For the new PI, award agreements can be daunting. They come in all sizes and formats – I have read through award agreements as short as a paragraph and as long as thirty pages. They come as forms, letters, and even emails with attachments such as “Standard Terms and Conditions,” Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), and applicable pieces of federal legislation. Some are written in jargon and legalese, while others use informal language. Yikes!
In essence, an award agreement should stipulate what the PI is responsible for and what the funding agency is responsible for. It is meant to specify what terms and conditions the PI will be operating under, what you owe to the sponsor in terms of deliverables, reports, etc., and how the financial side of things will work.
If your university has a research administration apparatus, they will most likely deal with scary things such as indemnification, confidentiality, governing law, etc. (although it’s never bad to read over these terms!). It is important that you allow your research administration office to sign the agreement (NEVER sign an agreement with a sponsor on behalf of the university!) but this important document should be passed along to you at some point for your review and approval. What are the most important things for you, the PI, to highlight and consider?
- Reporting requirements. I will probably dedicate an entire blog post to reporting requirements in the future. In essence, this is where the sponsor identifies when they want technical/progress reports from you. Some will be very specific about what forms you should use, or what information to include. Other sponsors will be more general and leave things up to you. After reviewing these terms, ask yourself these questions: Is the amount of reports unduly burdensome? Usually, sponsors want quarterly, biannual, or annual reports. If the sponsor is asking for a weekly 10-page report, that may be too much for you to accomplish, given the amount of effort you are planning to put on the project. Is the final report due long enough after the project end for me to prepare a report? 90 days is typical, but I have seen sponsors ask for the final report on the day of the project end. Make sure that is feasible for you! Do I understand how to submit the report? If not, talk to your friendly sponsored research administrator! Some sponsors have a website you submit through – others want reports to be mailed or emailed.
- Intellectual property. Typically, your research administrator will negotiate intellectual property and copyright issues with the sponsor. Do make sure, however, that you read and understand these terms. In particular, ask yourself: At the end of the project, who owns any inventions or discoveries? Usually, these will be owned by the PI, or be owned jointly – but not always, especially if you are working with a for-profit business. At the end of the project, what are the publication restrictions? Some agencies want you to send all publications to them 30-90 in advance of them becoming published. At end end of the project, how can the sponsor use my work? Usually, federal and other major sponsors will want to use your work for internal reporting and informational purposes.
- The budget and scope of work. After that headache of a proposal, you might think you know your budget and SOW backwards and forwards. But in these days of slashed budgets, your funding amount may have been truncated significantly. Regardless of not the sponsor wants you to submit a new budget, you should re-budget for your own purposes if your funding has been cut. If your funding has been reduced, make sure you can still complete your scope of work! If not, let the sponsor know immediately so you can submit a revised scope of work. Even if your numbers have remained intact, double-check the award budget and SOW and make sure you still want to keep everything the way it is. Circumstances may have changed since you submitted your proposal, and now is a better time to revise than later.
- Budget restrictions. Yes, the sponsor approved your budget, but prepare for the fact that you need to make purchases that were not in your original budget. Make sure you know up front about unallowable purchases, re-budgeting authority, and written permissions. For example, some federal agencies require you to ask them before adding equipment to your budget. Others want you to change no more than 10% of one of your budget lines without written approval. Agencies such as the NIH want you to report the effort of personnel working on the project. If you promised cost share, double-check that you can still do what you put down in the proposal.
- Provisions for no-cost extensions. Even with the best of intentions, projects often get delayed. You may find yourself three months away from the project end with a chunk of your budget – and work – still left to go. It’s great to know up front what your options will be. Federal agencies such as the NIH and NSF often allow one no-cost extension without written approval, but other agencies are not so lenient. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst by knowing what your options will be.
Of course, you will want to read through the award agreement in its entirety, and ask whenever you have questions. But these are five areas that I would read with my green highlighter pen ready! If you are concerned about any of the terms, let your research administrator know right away. By reading and understanding these terms, you will be prepared for success during the life of your project!