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.
I 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!
If you have been a PI in academia for any substantial length of time, you know this sad truth: Great proposals – even awesome proposals – do not always get funded.
As federal budgets in the United States continue to shrink (and shrink and shrink), even top-rated projects are often rejected. These days, it is not good enough to have a fantastic idea and solid science. Your proposal has to be awesomeextra-awesome. Keep in mind that the extra-awesomeness I am about to describe has nothing to do with project content. While it may seem unfair, if a great project is not expressed well, it will probably not receive support. There is simply not enough money, and reviewers are looking for reasons to discount proposals, so they can reach decisions quickly with the limited resources they have available.
Think your project proposal could use polishing? Then read on!
Say what you want – as soon as possible. This one is not intuitive to me for some reason. Some people, including myself, struggle with saying precisely what they want from someone, as though they are afraid of sounding rude or demanding. But in Grant Land, it is actually preferable to go ahead and be assertive in your communication. As soon as possible in your project narrative, say what you are asking for. For instance, “We are requesting $10,000 to pay for salary support and fringes, so that we can reach such-and-such objective.” Then bold that statement. And underline it. And put it right up front. If reviewers do not see that sentence on the first page (preferably, the first paragraph), they might not know what exactly you want from them. And you do not want to make reviewers hunt for this information (often, they are reading another hundred of these narratives and have no time to coyly wheedle information out of your proposal).
Be clear about your objectives. Reviewers want to see what you are trying to do with your requested funding. Sure, you can describe all you want in 12 pages. But before launching into your lengthy description of all the incredible things you want to achieve, make sure a reviewer can quickly determine how you will meet your overall goal. Such an approach will also aid the reviewer in making their overall assessment on whether or not you can meet your goal, and they will undoubtedly give you better feedback, regardless of whether or not you are funded. (Hint: Bullet points are your friends here)
Be clear about how you will meet your objectives. Break down your objectives into activities, and briefly describe how each connects to the overall objectives (and by extension, the overall goal of the project) Timelines are often an ideal way to go, but in most cases, bullet points will also do just fine. Even if the sponsor requests a timeline attached to the appendix, try to work these into your narrative. This is your opportunity to show the sponsor that you have thought this out and can realistically complete the project in a matter of time. If you scatter this information all throughout the proposal, the reviewer may not see how it all works together.
Include a tangible method of self-assessment. “We will get feedback from participants” is not tangible. That is too vague. Instead, come up with a concrete, multi-faceted plan for determining whether your not your project is achieving success. Again, bullet points are great here, and if space allows, a sample list of participant questions and/or project benchmarks that connect to your overall objectives. Keep in mind that surveys and other forms of participant engagement may require you to get IRB approval (work that into your timeline! see above).
Clearly articulate where the project is now, and where you want it to go. Sponsors like to see that some work has progressed on the project, even if you need additional funds to continue. Need money research? Show that you already familiar with the field. Want to start up a community program? Show that you have already completed foundational work on the project. Then, clearly articulate how the funding is going to build up the project and move things along. Show the sponsor, in the first page of the narrative if possible, how they fit into the larger picture.
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.
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
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! 😀
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!
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 your 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.
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.
Tuition. Oftentimes, if your department is not willing to pay the tuition costs for the graduate student working on your
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!
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.”
Well, 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.
Is this purchase allowable? Ick, 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.
Is this purchase allocable? If you buy something on a sponsored project, it should be for that project only. Want
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.
Is this purchase reasonable? This 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.
Is this purchase covered by F&A? Books, clerical salaries, computers, printers, paper, folders – purchasing any of
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.
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!
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:
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.
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!
In case you haven’t heard, the federal government is implementing new Uniform Guidance standards for grants on December 26th.
Merry Christmas! 😀
All sorts of myths and misconceptions about the “UG” is now floating around as the day looms near. (And yes, I have been referring to the new guidance as “UG,” followed by a heavy sigh!) So, what can we really expect from these new regulations?
Well, despite my sarcastic parenthetical above, I am pleased to report that these standards will actually make research administration easier! (I think) With the exception of a new rule, taking effect July 2016, mandating bids for purchases above $3,000, the changes will probably make your job a LOT easier. The UG seeks to clarify and standardize regulations across agencies.
