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.

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.

Be a Spreadsheet Superhero!


It’s the heart of every budget – the spreadsheet. How it is written and constructed sets the course, not only of the few weeks it takes to submit the proposal – but of the years it takes to manage the project when it is funded. The spreadsheet starts off innocently enough, as a draft that one or two people (usually the PI and the research administrator) work to edit as the proposal is constructed. Carefully planned and well constructed – this can be a time when decisions are made, and documented to set the life of the project off on the right course. Or…not.


It’s quite common to learn research administration from the inside out – that is, you join a project mid-stream, and pick up the documentation that a previous team generated for you to work with. That means that your success in helping to administer the research in a department or division depends on the communication that has been left for you by the previous RA, and the internal budgets you’re responsible to manage. It’s more than just written communication – it’s the budget spreadsheets that allow you to help guide your investigators to make decisions about how their projects will be managed in the coming project period.


So how does one become a spreadsheet superhero? It requires some practice and dedication, and a commitment to consistency – knowing that you’ll be serving your investigators long after you leave your position and move on to your next job if you take on this alter ego.


1. Always use formulas and references when budgeting in Excel. Hard enter numbers only when absolutely necessary. Make your spreadsheets work for you, and your investigators.

2. Ask your colleagues for the best budget spreadsheets out there – and if one doesn’t exist (rest assured it does) create one. Find one that works best for your investigators’ applications and use it consistently. Time and date stamp it. Improve it as you use it for each application.

3. Budget based on institutional base salary. If you don’t know what institutional base salary is for your institution, find out. If your spreadsheet doesn’t start or takes you off course from the IBS at your institution, you will be managing cost-sharing on the award if it is awarded.

4. Try very hard to help your investigators to break the habit of doing their own budgets. You can draft them and let them play with the numbers. Many investigators forget elements of budgets – and others don’t understand why certain costs need to be included. In all cases, they need to focus on the science, and that’s why we’re there, to help with the administrative aspects of the application. It’s hard for them to depend on us. Try to help them learn to depend on you.

5. Check your math. Have a colleague review your budget and justification, just to make sure. These things are often developed very quickly and often under pressure. It’s easy to make transposition errors, etc. Have someone with fresh eyes who has had a bit more sleep take a look at your work.

6. Spend a lot of time on the budget justification. Flesh it out for the PI, to help explain the nature of each expense. Include an explanation of the calculations involved if there is a question about how the funds are to be spent.

7. Include the names of individuals working on the project in your budget spreadsheet – even if they are not included in the official proposal documents. Simple details like this are very helpful when administering salary on funded projects.

8. When creating budget spreadsheets, put yourself in the recipient’s shoes – what does the reviewer need to see? Present the budget with that in mind and keep it clean and tight. Present supporting information in sheets behind the summary page of the workbook, linking totals to the summary page. Crowding everything into one page dilutes the information you are providing and adds to the reviewer’s job. (It can also increase the chance of error and cost-sharing.)

9. Use your spreadsheets consistently – for applications, award management (clinical trial tracking, grants management, contract management, salary and effort management, and reporting to investigators). Create roll up reports to identify areas of concern (projected deficits) and manage no-cost extensions prior to them coming due.

10. Create a shared repository for this information for the investigators you work with, as well as the business administration team and central office staff you interact with. As you maintain these records, they will serve to document the active management of your investigators’ activities, help you manage their awards, and hand off their accounts easily to the next person who steps into your role. And that’s customer service!

It’s not easy to keep up with these types of records, especially when things get busy – but its harder not to – especially when there is a need for the information. Take the time to learn Excel well, and share your knowledge and time with your colleagues. Spend the time to develop the systems and processes to support your investigators and develop the spreadsheets that will serve you – and them well – now and far into the future.

How Many People Does It Take To Allocate An Expense To A Sponsored Project?

ideaWhen Your Office’s Cost Allocation Processes  Resemble the Punchline of that Familiar Joke, it’s Time to Take a Look at Your Decision Methods

We recently had a situation in our office where a question was raised about the method of allocating an allowable supply cost to a sponsored project. The supply cost was $30. The “answer” generated more than one week’s worth of discussion involving the time of eight employees in three different offices. In other words, more than $30 worth of F&A was spent on deciding whether or not it could or should be charged as a direct cost on the award. (It was direct charged, and it should have been, it was the right thing to do.)

You’ve Hammered The Nail Down. How Many More Times Do You Need To Hit It?

