2016 Republican candidates on higher education and top grant funders

As the first Republican presidential primary debate looms, I have decided to take a break from our regularly-scheduled programming and take a look at what some of these candidates are interested in doing as regards higher education. Of course, specific policies have not really been hashed out this early in the game, but there are still some interesting tidbits of information to chew on for those concerned with how the future Republican candidate might view the US’ university system.

635718223146293175-AP-Republicans-DebateI have also included some candidate’s opinions on grant-funding institutions, such as Department of Ed and NSF, and how they view climate change, which might affect funds from the EPA. The odds are pretty good that you will not hear higher education as a main focus of the debate, but here’s hoping! At any rate, the below may give you some idea on where candidates stand.

If agree or disagree with any of these points, leave a comment below! Tell me what issues in higher education you are hoping the candidates address, either tonight or some time down the road.

In no particular order. Click on the link to see the source. Enjoy!

Jeb_Bush_by_Gage_Skidmore_2Jeb Bush, Former Governor of Florida

Ted Cruz, Texas Senator

Rand Paul, Kentucky Senator

Marco Rubio SmileMarco Rubio, Florida Senator

Scott_Walker_by_Gage_SkidmoreScott Walker, Wisconsin Governor

Chris Christie, New Jersey Governor

Ben Carson attends the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon HillBen Carson, retired neurosurgeon

Mike_Huckabee_speaking_at_HealthierUS_Summit-uncroppedMike Huckabee:

GOP Convention 2012John Kasich, Ohio Governor

5 “hidden” costs to a proposal – and how to save on them

Sometimes, you have to spend money to make money. But doesn’t this feel anti-intuitive when it comes to grant funding? After all, you are asking for money, which usually means you don’t have any to spend, right?overhead-costs

But to seek funding and prepare a competitive proposal, you should be aware of the “hidden” costs. I have included five below which, in my experience, have been the most surprising to my PIs. And in case you are really strapped for cash, I have included some ideas for saving a little on the way!

  1. Database Memberships
    • Why the cost? While it’s free to search Grants.gov for federal grants, to look through lists of foundations, you might need to pay for access to a database. Companies such as Foundation Directory Online and GuideStar are good places to start. (Click here to read a great article that goes more in-depth on these databases)
    • What’s the cost? Premium packages can run as much as $2,000 per year, and can be paid for on a bi-yearly, yearly, or monthly basis. Some databases charge per list.
    • How can I cut costs? If you are a professor at a university, talk to your development office about free databases that you might have access to. Visit your local library and see if they subscribe to databases that you can use. Otherwise, save money by researching databases thoroughly, and making sure the one or two you select will be proper for your organization, and not waste money on those that aren’t (you can take many on a free-trial test drive!).

