Preparation Nation: Shut Down Week 3 – What Happens Now?

Fiscal Cliff 2I’m following the latest on the back and forth negotiations in Washington DC on my iPad like a devotee of Scandal (or Breaking Bad for you guys out there). Will they or won’t they? Who is doing what to whom? When will they open the government? Are we going over the cliff? Oh the drama!

It would be entertaining – if it weren’t so high stakes for the scientists doing research around the world. And not just for the graduate student who traveled all the way from Boston to Antarctica and had to travel all the way home again once he got there (because his research project was cancelled during his trip). Scientists are reporting that the shutdown is having a devastating impact on the ability to obtain specimens, recruit participants, and collect and analyze data – which could set back research in a variety of fields from months to years. You can tap in to conversations that researchers are having online on Reddit here. (Note the team that is working at the South Pole!) You can also follow #shutscience on twitter for more stories from scientists who are on experiencing the shutdown’s devastating impact on their work.

The Status of Negotiations

While it appears that Congress and the President are making some headway towards an agreement that will keep us away from the fiscal cliff (and perhaps negotiating a budget to open the government in the meantime) they will need to achieve that in the next three days. If memory serves, this Congress likes to take us to the last second, we’ll see. If you’d like to track the status of discussions in Washington, a few helpful resources include a visual guide to the negotiations; a series of articles on the shutdown and its impact on science, and to remind us what we’ve lost in all of this, a tally of what the shutdown has cost.

The Washington Post has a live update on the negotiations on their website if you can stomach the roller coaster ride.

Resources To Keep Going During The Shutdown

You may have already figured out some quick fixes when the NSF, NIH and other government websites went dark. Google cache is one easy way to find program announcements, RFAs and access to other website pages that are currently unavailable. There are other homegrown websites and links (see resources above) with additional links and documents. While Federal government agencies have stopped accepting applications (you can submit to, but they won’t reach the agency, so most agencies have said not to submit)  preparations for completing grant submissions should continue on schedule.

However, we are learning from NCI Director Howard Varmus just how long it may take for most Federal agencies to come back on-line after the shut down is over.

When the Shutdown is Over

By law, Federal employees had to vacate the premises and leave behind their work computers and devices on the last day of the fiscal year. The shut down was completed within 1/2 day (in reality, I’m sure most agencies saw it coming and were prepared for some time).

Since then, we’ve not heard much, until now, about how the shutdown is affecting agencies and their ability to fund and manage research and how things might work after the shutdown is over. This memo from Harold Varmus gives us a leg up on how we can get ready for questions from our investigators – and as you’d suspect, the news isn’t great. Large and small agencies are going to have a tough time catching up from just a couple of weeks – and as we know, these weeks contained crucial grant and contract deadlines.

We’ll be ready to submit applications, but the systems to accept them will have to be ready for every application, all at once. Grant review meetings will need to be rescheduled as quickly as possible – and all of the missed deadlines and missed meetings will have a cascading effect on upcoming deadlines for every type of extramural application. All of these activities depend on hundreds, if not thousands of faculty and staff altering their plans to participate in rescheduled reviews to bring the process back on-line.

And the longer we’re waiting, the worse the problem becomes.

What Can You Do to Help Your Investigators?

As most program officers are unavailable (they have been furloughed) it’s important to keep up with the latest news in Washington to identify potential impact on your investigator’s research.

  1. Talk to your investigator regularly to determine his/her concerns – a lot of investigators have concerns that are time-dependent. (If the shutdown lasts until X date, I’ll be fine, but if it goes until Y date, this will happen…)
  2. Read academic media to learn what your investigator’s colleagues are doing to cope in the face of the shutdown.
  3. Discuss fiscal strategies for managing research projects given a delayed payment cycle – if you have projects that are in the process of being renewed, how will your investigator manage with his/her current budget?
  4. Investigate available institutional resources, if you’re that fortunate, for these types of situations. Perhaps you can pool institutional resources to care for animals, or share staffing to keep gathering data, etc.
  5. Talk to central offices about what they are hearing regarding the shutdown, and how you can prepare for next steps.
  6. If you find something that was especially effective to assist your investigator in weathering the storm, remember what you did, because you’ll need to do it again in six months!

Remember – expect the worst – and hope for the best, and maybe we’ll end up somewhere in between.