This is not a discussion about whether or not we want to be compliant – this is a discussion about the BEST way to be compliant. The reality is, that there is often MORE than one way to allocate costs in a compliant manner, and the fact of the matter is that we can allocate costs as effectively as possible, following all the rules and guidelines provided by the funding agency and OMB circulars – and an auditor can still request to remove the charge for a particular reason on an audit. (They may, or may not be successful.) At the end of the day, we need to realize that we are going to make the best decisions possible, according to policies, decide who is responsible for decision making, and move on. So how do we do this, and how can we avoid the black and white thinking that so often comes along with cost allocation processes – and makes the process so PAINFUL and time consuming?

A Starting Place for Understanding Cost Allocation: Three Questions

1. Who decides if the charge goes on the award, and who reviews/approves this decision?

It’s been my experience that the best cost allocation decisions are made at the department level – they are usually initiated by the investigator, and followed up on by a research administrator, who determines how best to allocate the cost to the award – and confirms this with the investigator. The RA might consult with a central office, but a central office role is usually to review and approve the charge once it is placed on the award, and that’s the appropriate role for the central office. It’s good to make sure we’re charging the award appropriately before we’ve touched it – but the local department knows more about the research and how the award is being conducted. The investigator also knows their program officer’s expectations, and grants management officer’s guidelines about how the award should be spent.

2. What information helps guide the decision making process?

The OMB circulars, the award documentation, and the agency guidance regarding allowable costs, as well as institutional policies and procedures regarding cost allocation. Whew! That’s a lot of information that is sometimes contradictory – so where do you start? The most specific guidance for the award pertains first.

3. What documentation supports the decision, and how is this documentation generated and maintained?

There is nothing WORSE than cost allocation processes that are not consistently followed – think A21. Following processes that document purchasing, and the allocation of costs on awards and document these costs consistently so that administrators can follow your thought processes are vital (everything from always using formulas in Excel spreadsheets to entering in justifications to every computer system that you use to execute financial transactions).

Fundamental Knowledge for Successful Cost Allocation

  • The research administrator needs to know the units for accepting costs (this sounds trivial and simple, but it really is quite important). Are costs to be allocated by project, lab, employee, etc?
  • Roles need to be maintained – it is surprising how often central office staff regularly allocate costs to account codes that are inappropriate or feel that they know best how to allocate costs, when they know little about the research itself or the cost item being allocated.
  • The consistency principle for A21 should be (in my opinion) maintained by research unit – similar types of research. Again, this is something that departments know better than central offices – allocation of expenses for wet labs is going to be different than allocation of expenses for dry labs, or clinical research labs. Explaining this to a central office accountant is important to ensure the correct allocation method for the sponsored research account.
  • Allowability and reasonableness are usually easier terms to work through, based on the award information.

When in Doubt – Double Check and Documentgroup-of-small-business-people

If you have a particularly unusual situation, work with your investigator to talk with your central office, and his or her grants management specialist about the question to receive approval. Document the decision if it is favorable. It’s still no guarantee – but it’s a good indication that it’s an allowable cost. Document all of the justification material and correspondence for future reference.

The Best Defense Is A Good Offense

As always, the investigator is always in the best position to support his or her cost allocations when the budget and budget justification are well developed in the proposal stage, and his or her progress reports, financial reports, and updates are well tracked and presented. Our cost allocation decisions should make sense, and be defensible when we are asked about them by our internal and external auditors. And it shouldn’t take a village to allocate the cost of a $30 item to a sponsored project – because there’s more work to be done!

Managing Clinical Trials: Collaborating for Success

ClinicalTrials-Doc_PatientI am attending the Financial Research Administration conference in New Orleans from March 10-12th, and while you might think that the best thing  about being in the Big Easy is the beignets (those little french doughnuts), I’m geeking out at the NCURA meeting and I’m going to be sharing the information with you on Research Administration Nation. Think of these posts as little beignets of knowledge…sweet updates.

Right now, I’m attending a workshop on Managing Clinical Trials with David Lynch (Executive Director, Office of Sponsored Research, Chicago) and Krista Harnish (Senior Research Administrator) both from Northwestern University. Full disclosure, I’m from Northwestern, too.

The workshop reviewed all aspects of CT management, and introduced a new resource which I’m really excited about and am going to purchase for my staff from NCURA: A Primer  on Clinical Trials for the Research Administrator this was published in March 2012 and is an excellent resource.

The workshop was a presentation and facilitated discussion about the cradle to grave management of clinical trials, and included a brief presentation on the types of clinical trials, case studies, and the roles and responsibilities of individuals working on trials. The majority of the workshop focused on the work that is needed to budget and negotiate agreements that are compliant and cover all study costs, and how to conduct the study and manage expenses to meet the scientific and contract requirements (while maintaining the non-profit status of colleges and universities).

