Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Giving Less Than 100%

Here is how I think the summer salary (from grants) thing should work:

If I can get some summer salary from a grant, that's great. If I can't or if I need to spend my summer salary on another grant-related research activity, that's fine. No matter what my summer salary situation is during the 3 months when the university does not pay my salary, I advise my graduate students, I advise my undergrad researchers, I write new grant proposals, I go to conferences, I read, I think, I write papers, I discuss Science with various colleagues, and I even occasionally think about what I will teach in the fall. I basically do whatever I think is best for my researchers and our research program and my overall job as a professor. I adore having this flexibility. For me, one of the excellent things about being a professor is that there is an extended interlude in the year when I have a lot of freedom to set my own schedule and priorities.

Here is how my university thinks the summer salary (from grants) thing should work:

If faculty get summer salary from a grant and are paid at their usual salary rate for a specified time period, they can do nothing other than activities related to that grant: no writing of papers unrelated to that grant, no research activities unrelated to that grant, no travel to conferences unrelated to that grant, and certainly not any writing of proposals for a new grant.

During that time, we aren't even supposed to spend significant time with graduate students who are not supported on the same grant that pays our summer salary for that time block. We are supposed to say "Xavier, I'm sorry, but I can't help you with that until next month when I am no longer being paid summer salary" or "Benita, we should discuss that before July 7 because after that I can't talk to you about your research until August 12", but "Omar, yes of course we can meet this afternoon. You and I are being paid on the same grant right now."

And what about graduate students who want to defend their thesis in the summer? They'd better find out the summer funding situations of all their committee members or they are out of luck entirely. It would be better to have a committee comprised entirely of faculty with no summer salary from sponsored grants because these faculty can do whatever they want.

Although one might think it is in the best interests of the university that faculty write grant proposals and give papers at conferences, woe betide faculty with proposal deadlines or conference abstract deadlines in the summer.

And what are we supposed to do about reviewing or editing manuscripts and proposals during this time?

I can see the reasoning behind not paying someone from a particular grant while they are working on another project. I don't like it if the policy is going to be interpreted so strictly as to prohibit legitimate professional activities, but I can understand the principle. What really bothers me, however, is when the definition of the working day is not confined to standard hours and faculty are not even supposed to do other work, including write proposals, in their free time -- nights and weekends, for example. Apparently whatever time we work, whether it is 40 hours or 168 hours a week, that time belongs to the grant that is paying us, and we can work on no other projects, not even in the wee hours of the morning while sitting on the porch with a laptop and some friendly cats. The grant owns all our working time, however much that is.

And in fact, if we are working, we should be working in an "approved site", which does not include homes, cafes, or the various nooks we find to work while our offspring are engaged in enriching structured activities (sports, music etc.).

I don't get that either. Is the assumption that if we are not sitting at our desks, we are likely to be lying on a beach somewhere? If we were allowed to work at home, do the ethicsmeisters fear that faculty would interpret this as permission to do "research" in posh night clubs and resorts (and charge the expenses to our grants)?

A widely held view among physical scientists is that our biomed colleagues would do just that, and, in fact, that without these strict policies, they would all be paying themselves double so that they could support their cocaine habits, even though they force their grad students and underpaid postdocs to manufacture most of their own personal drug supplies in their research labs. {<-- attempt at joke}.

The good news is that we are allowed to attend a conference in the summer if the theme of the conference is related to the grant that is paying our salary at that time. I am confused about this, though. If we attend a conference to present a paper on the topic of the grant that is paying our salary, are we allowed to attend other talks, even if they are off-topic? Can we chat with colleagues about other research? Will we be banned from the poster sessions because they are rife with unethical possibilities for viewing graphic depictions of unrelated research?

The people who tally effort have run amok.

The solution, of course, is to claim effort at <100% during any time period that requires working on multiple projects, advising various students, writing new proposals, or attending a conference.

That's doable. Instead of being paid x weeks of summer salary at 100% effort on a grant, I can be paid at a lower % effort for longer. And then I can have the kind of summer that I want to have, and everyone benefits: my research group, my university, my cats, and me.

Problem solved? Maybe in practice, but the policy that necessitates these accounting games makes me want to gnash my ears.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

It would be better to have a committee comprised entirely of faculty with no summer salary from sponsored grants because these faculty can do whatever they want.