      If you work at a university, you might have access to a database like Grant Forward
      If you work at a university, you might have access to a database like Grant Forward
  2. Grant Writer
    • Why the cost? After all, you can write yourself – or call in a favor from your cousin with the English degree – or ask your administrative assistant to write the narrative in her spare time. But unfortunately, grant-writing is just one of those things that you have to do (and fail at) for at least a year before you get the trick of it.
    • What’s the cost? Freelance grant writers charge anywhere from $20-$200 per hour, and professional grant writing agencies usually charge over one thousand dollars per proposal. If you work at a university, your research office may have a proposal development office, though these services often have an associated fee. (Click here for an article on questions to ask before hiring a grant writer)
    • How can I cut costs? Paying for grant writing on a commission basis is unethical, so that is definitely not a cost-saving solution. But if your institution simply cannot afford a grant writer, try and work with universities to see if you can offer an internship to non-profit management or technical writing students who are studying grant-writing, and might appreciate the opportunity to contribute to their portfolio.
  3. Startup for Project
    • Why the cost? Many sponsors (especially on the federal and state level) want to see work being done on the project, before they get involved. It’s a way of showing that the institution is committed to the project, and increases the chances that work will continue once sponsor funding ends.17123254699_c2f412c9ee_z
    • What’s the cost? However much it takes to get things rolling. Usually, costs consists of personnel, preliminary supplies, and associated overhead.
    • How can I cut costs? Instead of using up your own time beginning the project, work with your volunteer or intern pool, and see if there is someone who would be interested in beginning the project. Work with community collaborators on fundraising efforts for preliminary costs.
  4. Cost-Share
    • Why the cost? Though cost-sharing for federal awards is growing rare (yay!), many foundations and state sponsors still want to see a cash or in-kind commitment. This way, the project seems more like a collaborative effort that is supported by the university and/or community. (Don’t know anything about cost-sharing? Click here for a good Power Point presentation on the topic!)
    • What’s the cost? Anywhere from 10% of the total project costs, up to and beyond a 1:1 match. (Always be sure to note whether the cost-share requirement is a percentage of the request or a percentage of total project costs)
    • How can I cut costs? Carefully assess what you are certainly going to put into the project, whether the grant funds it or not. Is overhead not allowed to be charged to the sponsor? Ask the sponsor if you can cost-share with the unrecovered overhead. Will your graduate student, who is paid by the department, be working on the project? That sounds like cost-share to me!
  5. Overhead
    • Why the cost? You usually cannot help paying overhead when applying for grants. You will work on the proposal on your computer, use your phone system to call collaborators, schedule meetings in a conference room with lights…so on and so on.
    • What’s the cost? Overhead is hard to calculate, but they are real costs to the institution, and proposal-development overhead costs are almost never allowed to be recovered in the case of an award.
    • How can I cut costs? There’s no way to go without these costs – but make sure and request full overhead recovery from the sponsor for the award period! Your research overhead helps to pay for proposal development systems and general research costs. (Did you just balk at my suggestion? Click here to find out why overhead is so important!)

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5 grant proposal tips you can take from “Shark Week”

Hooray for Shark Week!

What is Shark Week? Well, if you have been living under a rock, let me tell you: Shark Week is an awesome week-long event that takes place on the Discovery Channel. It has been going strong since 1988, amidst some controversies over “fake” documentaries, bad science, and shark fear-mongering. As one ecologist has said: “I don’t necessarily think that it’s their [The Discovery Channel’s] job to inform people about sharks in a scientific matter.”

So maybe Shark Week won’t actually teach you a lot about sharks. But can it teach us something about…grant proposals?

02-shark-week.w529.h352.2x

Okay, okay you got me – this post is a little ridiculous! I just really like Shark Week! But I will take this opportunity to point out some proposals tips to keep in mind as you continue your quest for research excellence – and these tips may include some loose connections to Shark Week-related topics. 😀

An-encounter-with-a-Great-0011. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. In other words – don’t propose something that you cannot actually implement. After submitting a proposal, I have literally heard PIs and grant administrators collapse in weariness and say the words: “Wow, I really hope that doesn’t get funded.” Yikes! Can’t provide the cost-share? Don’t submit the proposal! Can’t pull together the personnel? Don’t submit the proposal! Already working 80 hours per week, your sanity hanging by a thread? Take a lesson from this shark and go find some smaller grants. There are plenty of fish in the sea! (FYI, that will be the last shark-related pun. Probably.)

2013-08-06-shark-thumb2. Stand out from the crowd. With the impacts of government cutbacks being felt across agencies, it is more important than ever to be different from the hundreds of other proposals being submitted to federal agencies, state governments, and private foundations. How can you pump up your proposal? Work across disciplines. Insert a plan to disseminate research results to the community. Get in touch with your program officer ahead of time and make sure your project is a good fit. And be sure to write a well-written, error-free proposal. Make yourself a shark among the minnows!

279522-shark-week3. Be aware of your surroundings. Who has been securing funding from the agency you are proposing to? What do their proposals look like? Where is your field moving in terms of research trends? Do your homework before submitting a proposal – read successful narratives and study funded projects. Oftentimes, agencies will provided funded proposals, which usually are part of the public domain. You could also contact funded institutions directly and see if they are willing to discuss their success. When you submit the proposal, show how much you know about the field by providing detailed, complete references in your narrative (NSF infamously will return proposals that use “et al”, and this is also a no-no for NIFA).

fcevjnezhc9gvv78ppsl4. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! Apparently, sharks like to hunt together in packs from time-to-time (although I heard that on “Shark Week” so who knows if that’s true). And researchers should also play with others! One impact of less government funding is a new appreciation from reviewers for cross-discipline collaborations. Some agencies even provide special grants for those who are collaborating across departments, institutions, and borders (here is an example from NEH). Yes, collaborating can be like herding cats (or sharks), but it substantially increases chances of funding – and enhances your project in the process!

