Monday, April 26, 2010

Finger on the Button

The administrative staff members at a university's Sponsored Research Office (SRO) are the ones who actually submit proposals on behalf of the university and individual PIs. They push the button that sends the proposal to the funding agency.

When preparing an NSF proposal using FastLane, PIs have the following options in terms of giving "access control" to their Sponsored Research Office:
  • permission to view the proposal but not submit it (yet)
  • permission to view and edit but not submit (yet)
  • permission to view, edit, and submit
Of course the most efficient option for PIs is to go straight to the third option, so that the SRO can view, then submit, the proposal as soon as the proposal is ready. This option, however, is preferred only if you have a very competent and communicative SRO staff person working with you. Fortunately, that is the majority of SRO administrators I have encountered, but there have been some notable exceptions.

The view-edit-submit option makes me uncomfortable at the early to intermediate stages of proposal preparation because:

- The proposal might look like it is complete, yet not be in a form that I want submitted to the NSF. PIs are supposed to upload a project description and project summary by a specified internal deadline, a day or 5 before the funding agency deadline, so that the SRO can check the budget, budget justification, font types, font sizes, margins etc. In some (most?) cases, however, the proposal isn't submission-ready by the time of the internal deadline. There might be a support letter missing, for example. The proposal is ready enough for viewing and checking, but not for submitting.

Flexible and nice SRO staff are willing to examine a not-quite-final version of the proposal, as long as the parts they need to see are available, then submit the proposal when everything is assembled, up to and including the day of the proposal deadline. With these particular SRO staff people, I am willing to click the view-edit-submit button at an early stage. But:

A few years ago, I had uploaded some, but not all, components of a proposal before I left for a research-related trip abroad. I had finished and uploaded the budget and other required forms, but the internal deadline was still a week away, and I planned to work more on the project description, summary, and references while traveling. This was >5 years ago, and I was traveling in a part of the world that, at the time, did not have ubiquitous internet access.

After a few days, I went to an internet cafe filled with young men playing violent computer games. In my e-mail inbox I saw something far more terrifying than the virtual explosions and shootings on the monitors around me. I saw an automatically generated e-mail confirming the submission of my proposal. The SRO had submitted my incomplete proposal to the NSF.

In fact, this should not have happened at all because the proposal was so incomplete. The internal deadline had not even passed. Why did the SRO submit the proposal? I called my university in a panic. The SRO staff member who was handling my proposal had submitted it just before leaving on vacation.

I had to withdraw the proposal and reconstruct all the documents, some of which I had foolishly not brought with me because they had been completed and approved before I left. I learned that if you withdraw a proposal, you cannot recover the files on FastLane, and so I had to build the budget all over again with the help of a heroic department accountant (now retired, alas) and co-PI.

That experience traumatized me, and although that SRO staff member did not last much longer in her job, it took me a long time to bring myself to select view-edit-submit as an early option for SRO access. Lately, I have gone back to selecting this option when I know that a particular very competent SRO staff person is handling my proposal.

Just before a recent proposal submission, I learned that this particular person would be out of town during the relevant time frame for proposal submission. I gave the SRO permission to view, but not submit the proposal.

For some reason, my proposal therefore came to the attention of the competent person's superior at the SRO; someone with a long administrative title and no doubt awesome administrative responsibilities.

He sent me a very snippy e-mail saying that because I had not given his office access to submit the proposal early enough, he was going to delay submission of my proposal. He said that, furthermore, because my proposal appeared to have a target date rather than an actual deadline, he saw no reason why I should insist on the proposal's being submitted by a certain date.

By the time he sent that e-mail, his office had access to submit my proposal, in plenty of time before the deadline; I just hadn't selected this option right way. In addition, if he had looked at the cover page and saw what type of proposal it was and/or had looked at an internal document that clarified the issue of the deadline, he would know that I wasn't just being an imperious jerk who selected a random date for a deadline and expected everyone to work according to my schedule. The NSF program director had specified an optimal date, which was now going to be missed owing to the SRO administrator's little hissy fit.

SRO guy also questioned something in my budget -- specifically, an issue related to whether I could justify the amount of student support I was requesting relative to the proposed research.

