Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Making an Effort

Astute commenters on yesterday's post noted that effort reporting at universities is another bizarre aspect of grants management. This is so true. I alluded to this in a previous post on summer salary, but perhaps the topic of effort deserves its own discussion.

Back in the day of effort statements that were printed on paper and that required faculty to sign them so that the forms could be returned to some office where they were no doubt lovingly filed and stored in a special room in the financial nerve center of the university, one of my colleagues used to sign his statements as "Mickey Mouse", just to see if anyone noticed. No one ever did, or at least no one ever mentioned it. As an Assistant Professor, I dutifully signed mine with my real name in my best handwriting, certifying that I had done my professor activities in the proportions stated, even if I hadn't.

In my more recent experience, there are two particularly absurd aspects of this kind of 'effort':

- The % effort assigned to each of my job activities has changed somewhat dramatically with time, but continues to bear no relation to my actual effort. As far as I can tell, these numbers were selected by a random number generator in an accountant's computer. The annoying thing about this is that the university accountants insist that I use their numbers in my current-and-pending support forms for grant proposals, even though these numbers are misleading and typically make it appear that I have more summer salary than I do, making it more difficult for me to request what meager summer salary I hope to eke out of my grants.

- Now that effort reporting is web-based, I am asked to certify the effort of my students, including undergrads who do part-time work for me. Because each person gets one effort statement, I am asked to certify all of their effort, even if they also work part time in the dining hall or a parking garage. Then I am asked to check a box saying that I know for a fact that this person did all the work that the statement says they did. I have absolutely no idea if my undergrad research assistants even show up to work in the dining hall or parking garage or wherever.

I therefore refuse to sign off on the effort statement of someone for whom I have only partial information as to their effort. A possible explanation for why the accountants are reluctant to give me accurate information about my grants and budgets is that they are getting revenge for how difficult I am when it comes to effort statements (and a few other things).

Also, once you have been a co-PI with a colleague at the same university and once you have paid a student (grad or undergrad) from a grant, they are never removed from your effort list even once the grant/work is done. If I one day felt overwhelmed by an urge to sign effort statements, I could sign the statements for the department Chair, a number of other colleagues, students who are now in other departments, and all sorts of random people. I have not yet been visited by such an urge, but it could happen (but no one would even care).

The accountants have stopped pestering me to sign the effort statements of people other than my own and that of grad students and postdocs who are funded entirely on my grants, but I did lose the battle to have my NSF budget forms match my actual effort instead of the bizarre university numbers. The university will not even submit my proposals if I don't use their stupid numbers, and I decided it wasn't worth the effort to fight the accountants on that one.


Anonymous said...

Effort reporting is a total fucking joke. It is based on the absurd fiction that scientists only do one thing at a time, and that each thing they do is attributable to a particular sponsored research program. How am I supposed to allocate my effort when I am simultaneously taking a shit, picking my nose, and reading the latest issue of Cell?

It's a total fucking joke, and everyone knows it. The only way to get yourself, or your institution, in trouble with effort reporting is to allocate a percent effort to a sponsored program that is facially absurd. Like if you are the Provost of a University, but you are allocating 75% of your effort (and hence charging 75% of your salary) to NIH grants. Or if you are allocating more than 100% total effort. Or if you are a medical school faculty member who is responsible for teaching and administrative activities, and you are allocating 100% effort to sponsored research programs.

One interesting grey area is soft-money, non-tenure-track research faculty in medical schools or other biomedical research institutes, who have traditionally been expected to cover 100% of their salary from NIH research grants. Well, that requires that these faculty do nothing other than perform the research on those sponsored programs. But in order to maintain 100% salary coverage, they must be spending at least some time writing grants.

And guess what? Effort spent writing grants--even competitive renewals of existing sponsored programs--is not officially considered allocable to any existing grant. That's a bit of a pickle!

Anonymous said...

I don't think I understand what effort reporting is exactly, having never done it myself. Is it reporting the amount of time you supposedly spent on a project, or is it the money you got paid for the effort?

Anonymous said...

Your latest posts on accounting hassles have me thinking. I am a scientist in academia and understand your side, but my mother is the assistant manager of the accounting department for a major research university science department. I know that not all accountants will do as she does, and you are right that they can be vindictive, but my advice is this - befriend your accountants, let them know that you appreciate them. My mom handles many PI's in her dept. and the ones who appreciate her (and talk to her in the halls, and recognize how hard she works to keep their labs running) somehow always get what they want/need in a timely fashion. Money can always be found, and rules can always be circumvented. The ones who are rude and self-important generally have lots of forms to fill out, and many budget justifications to provide.
Anyway, I'm sure you know the politics already, but being stuck in the crossroad, be mindful of the accountants, they work hard too.

chemcat said...