George Mombiot blog on sharks : German submarine and shark5. Never, EVER fabricate information in your proposal. Most academics never set out intending to engage in research misconduct – but it happens, so be careful! Usually, funders want to know what progress has been made on the project thus far, which is sometimes…nada. After all, you don’t have funding yet, right? That’s why you’re asking! Some PIs feel panicked at such requests for information, and exaggerate efforts thus far. Avoid inflating the work that has taken place – it will come back to hurt you if the proposal is funded and you are expected to have reached a certain point.

What do you think? Any more proposal tips or shark puns? Please share below!

5 Costs PIs Most Loathe Putting in Their Budgets…and why they matter

Part of my job as a research administrator is to shine sunlight on the shadowy areas of budgeting that my PIs do not fully comprehend. June is always a fun month for this – my institution has just come out with their updated fringe benefit rates, which lead to a higher amount of costs being moved “away from research” to budget lines that don’t always seem connected to PI’s cutting-edge projects. Think about it this way – a piece of scientific equipment for a project is clearly going to contribute to a PI’s research. But “facilities” costs? What does that even mean? It’s enough to make most PIs terribly cranky. And I get that feeling, I really do! But oftentimes, when I explain the reasons behind these 5 costs PIs most loathe putting in their budgets, we can usually come to a mutual understanding that these costs are a necessary part of research.


  1. Indirect costs. F&A costs. Overhead. “Research Tax.” Dum dum dum…”Indirect Costs” have to be the two most hated words in the world of university research. The general consensus seems to be that greedy research goblins in the sponsored programs office concocted indirect costs to enrich themselves. That’s not the case – trust me on this one! (If it were, I would not be driving a ’97 Toyota!) F&A costs go toward the personnel that help you manage your
    What my PIs think I drive...
    What my PIs think I drive, based on current F&A rates…

    grant, and the clerical staff in your office. They pay for the lights to be on in your lab. Books in the library. Sometimes, F&A recovery pays for entire buildings, focused on research! And want to hear something incredible? At most institutions, F&A recovery goes right back to the dean’s office or the department – NOT the sponsored programs office! Whoa! 😀

  2. Fringe Benefits. If you have salary on your project, odds are, you will need to also request fringe benefits for your personnel. These costs can really add up – and at most institutions, the percentages climb higher every year! But before you get in high dudgeon over fringe benefits, ask yourself: Do you really want your lab assistants, post-docs, graduate students, and fellow faculty to be without health insurance?Retirement benefits? Disability coverage? Unfortunately, these costs go up every year, but they are very necessary!
  3. Overhead charged by your subawardees. I often hear this called the “double tax.” As one particularly annoyed PI once told me: “I think this is a devious collusion among universities.” Your institution takes a piece of F&A costs from 3887095398_aef8697ea0_zyour original grant, and then your subawardee turns around and takes a slice as well! Yikes! I understand the frustration, I really do. But if I convinced you with Point 1, consider that your subawardee’s institution also needs to keep the water running in their labs! And never, ever try and negotiate indirects out of your subawardee’s budget with your counterpart PI. If the sponsor allows them to collect indirects, they are within their rights to do so – even if you waive indirects on your own.
  4. Travel to Sponsor Meetings. When your budget is capped at a certain number, it can be frustrating to see in the RFP that the sponsor requires you to budget for travel to a national meeting every year. (NIFA does this the most frequently, but many federal and non-profit sponsors include such requirements) These meetings, however, are the sponsor’s way of seeing your work first-hand. The contacts you make at sponsor conferences can help guide you toward your next pot of funding, and getting to show your work to representatives from that agency can help you determine what other programs might be suitable for your work.
  5. Tuition. Oftentimes, if your department is not willing to pay the tuition costs for the graduate student working on your
    Tuition is a small price to pay for training up the next generation of scholars
    Tuition is a small price to pay for training up the next generation of scholars

    project, you will need to cover those costs. Sometimes, PIs feel this is an undue burden that keeps them from hiring as many graduate assistants as they would wish. But think about it this way – is not one of the key goals of research to train up the next generations of scholars? Tuition remission might be steep, but it’s a small price to pay for giving a graduate student real-world research experience!…And if that does not convince you, their fringe benefits rates are extremely low and no overhead is taken on tuition at most institutions. Hooray!

