Monday, July 27, 2009

Effort Time?

Some people tend to end statements with an upward, question mark type of inflection. There has been much study and discussion about the reasons and consequences of the question mark inflection, particularly for women. I don't tend to speak this way, but recently I did, to my peril.

One day not so long ago I was working on Project 1 when a student working on Project 2 needed some help, so I helped him for a while, and then, after I briefly went back to Project 1, another student came by who had questions about Project 3, so I helped him, and then I got email from a co-author with the reviews of a manuscript related to Project 4 and we discussed the reviews and then I dove briefly back into that manuscript and thought about some things we might change and that reminded me that I need to deal with reviews for Project 5, so I worked on that for a while, and then I got an alert by email about a journal and so I did some journal-grazing and read-skimmed some papers relevant to Project 6 and then I went back to Project 1 for a while before being interrupted again.. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. And then, that same afternoon, I had to talk to the accountant about effort reporting for Project 1 and she asked "What % of your effort -- not time -- will you spend exclusively on this project during the effort reporting period?"

I thought back on my day, which was fairly typical for the summer, randomly guessed a number between 1 and 100, and spoke it as a question: 15?

She said: That's a lot. Are you sure?

I said: 2? 7?

She asked: Which of those is correct?

I said: Neither. The correct answer is "I don't know."

She said: We need to use the correct number. OK, how much time will you spend on this project?

I asked: In hours?

She said: No, in % of your total time of 40 hours.

I said: But what if my total time is more than 40 hours? Can I just give you a % of whatever time I work? How about 4? 12?

And so on. We did not reach a number. I pleaded with her to tell me what number would seem like a good number and she refused because we might be audited and it would be bad if I worked more than what was listed and it would be bad if I worked less than what was listed. Every time I suggested a number, she rejected it because it was either somehow not an acceptable number (too low, too high) for mysterious accounting reasons or she wasn't convinced it was accurate. I said that if she told me a good number, I would promise to work that amount, although I was of course lying because I'm going to work whatever amount is best for the project in the time I have available, and also I still don't get the concept of time and effort being different but the same. She refused.

If I were an accountant, I would hate me.

My fatal error, however, was putting a little question mark inflection at the end of the first number I stated in my conversation with the accountant. My husband says he just gives the accountants a number -- any number, he has no idea what the numbers mean either -- and they never question him. They just accept that number as correct.

Now I will send the accountant a number by email, a medium in which I control the punctuation, and try to recover from my inflection error.


Anonymous said...

At least your school calculates effort on the basis of 40 hours. I'm to calculate it on the basis of the total hours worked each week.

Of course, this method has an interesting side effect. If I spend an extra 20 hours one week working on a particular grant that's only "supposed" to be 8% effort, then the effort for all other awards needs to have more contributed hours.

Stupid system. I understand that we must all account for the spending of government money, but this system is broken.

Genomic Repairman said...

Honestly % effort is a load of crap, and does not accurately reflect the amount of time spent on a project. It's just a cute unrealistic metric put forth by non-scientists to try and measure productivity and compliance on a project. After receiving a horribly detailed presentation on this last month, did you know that if you are putting forth 100% effort on a project you cannot do the following:
-Write grants/manuscripts*
-Review grants/manuscripts*
-Committee Work
-Mentor Students*
*Outside of the project

100% of your time must be dedicated to the grant. Therefore I am placed on mine at 95% effort so I do what I damn well please with my other 5%.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Your accountant does not correctly understand the rules for effort accounting on Federal grants. OMB Circular A-21 explicitly addresses the situation where--because of the nature of the work--there is no way to determine or measure an *actual* percent effort devoted to a particular grant:

If a cost benefits two or more projects or activities in proportions that cannot be determined because of the interrelationship of the work involved, then, notwithstanding subsection b, the costs may be allocated or transferred to benefited projects on any reasonable basis, consistent with subsections d.(1) and (2).

As examples, it would thus be perfectly acceptable for a PI to allocate her effort equally among her multiple grant awards, or to allocate her effort in proportion to the size of each of those grant awards, or in proportion to the number of other personnel being suppported by each of those grant awards. It would even be reasonable for the PI to simply make an estimate on no explicit basis of the effort devoted to each grant.

As a practical matter, the only way a PI's allocation of effort is going to cause a problem in an audit is when the allocation is absurd on its face. For example, obviously you cannot devote more than 100% effort total to all of your professional activities. And if you are a teaching faculty, you also cannot allocate 100% of your effort to sponsored research.