At my university, a handful of professors without summer salary regularly refuse to attend thesis defenses during the summer on the grounds that they are not being paid. This has cost more than one student a post-graduation job that they otherwise would have gotten.

If I tried to design an evil person from scratch, I could not achieve such exquisite perfection.

DrDoyenne said...

That's pretty crazy--limiting professor's summer activities to those related to the grant funding summer salary. Such institutional restrictions often lead to bizarre collateral effects....as described.

That reminds me...way back when I was a graduate student, I tried to schedule a meeting with my committee during the summer. One of the professors on my committee gleefully informed me that because he was not paid a summer salary, he would not be attending any student committee meetings.

He then smirked and said, "So now what are you going to do?"

I dropped him from my committee.

Dr Spouse said...

I had no idea it was this Byzantine. I am so glad we get paid for our summers by our universities. Of course, we are also still advising grad students (both Masters and PhD), preparing classes, and doing general research.

When we get salary support from grants it is usually a small percentage - if we had research leave for a specific grant, I can't see anyone even noticing that a conference outside the named area was attended.

Anonymous said...

Is the assumption that if we are not sitting at our desks, we are likely to be lying on a beach somewhere?

Possibly relevant NYT musings on the life of a telecommuter:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/18/jobs/18pre.html

As the author of this piece points out, many people do not seem to grasp that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between "being in an office" and "working".

As a grad student with a very *flexible* schedule I have had to learn to set firm boundaries so that people around me (e.g. in-laws) don't assume that "flexible" means "you can take as much time off as you want".

Anonymous said...

but you don't claim 100% time or effort to a single grant, do you? Usually you would claim say, 10% on one grant at a time. so how does taking a portion of summer salary from that one grant stop you from working on other projects or your other funded grants in the other 90% of your work week?

I also never understood the very concept of professors taking summer salary from their grants because the university pays your salary for "only" 9 months out of the year. why not just take whatever the university pays you and divide that by 12 so you can feel as if you do have a complete 12-monthh salary and thereby be relieved of the feeling of having to get some of your salary from your grants? (or is the implication that whatever the university pays you per year, is "not enonugh" to be considered an annual income by any measure?)

Anonymous said...

dumb rules should be ignored whenever possible imo.

Ive been with my grad PI for over 6 years and I believe he has gotten at least 2 months paid salary every summer.

he also does whatever he pleases (mainly research and lots of research-related travel) and lies to the appropriate people if they try to play some sort of BS rules games.

i like that policy.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the joys of effort reporting. Unfortunately, at my university, I have to deal with it year-round and not just in the summer. That is because in order to support/supervise a grad student on a grant, I have to "prove" that I am actually working on the grant. The only way to "prove" that I am working on a grant is to charge to it, a minimum of 1% of my time. So, that means, even in the academic year, I have to charge at least 1% of my time to a grant, if it is supporting a grad student. During the academic year, this can be done as cost share, so no salary is actually charged to the grant. But, it really ticks me off because the university HIRED me to supervise grants and graduate students as part of my job. That whole "spend 30% (or whatever this week's percentage is) of your time on research" should have those duties covered as part of my academic appointment. In the summer, even if I'm not collecting summer salary, I do have to charge a minimum of 1% of my time to the grant if I have a grad student on the grant.

There are always problems with both the cost share account and the effort reporting. There is usually a cost share overrun (which seems ridiculous because I am not getting paid any more than my regular 9 month salary...1% of it is just associated with a different account number) and the percentages of my effort are often incorrect. I know faculty (not me) who have refused to certify their effort report because of the hours in a week and where/when do you work issues. I'm convinced these policies were created simply to give paper pushers and bean counters something to do.

Our OSP loves to give very condescending presentations about why these rules are in place. Typically stories about faculty at big schools (usually medical) charging their time to grants that they didn't actually work on. OSP also loves to remind us that if we screw up, we will be held personally responsible and could go to jail. As you can tell, they are a real service-oriented unit at my university.

Anonymous said...

To cut the university some slack, it is actually the auditors who are responsible for verifying how our tax dollars are being spent by researchers that are driving this issue.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Whoever at your institution who is telling you these things is misunderstanding OMB Circular A-21.

Anonymous said...