5 Things to Include in a Purchase Justification

Ugh…you are a busy professor, checking through your email on a hectic day. There are urgent emails from students, colleagues, collaborators – and then, right in the middle, you see a request from your Sponsored Program Officer. “I see that you are trying to purchase [alcohol? printer ink? a working lunch? etc.] on your sponsored project. Give me a reason why you should be allowed to do this, or I am disallowing this cost right now, causing weeks of clean-up and delays to your research.”

1977134004_7cad062733_zWell, your Sponsored Program Officer will not be that blunt (hopefully). But no matter how friendly and polite this request might be, many PIs see such requests as unreasonable administrative burdens. I recently was forwarded an email from the chair of a department literally said: “Our Office of Sponsored Programs increasingly wants to know how we spent every penny of this money.”

Okay, so maybe that’s not totally fair – but these requests can pile up! That’s why the goal of this post is to fill you in what your friendly research administrator really asking you about the purchase, so you can quickly meet their request and get on with your life. Hit all five of these points, and you will most likely avoid a prolonged back-and-forth tug-of-war with your Sponsored Programs Office.


  1. Is this purchase allowableIck, what does “allowable” even mean? Broadly speaking, an allowable purchase does not violate general federal or specific sponsor requirements for what is permissible on a project. For example, alcohol (for social purposes) is not allowed on a federally sponsored project. Period. Taxpayers do not want to pay for your booze. That piece of equipment necessary for your work? Allowable. This link will take you to a fairly good, abbreviated list of unallowable costs, though everything is a bit up in the air with Uniform Guidance. Was the item in question specifically approved in the awarded budget? Then it is most likely allowable, no matter what the sponsor’s regulations typically are.
  2. Is this purchase allocableIf you buy something on a sponsored project, it should be for that project only. Want
    Beakers as flower-holders? I certainly hope that was part of your scope of work
    Beakers as flower-holders? I sincerely doubt that was a part of your scope of work.

    to buy beakers, to be used by your entire lab on a variety of projects? That will not fly. The sponsor wants to pay for a specific scope of work to be conducted, and is not interested in funding other scopes of work. Are the beakers going to be used exclusively on your sponsored project? You are good to go. Buying a huge piece of equipment right before the project ends? The sponsor will obviously think this equipment is really for other projects, and might not be pleased with the last-minute splurge.

  3. Is this purchase reasonableThis requirement is so vague, but it essentially boils down to this: Would a reasonable person, using their own funds, purchase this item at this price for this scope of work? An obvious example would be two similar supplies, with one being far more expensive than the other. A reasonable person would choose the cheaper supply. Another example? Just because you are using sponsor funds does not mean you should travel first class to a conference.
  4. Is this purchase covered by F&A? Books, clerical salaries, computers, printers, paper, folders – purchasing any of
    Yes, your new computer is snazzy, but is it
    Yes, your new computer is snazzy, but is it “integral” to the project? And I hope that wine wasn’t purchased with federal funds.

    these will raise red flags with your Sponsored Programs Office. All of these items should be recovered by the F&A costs your project is recovering. If you make such purchases, it can look like you are “double-dipping.” Is this an essential purchase, and allocable to the project? Your purchase might be okay, though your Sponsored Program Officer will need to make that determination.

  5. Is this purchase going to overspend the project? Sponsored Program Officers will often ask for purchase approval if your project is over-budget or over-committed (will be over-budget if you continue spending the way you intended to currently). Except in rare circumstances, any costs above and beyond the awarded budget will be disallowed.

Work closely with your research administrator on these justifications – I have actually disallowed very few costs in my time, where the PI could provide a justification answering all of these questions. We want to keep your research moving, but also want to make sure the sponsor has no reason to disallow your purchases after the project has ended! Because that is way worse, in the long run, I promise!

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.

Lab

  •  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!