5 Things PIs Should Ask Sponsors Before Doing…though many don’t

I am all for pithy, concise titles – but I seriously wanted this post to be called: “5 Things PIs Should Ask Sponsors Before Doing…though many don’t until it’s too late.” Those ominous words have spelled disaster – mostly in the form of bureaucratic stress – for many a PI.

As a Sponsored Program Officer, I see this happen on a nearly weekly basis. A PI will make a reasonable decision for the health and success of their projects, only to find that a term in their agreement required a sponsor approval to make such a decision. Here are the five approvals I find that PIs most often overlook, leading to last-minute amendments, disallowed costs, and testy sponsors who suddenly are not as enthusiastic about providing a PI with next year’s funding:

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  • Rebudgeting. Anyone in academic has heard or experienced a similar story: A co-PI spontaneously leaves a project halfway through its duration. A piece of critical equipment has a meltdown. Your results are extremely different from what you thought they would be, leading to a new need for different supplies, different personnel, different subawardees. But while the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and many other federal grant-making organizations may allow you some “rebudgeting authority”, state and private sponsors may not. Others will have a term in the agreement that allows you to rebudget only within a certain percentage of the budget line or total funds awarded. And regardless of the sponsor, most will want to be informed if your scope of work is changing, or if you are adding or removing a subcontract.
  • Removing a PI. Yes, you thought that assistant professor would be with you forever, helping you with your project. But as soon as Dr. Jones decides to head for greener pastures, it is the lead PI’s responsibility to inform the sponsor, in almost all cases – if the co-PI in question was named on the proposal or award document. Not sure if the sponsor even knew Dr. Jones existed? Talk to your sponsored programs officer, and see what your agreement with the sponsor says. If you specifically agreed to sponsor approval for all key personnel changes, you may still be on the hook.
  • No cost extensions. So, you are nearing the end of your project, and you still have lots of funds left. Sweet! That means you get to keep all that money, right? In almost all cases, that is incorrect. To keep using the money for your project, will need to extend your project’s end date – which requires a no cost extension. The NSF allows one grantee-approved no cost extension, but most sponsors want you to ask, and provide a justification. And no, “I have money left, so I want to keep this going” is not a good justification. You originally told the sponsor you could have the work finished by the end date – if it’s not done, tell them why.
  • Change in scope. Across the board, this is the one change every sponsor will want to know about. Even if that weird result in your lab is even more exciting than what you originally proposed, you must send a request to change the goals and outcomes of your research. Until you have that approval in hand, you should keep fulfilling the scope of work you gave the sponsor.

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  •  Adding a subawardee. Almost without exception, federal, state, and foundation sponsors want to know when you are partitioning some of your work off to another university or organization. After all, you originally said in your proposal that you could get the work done, so what changed? As a side-note, this emphasizes the importance of identifying subawardees in proposal time – some federal sponsors take up to six months to give approval for new subawardees. If you must ask, ask early, and provide the sponsor with a subawardee scope of work, budget, and commitment letter up front. Waiting for them to ask for these materials only drags out the process.

I get it – sometimes asking for approvals can seem like a drag. But trust me, it is nothing compared to the cleanup work that has to be done when you go behind a sponsor’s proverbial back. And remember – “he who has the gold makes the rules.” You want the sponsor’s gold? Follow the rules. And remember, if you work at a university – your Sponsored Program Officer is always ready to assist!

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