to do something that is "against the rules" so that they can turn us in to whatever federal auditor goes after faculty for misuse of funds. Now, these are the "rules according to OSP"...if faculty member thinks the actual interpretation of the rules is different, then the burden of proof lies with the faculty member. I'm not kidding...they practically threaten us with this stuff.

Anonymous said...

I thought computers were on some list (that is referred to by some number) that are excluded from purchase on NSF and NIH grants. So we use our indirect cost return accounts to buy them. It's sometimes the case that there is some equipment you want to buy on the grant that requires a computer to run, so that's OK, or also if you need a computer for some extremely specific purpose, then it could be justified. Normally, though, they are not allowed--I assumed this was true everywhere.

On Macs: Shhh! Don't tell the PC people how good Macs are (or that you can use them for beautiful graphics AND hard core computation). The Mac platform is not fighting for survival anymore, and our increased productivity will just make us seem even more amazing than our PC using competitors.

Kevin said...

We're expected to put computers on our grants. How else would we ever have any? It isn't as if we ever got anything back from indirect costs or the university ever bought us computers. (Well, they did have a policy of buying faculty new computers every 10 years about 10 years ago, but it didn't apply to anyone who could conceivably get a grant and the policy only lasted for 3 years.)

Neither NSF nor NIH questions the need for computers if you are doing any sort of computational work, so I don't what your accountants are thinking.

phiae01 said...

We have a similar policy which I recently ran into (and because of which I am posting this entry on my door). I tried suggestion made by Comrade PhysioProf made in point 2 and was unsuccessful. I tried it because like him I actually read the federal circular and also found nothing at all substantiating these absurd claims. I made a further point to my office of sponsored programs that there would be far fewer profs yelling at their staff if they would simply post acceptable verbiage instead of asking grant writers to guess and repeatedly telling us "no". I was informed that they could not post such a statement because then it would be come university policy. Heaven forbid we should both inform and enforce university policy. They prefer to simply enforce it with little of no notice.

Madscientistgirl said...

Try living under the rules for reimbursement for conferences that accountants impose on students and post docs. And often there is a double standard - they don't try as much with faculty. Sometimes it just depends on whether or not the secretary is nice. One of my friends went to a conference and the accountants went to the conference web site and decided that dinner was included in the registration fee and refused to pay her per diem to cover dinner. It took them a month of time to tell her this and she had the choice of (a) accepting their decision in its entirety and getting most of the cost of the conference and losing about $200 or (b) appealing the decision and being owed about $2000 for another month. And she had put it on her credit card and didn't have money for rent if she didn't accept the decision.

I've found the more strict the accountants are with the rules, the more willingly people will spend grant money frivolously on allowed expenses - like eating out at $80/plate restaurants if the department insists on receipts for meals instead of a per diem, or getting everyone their own room at a conference instead of having roommates.

Anonymous said...

I'm still confused about your inability to use grant funds for general equipment (or is it just computers and software?) that might also be used for other projects. In the biological sciences, in the labs I've been associated with, all the grant money for all the different projects gets put into one pot and then it is spent for whatever the lab as a whole needs. While this virtually forces the lab to use funds from one grant for another project (which is unethical), I've never known people to get in trouble for it. Then again, I'm just a postdoc, so I have only a vague sense of how the money moves.