Justification Nation – Part 2: Supporting Research Personnel: Budgeting Salary and Fringe on Research Grants

scientists working at the laboratoryBudgeting Salaries and Fringe for Faculty and Staff

Sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it? On most research proposals, personnel costs range from 60-70%. Budgeting and justifying personnel is extremely important and in principle, comes down to a few key issues:

Are the right faculty and staff on the proposal? Does the project have the right leadership?

Are the personnel on the proposal performing the right work?

Are the personnel on the proposal performing the right work for a reasonable estimate of time?

Fortunately, the choice of faculty and staff isn’t up to the research administrator. The PI will select his or her collaborators to achieve the scientific aims and enhance his or her chances of getting funded. But let’s face it. It’s a good thing we’re working on the budget – because there isn’t a PI on the planet that really understands how people are paid (or what they really make). Double and triple checking this information is key to submitting an accurate budget that covers the University’s actual personnel costs. If the proposal is awarded, the salary had better be calculated correctly, proposed with the proper person-months of effort, contain summer salary if the faculty member has a nine-month appointment, and justify the VA commitment if it exists.  Not so simple after all.

Budgeting Salary and Effort on Sponsored Projects

It’s important to start with the FOA – and any requirements from the sponsor. Is there a required amount of effort from the PI, or any others on the proposal? For grantsmanship, you’ll find that for most federal proposals, the PI will have to give at least 15-25%. (1.80 to 3.0 person months)

Who else is essential for the project? What levels of effort will they be working? Note that most PI’s think in levels of effort – you can convert to person months when you are done tweaking the budget. Outline each role for each person on the application. What will they be doing for the level of effort the PI has given them? Discuss with the PI that  20% time is one day a week, 10% time is 1/2 day a week, for that level of effort, how will the PI justify that much time on a sponsored project? Push for detail.

Draft the budget justification based on this information – and then look at the numbers and see where you end up – and edit from there. That’s how the process works. There are a couple of important things to be aware of as you write the document, which I’ll outline below.

General Budget Justification Format for Personnel with Salary and Fringe

Henry Smith, Ph.D., P.I. (1.8 calendar months), will serve as PI and Project Director on this project.  Professor of Pathology at Superb University and an HHMI investigator, he has researched nanostructures extensively, and has over 25 years of highly regarded work in the field.  He will have overall responsibility for all aspects of the project, supervise lab personnel working on experiments and will be responsible for organizing and chairing meetings of the advisory committee. In addition, he will be serving as the lead investigator of the microbiology core.

Looking for ways to justify a person or item on your justification? Google it! Someone else has faced the same problem, I guarantee it.

Justifying Faculty and Staff Fringe Rates

Your institution’s F&A agreement also contains the approved fringe rates for all employees. Be sure to use the correct fringe rates for each type of faculty and staff member, depending on their appointment. Most universities require a standard template to be used in the justification.

Remember to Inflate Salaries, Blend Fringe and Use the Cap only When Needed

In these economic times, institutions are ensuring that every salary dollar is proposed on the application – that means using the formula that factors in a salary increase each year, blends the fringe rate across each project year and only uses the salary cap on projects where it is required. Ensure that you include your inflation factors in your budget justification.

TipsA research administrator who is beginning the budgeting process should be prepared for several common questions that may arise, depending on the level of experience that the PI and project staff have with project planning and budgeting. Awareness of these potential concerns can prevent misunderstandings and assist in decision making.

1. Limit the distribution of salary information. Plan to limit distribution of salary information to as few people as possible during the budgeting process, especially during the budgeting of salary on the project. Faculty and staff may not know one another’s salary information if they have not budgeted many grants together. If salary information has to be distributed, hiding the base salary column may be recommended, you can check.

2. Beware of language in your justification that commits cost sharing. If your PI or any personnel for that matter are “contributing services” you need to write about their work in a way that does not specify exactly what they will do or how much time they will give. That’s voluntary committed cost sharing, and it happens all the time. Beware!

3. Understand the basis of a faculty or staff member’s appointment before moving forward with budgeting them on the proposal. Alert the PI if there is a problem with how the PI is proposing them on the application. The faculty or staff member must have an appointment that is consistent with how they are proposed on the application; they should have salary at the institution (versus an affiliate), or be eligible to receive a stipend versus salary and fringe. If there is some discrepancy, it can be corrected at the time of the application, instead of trying to fix a problem downstream at the time of the award (when the budget won’t allow for an increase).

