Capitol Hill Showdown: What Will October Bring?

preparationI don’t know about you, but when I’m working on an application deadline, I’d like to think about helping my investigator submit a quality application – not whether the government will be open for business to accept the application on the due date.

Unfortunately, it’s mid-September, so that means our elected officials are squabbling again about whether or not they’d like to fund the federal government through the end of the calendar year.

Unfortunately, this political tango has very real consequences for scientific research – both the currently funded kind, and the research in-need-of-support kind. And for this go-around, we have another hurdle to face with an anticipated battle over the definition and scope of the debt ceiling. Our national legislators are seeking to tie this discussion to other mandates, such as reducing or eliminating funding for the Affordable Care Act, or adjusting the terms of sequestration. Regardless of the outcome, the effect is likely to create uncertainty in federal agencies, and if it goes on too long, could lead to belt-tightening.

This drama is likely to play out during the last few days of September, when Congress considers legislation to fund the President’s 2014 budget, or not. For the past 5 years, we have funded the government on continuing resolutions, which are a series of appropriations bills that have passed both houses of Congress and been authorized to fund the nation’s work for a period of time (from weeks to months, to a year). These appropriations bills are sometimes cobbled together and approved in chunks.

After we pass the first hurdle of keeping the government running (and can submit our applications), we must address the debt ceiling hurdle – which has a decision deadline of October 15, after which the Federal government goes into default on its financial obligations, and cannot pay its bills, such as student loans and Social Security checks. There is some discussion that prudent management of the deficit has given the Treasury some wiggle room for the November 1 pay period, but agencies that have “discretionary” payments are already starting to look at the next couple of months and plan for a battle in Washington.

The political environment is even more complicated – a primary election underway in the state of Kentucky has effectively silenced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a more moderate force between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate (as was the case during the last debt ceiling debate in 2011). Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner is in a difficult position between a very conservative wing in the House that is attempting to de-fund Obamacare as a condition for raising the debt ceiling and keeping the government open – which if the government shuts down, may cost him his Speakership.

What does this mean for research administrators?

If you are waiting for a non-competing continuation, a subcontract, or a notice of award – don’t hold your breath. Everyone is going to be in a holding pattern until this is sorted out. If your investigator decides to start work, be prepared to open pre-spending accounts, and direct charge expenses (conservatively) until you know what your funding will look like. Encourage your investigators to talk to their program officers and get a read on what’s going on at their funding agency. Monitor activity and costs closely to manage potential cost share commitments until funding comes through. Keep your PI’s and departments updated on developments – and while you’re at it, load up on the antacid.

Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Still wondering why it’s so hard to charge meeting expenses to a grant?

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What Happens In Vegas…

Ever pay $7 for a piece of sushi? The federal government did in 2010, at a conference for 300 General Service Administration workers. It also footed the bill for $44 breakfasts, $95 dinners, lavish receptions, gifts for conference attendees, and other services, to the tune of $823,000 for a four-day training conference. That’s a whopping $2,743 per employee. (My head is spinning as I write this.)  Did I mention the conference was held in Las Vegas? When the auditors found out, and issued a report in April of 2012, and a similar scandal followed from the Veterans Affairs Administration, albeit on a slightly smaller budget. ($300,000)

….Didn’t Stay in Vegas

Obama issued two Executive Orders, which specified not only how the federal government was to conduct business with regard to expenditures related to travel, conferences, promotional items, printing, and food purchases for all types of circumstances, but these Executive Orders outlined how agencies were to use government funds in all areas – both intramural and extramural – to follow these orders. This included how recipients of awards were to follow these orders. NPR Marketplace Article, April 2012

Just to bring you up to speed, these guidelines included informing government agencies to print on both sides of the page, use .5″ margins when printing, and use the draft setting on the printer to maximize paper use, and to use electronic versions of documents whenever possible. Regarding travel – if a federal employee can accomplish the work without traveling to do it, the EO and guidelines state that this is the preferred method. Food is offered or accepted by federal employees only when it is included as part of the cost of an event and part of the business conducted at a meeting.  There are exceptional circumstances, but they are few and far between.