The most important budgeting and negotiation points that came out of the workshop were:

  • It’s extremely important to go beyond the sponsor template when budgeting for a clinical trial, in order to ensure that you are covering all costs. An indepth cost analysis is required for each trial, which requires working directly with the investigator and the coordinators to determine the cost components of each element, how long each required aspect of the protocol takes (so that labor costs are accurate) and working with affiliates to budget each test accurately. Participants commented that the protocol analysis often takes several sources and extensive financial analysis.
  • Understanding your institution’s experience with the sponsor can assist you in analyzing the opportunity, and developing the structure of the budget (my favorite comment was “for every request we need to make for backup information we will invoice you for $X”.)
  • Documenting the budgeting and negotiating process is extremely important for success during the post-award phase.

The key discussion in the workshop came from the post-award management material, which outlined requirements for maintaining a partnership between the investigator and the administrative management that is supporting the research team.

  • The need to facilitate and maintain communication between the PI, research team (coordinators), central office, and department business administration staff, and research administration team (whether they are cradle to grave, or a separate pre-award and research finance team), is paramount. This communication needs to start when the project is awarded and be maintained through out the life of the project, as there are changes and updates that everyone should know.
  • Using a kickoff meeting allows this team to get to know each other and establish a repoire to manage this project and future projects in order to discuss questions and concerns and maintain mission focus on completing the scientific progress.
  • The team analyzes the contract and anticipates issues together – appropriately bringing roles to bear on issues that they are responsible for, and focuses on milestone acheivements together.
  • Follow up meetings are scheduled and maintained by the research administrator.
  • The meetings are maintained to report to the PI about his/her financial expenditures, receive updates on scientific progress and to manage the account and report to the sponsor.

In the post-award arena, a significant challenge that many institutions face is managing balances on clinical trial accounts. The workshop participants discussed scenarios when PI accounts have funds remaining, and institutional policies for managing those funds.

Three things to remember when managing positive balances in clinical trial accounts at the end of an award:

  1. Conduct a reconciliation of charges. Ensure that all appropriate and expected charges, including PI effort, participant remuneration, and other expenses, have hit the account.
  2. Read the contract. Do not assume that a balance can be transferred into an individual PI account. The balance should be transferred into a University account with a similiarly defined research purpose.
  3. Balances on PI accounts jeopardize the institution’s non-profit status when not properly managed and closed out into proper accounts; develop a policy at your institution and education your PIs that these funds belong to the University, not to them.

The bottom line: It’s all about collaboration for success – research administrators need to work with clinical research coordinators  and finance staff to administer clinical trials and serve investigators. When we do – clinical trial participants benefit, and that’s what its all about.

Sequestration Nation: What is Sequestration and What You Need to Know Right Now

United States Capitol BuildingThe Ultimate Deadline – March 1, 2013

The “Budget Control Act of 2011” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but if you care about research, you should be paying attention to what’s happening in Washington DC, again, right now. Right after the new year, Congress dealt with an aspect of the BCA 2011 by delaying the effects of sequestration – and passing a bill that would implement revenue increases to partially address our nation’s budget deficit. What Congress didn’t do was to address the aspect of the legislation that imposes serious spending cuts – they deferred this decision until March 1, 2013. Which is, as you can tell, right around the corner. You can read a bit about this issue from a prior R.A.N. post, and there is an excellent briefing on sequestration by the A.A.A.S. to bring you up to speed on the effects of the drastic cuts proposed to scientific research.

What is Sequestration?

Sequestration is a legislative term for a series of mandated across the board spending cuts that will affect “discretionary” spending in the federal budget if Congress cannot decide how to meet the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and make spending cuts on their own. The result will be to cap almost all defense and non-defense categories, with few exceptions for the next decade.

The Fiscal Cliff is Near – Plans Are Being Implemented

The President asked all Federal government agencies to prepare to reduce or downsize their operations if Congress did not enact legislation that would fulfill the legislative mandate of the Budget Control Act. Despite the fact that the deadline has not yet arrived, the plans are already being set in motion in some parts of the world – the Defense Department has stalled ships that it would have ordinarily deployed into foreign ports, and has started the 45 day notice to furlough civilian workers if needed. Other agencies are taking similar measures. It is unclear if measures will affect the levels of grants being awarded (actual grants going out the door) or the dollar amounts of awards (less money to researchers).