4. Keep in mind that in most cases, stipends are for students or trainees receiving an education benefit from participating in the grant. Investigators are occasionally inclined to propose paying stipends for employees – instead of trainees. Consult your HR guidelines, and the FOA for more information.

5. Similarly, even seasoned investigators propose hiring colleagues on a proposal as a consultant. There are specific rules as to the type of personnel who can fulfill a consultant role. In a majority of cases, the role is fulfilled by an individual from outside the institution who is using their own resources and providing a specific expertise that is essential to the project. This individual does not contribute to the direction of the scientific work of the study.

These are general guidelines for budgeting salary and fringe on sponsored projects – it’s impossible to be specific for each type of application. For specific questions about types of applications there are excellent websites for federal agencies – and you can reach out to experienced research administrators for help.


Why research administrators need to care about the fiscal cliff – now, and after the New Year

It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. 

If you think the fiscal cliff negotiations have to do with raising taxes on the middle class, and not much else, you’d be wrong.

If you haven’t been following the budget negotiations in Washington, DC, and aren’t sure what the threat of “sequestration” means, here’s a brief “Fiscal-Cliff Notes” review to catch you up on the conversation:

Last November, a Joint Select Committee of Congress on Deficit Reduction couldn’t reach an agreement on how to achieve a $1.2 trillion dollar deficit reduction package for 2013-2021 to introduce to Congress. As a result, the Budget Control Act of 2011 specifies that $1.2 trillion in spending cuts or reduced budget authority would go into effect, starting in 2013, across the board, affecting defense and non-defense programs each year.  The process that enacts the spending cuts is called sequestration.

What will sequestration do to research funding?

The sequestration package, as it is currently written, would reduce funding to research agencies by 8% – which, for the NIH is $2.5 billion dollars, or the ability to make 2,100 new and competing awards. That’s just one agency for one year.

Now apply sequestration to the agency your investigator works with, and do the math.

As one private citizen to another, I’m suggesting that you e-mail your Congressperson today. While you’re at it, let the President, and the Speaker of the House know how you feel about the prospect of our nation falling off the fiscal cliff. Talk personally about your experience. (Word of advice, you are a private citizen when you contact your member of Congress, not a representative of your University. Given that your University is a non-profit of some type, this distinction is important.)

It’s likely that a patchwork deal will be put in place to avert disaster, and the negotiations will continue on after the holidays. Write today – your voice makes a difference for you and everyone counting on the  research we help support.


Guiding Faculty through the Funding Process: Nurturing Networks and Supporting the Development of Solid Applications

The presentation that Michelle Schoenecker and I gave at the NCURA meeting last week was very well received. Michelle is from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and provides research administration services to 80 faculty in the school of engineering there. Combined with my work in the Feinberg School of Medicine, we thought our perspectives on assisting faculty with identifying funding opportunities and the resources available to increase their application’s competitiveness (including collaboration resources) and  guiding faculty through the application process might be interesting to talk about. Turns out it was!

The highlights of our presentation included:

  • Research administrators are often the first source of information and feedback as mentoring resources are few and far between at many universities. A lot of universities have very few senior scientists with enough time to guide junior faculty on how to apply and select the right source of funding for their ideas.
    • Research administrators can’t provide opinions or evaluate science, but we can be an objective resource for information for our PI’s, effectively pointing them to the right resources and helping them to identify what they need to answer their questions.
    • The fact that research administrators aren’t scientists is an advantage, and can be beneficial when reading and reviewing proposals for grammar, typos, etc. You don’t have to understand the science to know that the sentence isn’t grammatically correct.
  • In this funding environment, both early-stage and well-established investigators are looking for input and advice, from all points of view, as funders are looking for transformational research ideas.
    • Research administrators can be particularly helpful when making suggestions based on a PI’s funding history, publication record, or the publication record of the investigator’s mentors or their potential collaborators.
    • Identifying tools for finding collaborators is especially useful – and many universities have internally developed tools to assist younger investigators, and are adopting commercially developed tools to assist senior investigators with well established careers. Understanding how these tools work, and pointing your PI’s to them early is helpful.
    • Knowing who has published in an investigator’s field can also be helpful when managing reviewer comments and submission conundrums – “who can I ask about this crazy feedback?” or “how do I determine where to send my application?” questions can be easier to figure out when you suggest that Dr. So and So has perhaps faced similar circumstances.
  • Providing funding information to your investigators depends on the environment you work in, but it all comes down to knowing your audience.
    • If your investigators like e-mail, keep it clean, crisp, easy to read, with links and essential information.
    • Consider new media for early stage investigators who like Twitter feeds and RSS; aggregate multiple sources of information.
    • If your institution already provides tons of information, knowing your investigators already read it, following up with targeted information that provides a recommended RFA may be best.