What I love is that even though we are all probably getting money from the same agencies (NSF, NIH, DoD, DoE..) - each university seems to have it's own interpretation of the rules.

I'm with Anon at 6:18. Apparently ethics isn't my strong point, but I still sleep at night because I know that I'm working on ALL of my projects as much as they need me, w/o keeping a freaking timecard.

Oh, and I choose to pay myself summer salary because w/o it, I earn less than I would in industry where I would work far fewer hours. I see no problem with compensating myself when I have the grants to do it (which isn't always the case)

a physicist said...

Can you write blog entries during a month you're paid from a grant?

Of course, the obvious answer is yes, if blogging is one of your Broad Impacts for your NSF grant. I can just see the description in your grant proposal: "I'm an anonymous blogger who writes about science and career issues. Since I'm anonymous, you have to trust me that I do this and have tons of readers, I can't tell you the name of my blog without breaking my anonymity. But I really really do have a broad impact!"

Kevin said...

I have always crossed out "work expended" and put "work paid for" on the activity reports. That way I can honestly sign them, even though I've worked far more hours on research than grants have ever paid for.
(I usually end up spending money budgeted for my summer salary supporting grad students instead.)

As for the idea that one can piece together enough grants to charge 10% of summer salary to each---someone is dreaming.

Anonymous said...

Off topic: The secret word pointed at Russian yesterday, and they are pointing at Spanish today!

I can't wait to see what language gets chosen tomorrow!!!

Well done FSP!

Anonymous said...

I can just imagine what life in the scientific community would be like if every professor and post-doc and grad student followed the rules to a 'T'.

Anonymous said...

At my former institution, we were paid a 9-month salary and I had a colleague who refused to do any university-related work during the summer. I found this appalling and am even more appalled to see that it is more common than I suspected!

At my current institution, we are expected to bring in part of our salary year-round. (i.e. instead of getting 9 months and paying our own summer, we get 75% and have to pay the other 25% ourselves) It doesn't keep the bean-counters from coming up with arcane ways to drive us crazy, but it does solve the "I'm being paid 100% off grant A this month, so I can't talk to you until next month" madness.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, that is supremely stupid.

And yet, the joke about biomed postdocs not entirely off-base. Maybe my advisors refused to return my emails or meet with me for months at a time and chose instead to help Guy(s) because they were paid off approved grants? Never once crossed my mind that it could be legitimate or justified. Why didn't they just say so?? Sheesh.

Maybe the solution for conferences is to have all the good ones in the winter?

Other than that, I think you're screwed. Time to leave. At least, that's what everyone tells me when I complain legitimately. Get out! Academia is overwhelmed by its own insanity! Nevermind if you actually like science! If you actually care about this, you must not be any good!

At least, that's what they say to me.

amy said...

That's crazy. I can understand the granting organization wanting to be sure that people are doing the work they're being paid for, but what business is it of the university? Furthermore, the uni is being completely inconsistent in this matter. If they really meant that you should only work when paid to do so, and you should only work on what you're paid to do, then they should insist that none of us on 9 month salaries work during the summer at all, unless we happen to have a grant. Yet, in my case at least, they've set up the teaching load and research expectations in such a way that it would be impossible for me to get tenure if I did not work on research during the summer (and I'm in a field with virtually no grants available). I guess I could do it by working 80 hours a week during the school year, but wouldn't that also violate their ridiculous rules? The truth is, they want us to work without pay during the summer, and they want us to work more than 40 hours a week during the school year, but they're forced to be more cautious about grant pay because there's a third party involved. The whole thing is a scam.

Ann said...

That's interesting. Other than requiring that I fill out and sign effort certification forms, my university doesn't monitor how I spend my time or what conferences I go to.

Anonymous said...

So you mean that apart from the biomed part, the rest of this post... isn't a joke? Could have fooled me.

I've never talked to a prof about how this is handled at my institution but I doubt it's anything like this - or I assume I would have heard something.

Anonymous said...

I've always been bothered by the use of a percentage of our time as the effort measure. If I work more hours on one grant in a particular period, I'm automatically not putting in enough effort on my other grants, if measured as a percentage of my time.

Of course, there's also the laughable number on my paystubs that states that I work only 37.5 hours per week....

Anonymous said...