So What Do I Tell My PI?

So in general, its best to minimize expenses on food, printing and travel on sponsored projects given the environment we are in, but that doesn’t mean we can’t offer food to conference participants. (I recently had a PI tell me that I wanted her conference attendees to wither from hunger after a day-long conference without any food after informing her of these rules…) There ARE a lot of changes to meeting expenses on grants, and they affect every government agency that funds research. The HHS documentation is the easiest to refer to, so I’m including it here.

You have to plan ahead if you are going to have a conference or meeting where you are going to host attendees, and you plan to offer them materials, and any type of food or drink. This is clearly the case where preparation in the pre-award (application) phase will help with the execution of a meeting or conference in the post-award phase of a project.

MEALS: Business needs to be conducted when food or drink is served. Accordingly, it is not possible to have breakfast, lunch, or breaks between meeting times. The formal meeting needs to continue in order for these costs to be covered. This means that:

  1. The meeting needs to start when you serve a continental breakfast. Participants need to eat while the meeting is going on.
  2. Lunch needs to have a keynote speaker.
  3. Formal coffee breaks are no more. Participants can get up and help themselves to coffee and use the bathroom as the meetings progress. If you take a break, don’t serve food.
  4. You cannot charge the cost of meals/beverages to a grant for federal employees. This means that every conference or meeting you hold that are funded with federal dollars needs to have a sign in sheet, and there needs to be a check box to ask if an attendee is a federal employee.
  5. Your agenda should reflect the activity of the meeting and when meals are served accordingly to demonstrate to your project officer that these rules were followed.
  6. Use per diem rates set by your University.

MATERIALS: Using a website to have participants download meeting materials (instead of printing them out) is a viable alternative to keeping handouts and materials costs to a minimum. If you want to fund a giveaway item –  make it a memory stick with the materials on it.

SPACE: Free or reduced cost meeting space should be used whenever possible.

TRAVEL: Piggy-back meetings for studies on top of regular annual meetings your PI will normally attend. Chances are, his or her collaborators will be there too. Use Skype, free conference calling, and other electronic resources. Your project officer should see why travel is necessary for the meeting to take place.

If you currently have an award with a proposed budget for a conference, it doesn’t mean that you can spend the line items as is – President Obama’s Executive Orders take precedence.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Think through the meetings and conferences on your research budgets carefully, and prepare program staff for the extra documentation needed for these activities. It’s crucial!

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!

Guidelines. Guidelines. Guidelines.

The next session focused on the review process for applications and discussed the key criteria for judging the programmatic aspects of the application; intellectual merit and broader impacts. It’s really interesting, actually. The first question is really several questions (if you look at the criteria) and it’s not a whole lot different than an NIH proposal. The second question asks about the significance of the work – but it’s a bit more meaningful than the NIH question.

Program officers discussed three specific cross-disciplinary programs, EAGER, RAPID and CREATIV. EAGER grants are early concept grants that have a high potential for innovation but are not representative of any current solicitations for NSF. RAPID is a program that funds scientific ideas that need a quick turnaround time due to the nature of the idea and CREATIV is the first endeavor for NSF in translational research, to foster cross-disciplinary research in their funded program areas.

At the end of the day, however, the message was simple and clear. Follow the guidelines. To the letter. Call the program officer before you start a proposal. Call when you have any questions. The program officer should be very prepared and very familiar with the proposal that he or she will be receiving and quite welcoming of it, in order to increase its chances of success.

It’s surprising and incredibly reassuring to know that all of the time and energy we spend organizing, herding and begging our investigators to complete their grants (in time so that we can proofread them) is 150,000% on the money. The program officers talked today of taking rulers to margins, and rejecting grants due to sloppiness and spelling errors.

I may not be a rocket scientist, but I can spell!