Additional Resources for Supporting Faculty:

  • How Not To Kill A Grant Application Series: Science
  • Research Funding: Making The Cut.Nature
  • Eisenberg, Mark J. The Physician Scientist’s Career Guide. Springer, 2010.
  •  Schwartz, David, Ed. Medicine, Science and Dreams: The Making of Physician Scientists. Springer, 2010.

It’s a real privilege to co-present with a colleague from another university because it’s an opportunity to share knowledge and really grow professionally and personally – as well as gain new ideas that may benefit your organization. I highly recommend it – hopefully we’ll be able to do it again. (Thanks Michelle!)

Supporting Junior Faculty: Resources for Helping Them to Learn the Ropes and Find Funding

I’m heading off to NCURA again, this time to St. Louis for the region 4/5 meeting where I’ll be speaking with a colleague from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (the fabulous Michelle Schoenecker) on working with faculty who are developing and submitting proposals.

We’re going to be talking about the challenge of helping to find sources of funding for faculty (both early stage investigators and established scientists) and how to steer faculty through the available funding opportunities (especially limited opportunities). We will discuss how to provide assistance and guidance to junior faculty when they do not have mentoring and guidance and are looking for help from research administrators when looking for a funding opportunity or writing a proposal for the first time. Most importantly, we’re going to address how to help faculty target the right opportunity for their idea.

Some resources we’ll be talking about for early stage investigators who are learning how to navigate the NIH include the NIAID New PI Guide, which is a comprehensive resource that introduces a new investigator to the process of how to develop a project, write an application, submit it for funding at an agency and work with the project officer.  Additional resources like the NIU and  University of Michigan proposal writing guides helps new PI’s to develop their proposal to the NSF, NIH or even foundations when they are new to the process.

I’ll be covering additional sessions from NCURA from Monday April 16 to Wednesday April 18 from St. Louis – so stay tuned!

NSF Data Management: A Tale of Two Systems

The NSF has launched, their new portal for the comprehensive management of NSF applications and awards. It’s an upgrade of the current Fastlane system and the NSF is phasing in the use of the new portal and phasing out Fastlane.

As of January 2012, reports for current NSF awards are required to be submitted through instead of Fastlane. Applications are still accepted in Fastlane.

Be sure to read the solicitation announcement to ensure you are sending the application and any future reporting to the correct system. If you have doubts, contact the program officer. Everyone at NSF was incredibly approachable and welcomed contacts.


An apple a day keeps the auditor away…

We are listening to the assistant director of audit for the NSF office of the inspector general, and this office has been pretty busy this year. The NSF OIG handles allegations and handles:

  • Fraud waste and abuse
  • Research misconduct
  • Violations of law or policy
  • Financial and performance audits

Alllegations are unsubstantiated until fully investigated. A majority of allegations end at the inquiry phase because there is not enough information to substantiate the allegation. Its interesting to note that the speaker notes an increase in recommendations for suspensions and debarments for investigators that have an adverse finding after an investigation. Grant oversight items that the OIG looks for when analyzing grants:

  1. Funding portfolio of the PI (Are they continuously funded by NSF?)
  2. Burn rate.
  3. Use of cost share accounts.
  4. Management of subcontracts and consultants.
  5. Documentation of costs and appropriate approvals
  6. Cost compliance: work the circulars.

The bottom line – an auditor’s role is to come in and assess the issue, and determine the intention of the individual/s  involved. An honest mistake is different than research misconduct or financial fraud. Our job is to prevent this, ultimately, but an auditor can tell the difference.