Look, A-21 governs effort on federal awards. Universities interpret what it means but it boils down to - if you're 100% paid on a sponsored project during a summer month, you're supposed to be working 100% on that award and that award only. Some universities will not permit their researchers to charge 100% on a sponsored project because they know that faculty are still working with grad students, doing compliance related work, writing proposals, etc. Note that the university would be pleased as punch to have faculty doing all this work and having it paid for by various sponsors - however, federal rules prohibit such charging and Inspectors General regularly audit, disallow and fine universities that permit such things to occur. Just ask Yale or Duke. Some universities haven't been caught but with the current emphasis on transparency and ever more regulatory burden, I think it would be wise if universities started doing some risk management, identifying areas of risk and work with administration and the academic side of the university to address training, needs, and oversight and monitoring.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I choose to pay myself summer salary because w/o it, I earn less than I would in industry where I would work far fewer hours. I see no problem with compensating myself when I have the grants to do it (which isn't always the case)

I'll probably be met with a lot of defensiveness for saying this but here goes anyway. could you, instead of compensating yourself just so that you can make what you would in industry (but bear in mind that in industry you wouldn't enjoy as much flexibility or have the security of tenure as you do now), instead give your trainees a salary raise or fund them to attend more conference or something else that benefits the trainees more? I'm not intending to criticize your ethics, just honestly asking why not.

Anonymous said...

Another fact about effort reporting that surprised me when I became a TT prof (and that might surprise some students and postdocs) is that many grants require faculty to charge a specific minimum percentage of their effort on a funded grant. For example, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine and NIH both have grants that require a certain amount of salary support. Supposedly, this is to ensure that the faculty member will truly be putting "effort" into the work they are proposing to do. In cases like these, a faculty member is limited as to how they budget a grant. I have also sat on grant review panels where I heard comments like, "The PI didn't budget enough salary effort for this grant; so I don't think this grant is a priority for him/her."

steph said...

"I can see the reasoning behind not paying someone from a particular grant while they are working on another project. I don't like it if the policy is going to be interpreted so strictly as to prohibit legitimate professional activities, but I can understand the principle. What really bothers me, however, is when the definition of the working day is not confined to standard hours and faculty are not even supposed to do other work, including write proposals, in their free time -- nights and weekends, for example. Apparently whatever time we work, whether it is 40 hours or 168 hours a week, that time belongs to the grant that is paying us, and we can work on no other projects, not even in the wee hours of the morning while sitting on the porch with a laptop and some friendly cats. The grant owns all our working time, however much that is."

THAT IS INSANE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So, are you still allowed to have science-related hobbies or take your daughter to a science museum during the summer? This is so big brother sounding.

David Stern said...

I've never heard of such a thing. I spent the last year on a grant. Admittedly it only covered 65% of my time officially. All anyone cared about were deliverables. The mode additional stuff I got done the more happy the university would be. Same story when I was on summer salary in the US as a tenured prof.

Anonymous said...

That's as ridiculous as expecting you to pay no attention to that grant for the rest of the year. No papers could ever come from that. I always think of how much 'free' time the granting agency is getting from me for only paying me 2 weeks/year. What a deal!

AnonEngineeringProf said...

For those who say that our institutions are mis-understanding OMB A-21:

Can you explain what is the proper interpretation of A-21? Can you give me a quick primer/tutorial, so that I can be informed when dealing with my own institution?

(I don't doubt what you say; I'm just wondering if you can elaborate and teach me about what the correct interpretation is.)

Gabe Fife said...

Hello. I am an MS degree student studying sport science. I was VERY fortunate to have the opportunity to work with my current adviser as he has supported me in my own research question that he has only indirect experience with. Over the course of 6 months we have submitted four grant applications ( three university wide and one national) one of the university wide grants were awarded to us in full ( a small 6k$) and my advisor was listed as PI since it is a faculty specific award. My project includes collecting data in three European countries and will be quite spendy. One of the conditions of the grant is that the PI( in this case my adviser) is allowed to apply up to 2,500$ of this grant to his summer salary. He will not be collecting any data his summer with me but will obviously be involved in completing the final manuscript to be submitted to a journal. Is there something I am missing due to my lack of research experience, or is he using this grant money in the wrong way?

jdavis said...

I don't believe you. Does your university really track your activities like this in the summer? I doubt it.