The funny thing is that effort reporting must sum up to 40 hrs a week. That must be a @#$ joke! who works 40 hrs/wk?!
Things get complicated with NSF too, as in theory I am only working on my grant for the 1 month/yr I pay myself from it. During the academic year, between teaching and service, there's not much time left to 40 hours.
So it's true that it is a joke, but NSF has started to audit universities on this specific issue (and NIH has too). I was recently at a panel where everybody had questions, and even the program director was confused. NSF needs to clarify things-- based on reality.

Anonymous said...

"And guess what? Effort spent writing grants--even competitive renewals of existing sponsored programs--is not officially considered allocable to any existing grant. That's a bit of a pickle!"

And the big universities are getting audited on this these days. It's creating a kerfuffle.

I think as long as the NIH says you can't write a grant while being paid by a grant, universities have to come up with some portion of the salary of all grant-holding individuals. Clearly, that creates problems for Universities, but something has to give. The current version seems to be to request that faculty members lie about their effort.

Female Science Professor said...

I realize I gave an inaccurate view of my personal interactions with the accountants. We get along fine at a personal level; we chat; we joke; I thank them for all the help they give me. Some of the crazy accounting things they do are their own decisions (changing my budget without telling me), but for some things they have no choice (effort % assignments).

Anonymous said...

Be glad you get away with not signing "effort statements", here called PARS reports! I could never do that. I used sign everyones, then we went through a phase where each person was supposed to sign their own, but it was MY fault if they didn't. I was thus supposed to find the person I fired because they never showed up to wash dishes, and pester all my grad students to sign theirs. The faculty REVOLTED, and made the head of Research Services come to a faculty meeting where we protested until they finally relented. As a result, I am back to signing all of them. On the plus side, they do not keep people on my list after they depart (at least not more than for a couple of months) and I do not have to report effort on oher campus jobs. I also can ignore these effort numbers on my own grant reporting. As I have a nine-month salary, any effort reproted in the summer is my own worry.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

PS I agree that making friends in Research Services and the Department accounting office, by being polite and appreciative, is both the right thing to do (most of these folks work hard and do a good job) and also pays off in the end.

There are exceptions (always), but as a general principle its the right approach to life.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

My favorite (not) hassle with effort reporting in the old paper days is having several visiting scientists from Russia come and leave the country. My institution's accountants were quite peeved that I could not put their signatures on ancient effort report forms. I raised a stink when they tried to sic the Provost on me, but fortunately he was a person of reason who recognized how stupid our forms were.

Female Science Professor said...

There are a few comments that I moderated but that never appeared -- sorry about that (please re-comment if you can).

Anonymous said...

Chemcat indicated that the total must come out to 40 hours. That may be true at his/her institution, but it is not the way either NIH or NSF handle effort. Your effort is whatever it is, if it is 30 hours or 100 hours. In the good old days, you USED to be able to report your effort out of 40 hours, and then anything over that was "extra" so that's where you stuck the grant writing, committee meetings, and teaching. Now, you have the double whammy of not having any "wiggle" and the fact that if you put in an extra 10 or 20 hours this week writing a grant, or working on a specific project, it dilutes the percent effort of all your OTHER projects. So, in reality, if you work extra on one, you MUST work extra on all (or lie) to make the numbers come out.

Doctor Pion said...

It gets even better when the indirect cost auditors come around. "Is this (grad student office) space used for studying or for research?" Only research, thank you. I never did figure out when interacting with a grad student went from teaching to research.

By the way, there is a very real result of the % values you report. They probably end up in the college budget showing just how much money from taxpayers or freshman tuition is used to support research or service to those taxpayers - to justify the indirect cost recovery factor being used.

EliRabett said...

Yup, the effort you put in for research in the academic year goes to the indirect cost base UNLESS you get direct support which you use for teaching relief.

On the effort certification, if they get it wrong, and they always do, I don't sign and I send a CYA letter to the accountants and to my file.

Ewan said...

Yale - as a result of an NIH audit, I believe - recently required that all grant-writing faculty have a minimum of 5% effort paid from from non-grant funds, specifically to allow for writing of further grants.

Now, I'm not convinced that 5% is going to get any _fundable_ grants actually written - but at least they acknowledged the issue!