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.
12 years ago