What?? How does he know how much time it takes to do a particular type of research?

The budget had already been approved by the accounting office, my department chair, and my college's dean. The budget item in question was justified in the proposal -- in the project description and budget justification. The last thing I need is an administrator wondering whether I am asking for too much money for graduate students relative to the amount of work they will be doing. That typically is not a problem.

The overall theme of SRO guy's e-mail was that because I had offended and inconvenienced his office by not giving them immediate access to submit the proposal when I first initiated proposal preparation in FastLane, he was going to punish me in various annoying little ways. He cc'd his e-mail to the dean and my chair and someone else I didn't know.

He did not cc the co-PI, but I did. The co-PI thinks my reply was perhaps even a bit too nice. I did not mention my earlier emotional trauma regarding premature submission of a proposal, but instead just dealt with his points, one by one. My purpose was to appear calm, reasonable, and polite, and to get this proposal submitted as soon as possible.

Now I have two things to worry about:

1 - If I select view-edit-submit right away, my proposal might be submitted prematurely, causing major problems and inconvenience for all concerned. I know this is unlikely to happen again, but unless I know that a trusted SRO staff member is handling my proposal, I feel anxious about it.

2 - If I select view-edit but not submit first, I might offend this snowflake administrator whose feelings are easily hurt and who then punishes me by delaying submission of my proposal and raising spurious questions about the details of the proposal.

Ideally, faculty and administrators work together to optimize proposal submissions. The process involves effort and communication on both parts. Faculty need to follow internal procedures and meet internal deadlines for submitting proposals, but if we do that, we shouldn't have to worry about the delicate feelings of the administrators who have the ultimate power to push the button and submit (or not) our proposals to the funding agencies.


Anonymous said...

Yikes! Your stories (both the past and current) made me cringe. Thankfully, our delicate snowflakes have determined that we should allow them to view and edit but not submit until we are really ready for it to go in and they use the final "allow submission" notification that NSF sends them as the trigger to push the last button. When I first started, I was resubmitting a proposal and had it done well in advance so I hit the "view, edit, submit" option instead which almost meant my proposal didnt get submitted in time because they didn't get that extra email. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

We have an office with several very helpful people -- but one. This person seems to TRY and make it difficult to submit grants. He also went on vacation and only told me the day before that he was going to press the submit button (the due date was still 2 weeks away). It was a huge scramble to finish the text (obviously the budget, etc. had been turned in way ahead of time). I don't know what to do about it. He makes submitting grants difficult & the whole process unpredictable and frustrating.

I'm inclined to complain loudly to our department head and his boss-- BUT my lab submits A LOT of grants a year -- so we have to deal with him frequently.... I don't want to burn a bridge (especially when I am early in your career).

Like you, I get my paperwork in WAY ahead of time to make things easy for these guys. I'm also nice & pretty flexible. So, what do you do? It's his job to facilitate our submitting grants, right?


Anonymous said...

Something like this happens everytime we try to submit proposals at my university. And I am not exaggerating. OSP will refuse to approve your budget over a travel or supply budget justification that they don't like. Once, they didn't want to submit my proposal because they didn't like that I had explained in the budget justification that a particular line item in the budget was placed in another section of the budget per our OSP's guidelines. They are constantly questioning how much graduate students get paid. I know multiple faculty at my institution who have had proposals rejected because of something OSP did or did not do. I try to follow the rules (we have a 3-days-prior internal deadline to obtain signatures and turn all hard copy documents into our contract and grants admin, which really turns into more like one-week-prior considering how long it really takes to do anything). I cannot recall a proposal where OSP approved my budget (that is often submitted weeks in advance) before the 3 day deadline. Without an approved budget, OSP won't generate the internal forms that all the university people must sign. And, on top of that, if you miss the internal deadline (whether it is your fault or not) OSP can refuse to submit your proposal. This has not happened to me (yet).