UPDATE: The NIH just posted its plans for sequestration in a notice to grantees. It’s just what you’d expect to see – they are operating currently under a continuing resolution, and have funded current awards at a reduced level as a result. Under sequestration, they plan to continue this practice and anticipate that the ICs will be affected by making fewer awards.

The Time To Act is NOW

If you support scientific research and the pursuit of knowledge – and believe that the Federal government needs to prioritize its funding role, contact your legislators and let them know. The Federal government is the largest funder of research in the nation, and these cuts will drastically affect the pace of scientific progress, educational advancement, and the pace of economic growth in our nation.

Contact Your Member of Congress Today – Stop these Budget Cuts

Be sure to contact your Representative (Member of the House of Representatives) and Senator on your own time (not at work) as contacting them at work would be construed as lobbying, which is often against institutional policies and not permitted if your institution receives Federal funding. (I’m writing this post on my home computer at night.) I’ve provided links here to the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate websites and they have handy search functions to help you find your Representative and Senator by your zip code.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen this time – I hope we’ll have a last minute agreement to prevent the sequestration from going into effect. But it won’t happen unless we all make our voices heard!

Managing Multiple Priorities: A How-To-Guide for Keeping Your Sanity


There are specific skills and steps that you can learn to effectively manage multiple priorities – and to actually assess which activities you need to work on first – then next in order to tame your daily and weekly schedule. I’ve tried to organize the best time management advice I can find into one place and to make it “research administrator-friendly.”

Assessing Urgency and Importance

Ask a colleague who is feeling overwhelmed about their workload and its common to hear the phrase “I’m putting out fires left and right” or “they want everything done right this minute.” These are reflections of the perceived urgency of a situation (which may or may not have actual deadlines attached to them). I’m actually working on a project right now that has a lot of importance attached to it, but the faculty member has not deemed it very urgent, because he is not getting back to me with a key piece of information that is required for me to handle the project. The bottom line is that we tend to feel less able to manage our work when we have fewer pieces of information with regard to urgency and importance. When we ask more questions about this, we can better manage our workload.

Key Questions:

  1. What is the deadline for this project?
  2. Who are the key stakeholders?
  3. What are the resources attached to this project (budget, possible award, etc)?
  4. Is there a compliance or regulatory impact to this project?

This is where my Four D rating system comes in! See previous post I WANT IT NOW – Managing When Everything Is An Emergency.

So the question is, what do we do with this information? I tell my colleagues all the time it’s possible to put out more than one fire at a time, or handle more than one emergency (ER’s do this with a triage system not unlike the chart to the right).

Think of this as developing a triage system for your work, with the help of your boss and your colleagues.


1. Get organized by using a to do list or an app that helps you manage your time. Your system should help you understand what you have to do, how long it takes you to do each item on your list and help you rate each item on a priority scale in order to be the most helpful.

TIP: I have personally spent a ton of hours assessing apps for time management, and I’ve fallen in love with Toodledo. It’s head and shoulders above all other apps I’ve tried, including Remember the Milk, which is one that techies seem to love. (Remember the Milk doesn’t work on my iPad, but I’m sure its great). Toodledo tells me which priority items I need to be spending time on. It’s fabulous and I think it’s making me more productive.

2. Break down projects into tasks, and set milestones for progress (with deadlines!) Make sure you’re working under an absolute deadline.

3. Realistically estimate how long it will take you to perform your work and manage expectations with regard to outcomes – communicate with your stakeholders often and make sure they understand how you’re doing on your work. (Ask your colleagues if you’re not sure how long it takes to do a particular task.)

4. Anticipate barriers to progress when you are planning your work and promptly deal with them when they arise. (Your manager is your best ally.)

5. Schedule time to work on your projects and manage distractions. Maximize the time that you do your best work – if you are a morning person – schedule meetings for the afternoon, or vice versa.

6. Take breaks. Don’t plow through work just because you’re stressed or under a deadline.

7. Have co-workers review your work product to ensure accuracy and attention to detail.

8. Do one thing at a time. Research has shown that cognitive ability and accuracy declines when you multitask. Don’t do it or minimize switching back and forth between projects when you’re doing something really important.

9. When you have questions or need help with managing priorities, ask for help. Your manager can help you assess your workload and help you understand which projects need attention and how to swim through a murky mess.

10. While there may be circumstances where we all need to put in late hours occasionally (when proposals are due), it’s important to work a regular work schedule and take vacations.

With a bit of planning and practice, it’s possible to keep your sanity in a very busy and fast-paced environment.