Subcontracts: Why We Love Them, Why We Hate Them

I’ve been buried in subcontracts lately. Our investigators need them and thrive on them. I love subcontracts. The benefit of subcontractor relationships are that our investigators partner with organizations – often investigators at other universities, but not always – to increase the interdisciplinary nature of the research and maximize limited resources. They have all the benefits of a full grant –  someone else is doing the some of the work, but we get the “credit!” (As the prime.) The sub is initiated at the time of the proposal, their budget is reviewed and approved and when the award is made, we put the mechanisms in place to review their work, and sign off on their invoices before we issue payment.

So why are subcontracts also the bane of our existence? (Subcontracts are taking up a lot more of my time then they used to!)

Just as we “sub” out the work, we “sub” out the control. We supervise the way the work is contracted, conducted, paid for and invoiced. In this time of increased scrutiny, we’re all being evaluated for the way in which we work with  our subcontracting sites on research projects, and these sites are often surprised at the questions we’re asking.

Also – we have to ensure that the mechanisms for paying site invoices work well for our subs, because the next award may have the sub as the Prime and us waiting for payment!

It’s easier and much more expensive to do all the work ourselves – but we can’t conduct research that way anymore. We can’t reconstruct the wheel when partnering with a University that has one is a less expensive and effective solution. We have to work together to ensure that it rolls in the same direction.

Three rules for good subcontract hygiene:

1. BRUSH: A regular review of sub accounts and activities, to keep them clean and tidy, is key.

2. FLOSS: A tip from my colleague Amy Kitzman at Northwestern University – hold regular meetings or calls with your subcontractors to discuss any issue or question that may have arisen with the progress of the project or status of payment. This is vital with projects of any size.

3. SEE YOUR DENTIST: Subcontracts can be tricky. Consult your grants and contracts officer early if there are questions or concerns to alleviate any problems, before your progress report is due.

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