So, considering the difficult nature (and sometimes just blatant incompetence) of our OSP, I do not give any contract and grants admin the ability to submit until I am absolutely certain the proposal is correct. I've never gotten hasseled over this (thank goodness), but it certainly would surprise me if our OSP decided to start making a big deal of it. We have a proposal submission satisfaction survey that OSP asks us to complete after every proposal. After completing this multiple times with the same problems/concerns, absolutely nothing has changed. I've quit even filling out the survey since it does no good. I call our OSP the Teflon group...absolutely every concern, problem, etc. just slides right off of the entire organization.

Anonymous said...

This seems similar to the grants office at my university. One would think 'erecting unnecessary and arbitrary obstacles at the last minute, thereby making it more difficult to actually get a grant' was part of their job description. Lately, they've decided not to even check proposals in which the paperwork gets held up for a few hours at some point out of the PIs control. This was after threatening not to submit them at all, so it's actually an improvement.

Sharon said...

Things are generally competent here. But once (in the paper submission days) I had met to go over budget, deadlines, etc., then submitted the hard copy about 5 days before the final was due. And then went out of town. It wasn't until 2 months later, when my proposal was returned to me by the agency, that I discovered they had waited 3 weeks to submit it, confusing my 9/1 submission date with a more common 10/1 date. They fully accepted blame, but didn't help it get funded. Now I am a pain in the butt with nagging and checking until I know it's done.

Anonymous said...

The whole SRO thing still makes me nervous. Once I had all the material they needed on Fastlane by their pre-submission deadline (three days in advance), but the project description was incomplete. I gave view/edit but not submit permission, and I got yelled at for not giving submit permission three days in advance. Even though I had done the same thing before and it had been fine.

Another time the relevant SRO person was going on vacation just before a major NSF deadline. Our department had something like 17 proposals going in for that deadline. This caused a great deal of stress among the faculty. I don't know how NSF deadlines are staggered across fields, but it seems like SRO could arrange vacations a bit better... or at least have backup people. I mean, as a tenure-track faculty member, there are times of the year where I would not be able to take a vacation at my whim, you know?

Anonymous said...

The key here, if my university is the norm, is that the scientists think the purpose of OSP is to help us get grants submitted successfully so that we can win them and bring money and prestige to the university. OSP thinks their job is to cover their ass so that if an audit comes, they can claim no responsibility for any problems. As a result, every grant we submit is just another opportunity for them to get in trouble.

Or am I just too cynical?

Anonymous said...

I had a great experience with my SRO for the very first NSF grant I was in charge of submitting. She was super competent, polite and put up with a number of newbie mistakes on my part. So there are some good ones out there!

Anonymous said...

I think there should be an incentive system for SRO staff. They should get some kind of bonus for each proposal they assist in getting submitted on time, and another one if it gets funded. Maybe a bit extra if the proposal includes a subcontract, or some other kind of complicated transaction.

I'm appalled how often I have encountered SRO staff who seem genuinely contemptuous of faculty. Some of them don't seem to realize that they would not have jobs if faculty weren't submitting proposals.

Anonymous said...

I've been to an NCURA session for new research administrators, and the culture the presenters were passing on infuriated me. They were actively promoting the "us vs them" mentality. They passed over the proposal narrative in less than a minute, saying, "Arguably, the proposal is or isn't funded based on this section, but we won't talk about that. It doesn't matter to us." At one point the faculty bashing got bad enough that a person in the audience raised her hand and asked whether there would be any jobs in research administration if it weren't for researchers.

I come from an institution where the research administrators see their job as helping researchers get funding for their work while also covering the audit land mines. Frankly, enough faculty do stupid things in grant applications that without competent research administrators, most institutions would fail audits, lose funding, etc. They also try to do stupid things with grant funding, and since many OSPs have both pre- and post-award responsibility, they see both ends. Often enough, some faculty members don't think rules apply to them, but most of the "stupid things" come through ignorance of regulations.