More subtle cases would be like a Provost allocating 90% of her effort to sponsored grants. It is is simply not feasible that it only takes 10% effort to be a Provost.

Historiann said...

This is a brilliant description of the crazzy. I've linked to you at

The consolation for the fact that there's no money in the humanities is that I don't have to have more conversations like the one you report here.

geomom said...

I hate that stuff! Someone had the bright idea that PIs should chart their projects this year with a crazy excel based spreadsheet to track how "done" we were on various projects. Um, I've spent 50% of the funding so I'm 50% done? It was hilarious! And it almost made me cry at the same time.

Anyway, you probably have in your proposal how many months of salary you will get for a project, use the yearly figure to estimate % effort time.

Unknown said...

This post really made me laugh. Australians have that exact habit - the question mark inflection at the end of most sentences. Perhaps they are the most uncertain nation?

Kevin said...

We don't talk to our accounts about this---we have to fill out a form 6 months later. I simply replace "time expended" with "time paid for" on the form, so that I can sign it honestly.

There are usually problems with my final report to NIH---I've spend something like 75% of my time on a project for a year and gotten paid 0% for it. Of course, now that I have no funding, all this paperwork will disappear, and maybe I can finally get some work done.

Female Science Professor said...

I think the accountant is wrong about the 40 hours; she is new and didn't know that some of us work > 40 hours. Also, although the funding agencies are clear about how to account/pay for time, the university does not follow that. It can be a problem on proposals in addition to the nightmare of effort accounting.

qaz said...

FSP - I don't think the issue here has anything to do with the question-inflection. As someone who is arrogant enough to call out cr*p when he sees it, my response to this question has always been "the question of effort is bogus. Pick a number you like." (note the lack of question-inflection here). I always get a very similar confused run-around like you did.

I've never understood this %effort stuff anyway. My progress on a project is not related to the %effort I spend on it. And it's not measured in hours anyway! Do you count the hours I spend reading blogs at work (Thanks FSP!)? Do you count the time walking my kid to the park when I suddenly figure out the problem that the lab's been working on for six months?

Anonymous said...

As geomom said - this is funny and sad at the same time.

I once submitted a time and effort report stating that I worked on three projects equivalently, i.e. 33%, 33% and 33%. The form was sent back to me because these percentages did not sum to 100!

yolio said...

On the inflection. When you ask a question in spanish you often leave off the question word and rely on that inflection to convey that you are asking a question, rather than making a statement. I.e.: "Vas a la tienda?" or "You going to the store?"

LIke many spanglish users, I have a tendency to import this habit into english and causing much confusion in certain parties. What usually happens is I make a casual request for information, and the hearer thinks I am issuing a command. Confusion ensues.

SciMom said...

Effort reporting was recently responsible for the ousting of a Departmental Chairman at a research Institute where I used to work and it wasn't because it exceeded 100%. The rest of the Institute is now on notice regarding this ridiculous notion that scientists can "honestly" put a number on the effort for each grant. My effort used to vary on a daily and weekly basis. Just another case of government administration who don't really understand the creative process of science trying to make it fit into a cell on an excel spreadsheet. It's a fabricated number that let's them say they are effectively monitoring the system.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting that you blame yourself in this scenario.

It's possible that your accountant is quite different from your husband's accountant. I've certainly run into ones who were very mellow, and ones who were not.

Do they have the same amount of experience? Are they approximately the same age? Is this anal-ness due to having gotten burned before, or paranoia about details that don't actually matter?

... and reading further down your comments, I see that it probably is your accountant who is the problem, not you.

So stop beating yourself up! It's not always your fault! Sheesh. And you wonder where the younger women learn it from?

Female Science Professor said...

Knowing the source of a problem is not the same as blaming oneself. I am quite far from "beating" myself up. Interesting that you would think otherwise.

Anonymous said...

And what percentage of your/our time do you/we have to waste handling administrative accounting crap like this?

This is why administration and accounting must be destroyed. Preferably by way of a rusty chipper shredder.

Anonymous said...

I posted something about this in a different thread. I believe that there are explicit rules specifying that 100% effort does not mean 40 hours/week. It means ALL the time you can spend on research, which is why I find the definition crazy and exploitative. If you are 100% on grants, technically, you are not allowed to do anything else on any other project. Technically, you cannot write an e-mail to a colleague about another project or spend time writing a grant. There needs to be some serious and organized lobbying against these ridiculous rules.