Controlling the burn rate on sponsored projects: can you stop an inferno before it starts?

Commit to Eliminating Voluntary Cost Sharing!

There is a reason why the rate a project spends its funds is called a “burn rate.” Once a sponsored project is funded and the award starts to spend research dollars, there appear to be an infinite number of decisions regarding how those dollars are spent, and even though we know that the PI is ultimately responsible for those decisions, it’s how the project is managed on a daily basis that matters. This is where the rubber meets the road, and how we ensure that the project is well managed from start to finish, a “controlled burn” rather than an inferno that has a spectacular cost share before the project is finished.

The Scale of the Project Doesn’t Matter: The Strategies are the Same

  1. Know your PI – Structure support mechanisms around his or her needs (More experienced? More challenging to work with? Adjust these strategies accordingly).
  2. Excellent pre-award work which produces awarded budgets to measure spending against.
  3. Regular, consistent meetings with PI’s that are structured, scheduled, and responsive and include financial reports. (Track spending on a monthly basis over project year against budget.)
  4. Milestone calendar to plan activities for award.
  5. Consistent monitoring of financials, including subcontractors and consultants, alerting PI’s to any issues.
    • Regular (quarterly) review of salary and effort with alert to PI of any issues on a timely basis.
    • Plan and prepare regular communications with sponsor including progress reports, no-cost extensions, and financials as indicated by the milestone calendar and monitoring.
  6. Close award on time as indicated.

Does This Look Familiar? It Should!

Regular, structured sponsored project management is the key to keeping financials on track. Scheduling meetings with the PI, providing regular reports that are easy to maintain and working against a milestone tracker (no surprises, no drama) is key. There’s always going to be something you’ll need to catch up on, but you’ll get 90% of it, and  your PI’s will be really happy that you’re on top of their expenses.

Schedule conference calls with subcontractor administrators, put reminders on your calendar for when reports are due (30 or 45 days in advance). Build in as much success as you can.

Ok, That’s Fine, But How Do I Monitor My Accounts?

Awesome question! There are definitely tips and hints that help you monitor your accounts, spend appropriately, and spot potential problems early.

  1. Salary is 60-70% of the expense on most awards.

    • Salary and effort reporting is the place to spend most of your time. Find out how to run your department suspense report; make sure your PI’s time on sponsored projects are always extended and accurate. Ensure that staff time charged to the project makes sense (staff are continuing to work on the projects). Make sure that salary is encumbered at the correct planned effort for the remainder of the project period (after effort is certified, a journal can correct the encumbered salary). It is a huge mistake NOT to encumber salary for the entire project period and we see departments lose F&A because of this.
  2. Look for charges:

    • Clinical trial without human participant expenses?
    • Laboratory based study with no supplies?
    • Allocation methods on community based research tend to be an ongoing area of concern.
  3. Burn rates for studies are rarely even, and depend on the type of research. Develop a “yardstick” for your investigators (such as more than 35% in the project year at 6 months) and use it to determine which studies need further attention.
  4. Use the financial reports available to you – summary reports really help.
    Northwestern has the GM-044 that gives the entire portfolio of a department and the GM-060 which gives an investigators portfolio of projects – all of the current balances! You can evaluate quickly the burn rate and see if there is something you’d like to look into further.
  5. Remember you’re up against 70 days – not 90. Any adjustments that are needed for effort, salary, or to apply or remove charges need to occur before the 90 day mark, and even if everything goes well, it takes time for everyone within the University to process the changes and do their jobs, and we do appreciate our colleagues who help us serve our investigators successfully.
  6. Prioritize, and ask for help. There’s a lot of work to do and sometimes its tough, but it can’t be ignored. Reach out, get help and get it done. Report your successes and reward yourself for keeping things moving, and asking for help when you don’t know how to do something, because you’re learning something new, and that’s how you get better and better!

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