In general, research faculty do not see any part of research administration as part of their job description. Members of the faculty have responsibility for teaching and generation of new knowledge, and grants are a tool to support the research. The ins and outs of what is permitted in a budget, what number goes in which box on a form, etc., come as a nuisance. And the people who have the job of caring about those details? They're seen as a nuisance, too. It's a vicious circle, in my experience. The one way I've seen it change is to have leadership that sets the tone that research administration is a service unit, both serving the faculty in getting grants submitted correctly to make sure no administrative issues decrease funding prospects, and serving the university in getting grants submitted correctly to comply with regulation.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I was just confused about this post -- at our university, we're given deadlines (before the submission date) about when the "ready to submit" button has to be clicked. Those deadlines have been moving further and further back from the funding agencies deadlines (with the explanation that they have fewer staff and more compliance obligations). The project can be reviewed for compliance before then, and one can get started on the myriad of other signatures one needs, but the grant can't be submitted until the button is clicked.

And, if the button is clicked, the grant can be submitted. Clicking the button means the PI has signed off. You seem to be arguing for some other form of clicking the "ready to submit button", where the grant isn't actually ready to submit. Not an interaction I'd really understand.

John Vidale said...

Anon at 11:31 has it exactly right, in my experience.

I don't envy the budget people, who must deal with allegedly technically-sophisticated PIs, when too often the PIs ignore deadlines, confuse the submission software, procrastinate until the last possible minute and beyond, then try to change materials after the deadlines have passed.

Some PIs do fine, but also most budget people also do a good job. I wouldn't have the patience to deal with some of the more reprobate faculty in my department.

A handy villain is the administration, which collects 50-100% overhead, in part to pay for grant administration, then tries to divert as much as possible away to their own initiatives, leaving overworked and frantic budget staff.

Prof. Siz said...

I heart my SRO. She does an amazing job and I trust her completely. My budget lady on the other hand annoys the shit outta me.

Wendy said...

I'm suddenly feeling even more positive about my SRO. He's proactive and helpful and clearly makes it known that he sees his job as increasing my chances for winning grants.

I also have a habit of cc'ing thank you notes to his boss.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to get off topic, but you have some fans...

Anonymous said...

We have many grants people but because of past issues I work exclusively with only one of them. Saves all sorts of problems.

AnonEngineeringProf said...

Anonymous @ 4/26/2010 03:08:00 AM:

I think there's an easy answer. Do NOT complain loudly to your department head or the unhelpful SPO person's boss. Instead, set up a brief meeting with the SPO person's boss (or send an email) mentioning politely that you'd like to pass on some feedback about an opportunity for feedback. Make it clear that you're not trying to blame, but just point out some areas that aren't working for you as well as they could be. Don't be confrontational or aggressive. Take the attitude that you are going to provide constructive feedback, and if nothing comes of it, oh well, no biggie. Try really hard to set your frustration aside for the duration of this conversation.

Two possible outcomes:
1. The head of your SPO cares about its reputation as a service department. He/she thanks you for the feedback and probably works to try to improve things for the future. Cool, you win! And you've done a good deed for your colleagues.
2. The head of your SPO doesn't care or isn't empowered to do anything about it, or just does nothing. Nothing lost except a little bit of your time. I find it unlikely that this kind of constructive feedback is going to lead to them screwing you over in the future.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as the director of an OSP, I can tell you that most research administrators have great sympathy for the issues facing faculty. We understand that you were hired to do research and teaching, not administration, and that's where we can assist you and why we have jobs. But as some of your other posters above have mentioned, there are always those bad apples out there that are rude, unprepared, or troubled in some way and who offer their research offices badly composed, incomplete proposals at the last minute, with $1M in cost sharing, no letters of commitment, and all kinds of other issues (it seems a lot of these proposals come from Education faculty, just fyi). These issues simply cannot be resolved at the last minute. Most OSP's either punt and submit, reserving the right to withdraw the proposal or reject the award (which is our process), or they try to fix things at the last minute, creating amazing levels of stress for the OSP staff. I completely understand FSP's concern about Submit - we usually encourage PIs to give us Submit authorization with the promise we won't submit until we have email authorization to do so - the reason why - on occasion, even FastLane has bandwidth problems, and we have had at least one proposal that didn't make the deadline due to the PI delaying on the Submit authorization until the last minute and then having bandwidth problems.

Anonymous said...

For us, PIs commonly give their NSF login information to our departmental level analyst. These people are extremely helpful and will use the login to upload everything to NSF.