Subcontractors, Consultants and Vendors: So Many Choices, Still So Confusing.

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There are more proposals to submit to agencies than ever before – and the criteria for competitiveness includes an institution’s ability to collaborate – not only within its walls but with investigators working on related research at other institutions.

The selection of the proper agreement type for a collaborator during the proposal phase should happen as early as possible, with the investigator working with the research administrator and the collaborator to evaluate the proposal mechanism and the statement of work. A set of questions help evaluate the best agreement for the collaboration.

What criteria determine the type of agreement for a sponsored project?

1. What is the service, function or activity they will perform (with some specificity).

A subcontractor or consultant will typically have a more detailed scope of work than a vendor, which has a very specific task to perform. A subcontractor and consultant perform work which relates to the aims of the award, which have milestones and reports attached, and often require analysis. However, the outcomes of the work are not predetermined. A vendor’s work is determined by its regular course of business as it is contracted to perform a service on behalf of the award, and it either performs the service, or it does not.

2. Under what time frame will they perform it?

Accordingly, the time frames for the agreements will match the types of work performed. A vendor is usually engaged until it finishes the work performed.

3. Will they be using the facilities of an institution, or their own facilities?

Subcontractors and vendors use the facilities of their institutions; consultants use their own facilities, and not the facilities of their institutions (unless they are a small business).

4. Who will the check be made out to (who will receive the 1099)?

A subcontractor and vendor will have payments made to an institution. A consultant is almost always an individual, but can be a business. In the event that a consultant is a business, this arrangement should be reviewed periodically to ensure that the agreement should not be revised to become a subcontract in subsequent years. (Yearly consulting agreements should be considered.)

5. Does the contractor expect to have publication rights?

Only if the contractor is a subcontractor. A consultant does not typically receive publication rights.

6. Will the work of the contractor affect the direction of the science in some way?

Only if the contractor is a subcontractor. A consultant does not typically have the ability to influence the direction of the science, as the role of a consultant is to produce a work product under the direction of the PI but does not have a named scientific role. If the individual is to direct the science, they should work under the auspices of their academic institution and contribute based on their institutional based salary/effort.

7. Is the contractor working in a capacity with a level of independence?

A subcontractor or consultant, based on their named role on the project has the ability to function independently with oversight by the PI. A vendor cannot function independently. They have a scope of work that they need to complete under the direction of the PI by a specified time frame, and there is no room for deviation or independence.

8. Do the terms of the award flow down to the contractor?

The terms of the award flow down to the subcontractor and the consultant, but not the vendor. This may be a vital distinction when selecting a correct agreement type for a collaborator.

AFTER THE FACT AGREEMENTS – NOT A GOOD IDEA

I’m very appreciative, but often surprised when an investigator suggests setting up a subcontract after the fact to “save work” and time, because it seems too cumbersome to set it up during the proposal phase. In fact, setting up the subcontract, consultant or vendor agreement during the proposal phase is crucial – because at that time, F&A is being established based on the proposal budget. When the proposal is awarded, and F&A is set – any after the fact subcontracts or other agreements have to include F&A out of direct costs. This is a VERY painful budgetary impact that could have otherwise been avoided.

PREPARING THE REQUEST FOR THE COLLABORATOR

When the collaborator is a subcontractor, we have a standard package of materials that we send from our institution that we hope will make life easier for the research administrator we are working with, who will almost always be receiving the request (we ALL know this) later than we would like.

  • Northwestern’s subcontractor form (Financial Conflict of Interest Statement with standard SF424 info)
  • Draft Budget and Budget Justification
  • Draft Statement of Work

For a consultant, we provide a draft consultant letter, which states the hourly rate of pay, travel per diem, length of time work will be performed, nature of the work to be performed and support for the project. We also provide detailed instructions for completing our FCOI process for the proposal.

Common Question: Can a consultant on a proposal be an investigator at my institution?

If the work on a sponsored project is not related to an investigator’s regular work, and is not an ongoing assignment, it may be possible to justify a consulting agreement at your institution for an investigator who is also employed by your institution. However these agreements require prior institutional approval before they are proposed and should be done with proper planning. A PI cannot propose an investigator in the same department as a consultant.

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