So, what are the five hottest topics related to the upcoming UG? Take some time to review this list, and then check with your friendly research administrator to see how your university will be implementing them. (Just as a disclaimer: I am not going to broach the subject of the new bidding requirements – it’s too far off, too much might change – and, okay, okay, you got me – it’s WAY too scary a topic!! 😀 )
The cost of child care can now be added to travel expenses! But…the cost is only allowable if your university includes child care in their travel guidelines. If your institution does not typically allow child care costs, sorry, you are out of luck!
You can now purchase computers as part of your project costs – even if they are not 100% allocable to the project! But…the computer in question still needs to be “integral” to the project. What does “integral” mean? We probably won’t know for sure until the UG has been implemented. But, safe to say, the computer should be important to the project and the price tag should be reasonable.
Cost-sharing is now not allowed across the board. But…some projects may still require it. Still, the UG will (in theory) forever remove the consternating sentence: “Cost share is recommended” from RFPs. So, cost-sharing will either be “not required” (typical) and “required” (rare).
Subaward monitoring will now be standardized. But…that doesn’t necessarily mean it will get easier! Currently, a PI can usually keep track of PIs at other institutions simply by approving invoices and asking for more information on a request-by-request basis. Now, technical reports will be required for invoice approval. While this might be more time-consuming for PIs, it will also mitigate subawardee problems before they start…in theory, anyway
Administrative staff can now be added to projects. But…they must be “integral” to the work being done for the project (there’s that word again!). Also, the administrative personnel cannot be paid for with recovered F&A costs. In other words, no double-dipping!
Ugh…budget crunching and adding countless cells in Microsoft Excel – and you have better things to do! As a university professor, community organization leader, or president of a non-profit, you are always pulled in a thousand different directions. You may be tempted to rush your proposal budget.
But take it from me – this is not a great way to cut corners! Mistakes on that spreadsheet or web form might lead to wrangling with sponsors at a later date – emails and phone calls back and forth, countless hours spent trying to sort things out. And your proposal may be docked in review – or even thrown out entirely – if you crunched your numbers incorrectly.
So take your time, and make sure to run your budget by your organization’s fiscal officer, a representative from a sponsored programs office, and/or someone who understands the grant world. Before you get started, here are five major mistakes I see PIs make on their budgets. Avoiding these will save you headaches in the long run!
The fringe benefits rates are missing or incorrect. In all likelihood – particularly if you work for a university – your institution has a fringe benefit rate. If you have personnel on a project, or are including some of your own salary, confirm that you add the correct percentage to the salary rate. If you skip this important step, you will most likely have to reduce the requested salary. Think about it this way – your institution will take out funds for fringe benefits, whether you like it or not. And if your department does not agree to cover these unexpected costs, they will come from a slice of your award.
The “Materials and Supplies” numbers do not add up. Few budget categories seem to disorient PIs like this broad category. Though this seems like a simple addition problem, at least 25% of proposals I see do not add these correctly. Think about it: You are probably adding and detracting supplies as you write the narrative, and before you know it, the numbers do not add up. Make sure you double-check these figures before sending them along to the sponsor.
The salary being requested is excessive. Though I see this happen rarely, salary inflating is a serious problem. Regardless of how much the sponsor awards for personnel salary, your organizations will not – and should not – give you or your graduate student a huge raise. If you honestly want to start paying one of the people working on the project a bit more, create a new position with a new salary, and suggest them for it (leave it “TBD” on the proposal). Applying to the NIH? Don’t forget the salary cap!
There are unallowable costs on the projects. These unallowable costs vary from sponsor to sponsor, but there are a few standard “no-nos” as far as federal funding goes. (FYI – the new Uniform Guidance may change some of these slightly – a post on UGG coming soon!) The top offenders: Administrative costs and personnel outside of federally-negotiated indirects, food and drink, receptions, and common-use supplies.
The Facilities and Administrative base is Incorrect. If you work at a university or large organization, you probably have to include a standard F&A rate. In all likelihood, your “Total Direct Costs” (everything you are asking for outside of F&A) is not the number you work from to calculate that percentage. You most likely have to subtract specific costs like tuition, subcontracts, patient costs, and equipment. Check with your research foundation to make sure you are asking for the correct amount of F&A. Like fringes, it will probably be taken from your award whether you like it or not, so better to get it right at proposal time, instead of having to go back to the sponsor to ask for rebudgeting authority.