Federal money comes with strings.

Yesterday I blogged a bit about how the rollback of NIH research funding may impact scientists at research universities. In light of those comments, here's another news item worth your attention.

The Boston Globe reports that Yale University may be in some amount of trouble for accepting lots of federal research funds but then not accounting for its use in ways that satisfied the funders:

Federal authorities are investigating how Yale accounts for millions of dollars in government research grants, school officials said Monday.

Yale received three subpoenas last week from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Defense Department and National Science Foundation seeking grant documents dating back as much as 10 years.

Authorities also have been interviewing university employees about accounting issues.

The school has acknowledged problems with its accounting procedures. In an e-mail to faculty and staff on Friday, Yale President Richard Levin urged employees to cooperate with investigators.

"Regardless of the outcome of the current investigation, we must get all our processes right and make sure that we are good stewards of the funds entrusted to us by the federal government," Levin said in a statement released Monday. "We know that we have more work to do."

This sounds like tons of fun for the Yale faculty and staff. Who doesn't like taking time out of his or her day to cooperate with federal investigators?

The subpoenas cover 47 grants valued at about $45 million, the school said. The university received about $2 billion in grants during the past decade.

Like most large research universities, Yale relies heavily on government grants to pay for scientific research. The grants come with stringent accounting rules that in one recent case Yale did not follow, federal officials said. ...

The three agencies issuing subpoenas funded about 90 percent of Yale's research in recent years, the school said.

(Bold emphasis added.)

See, I wasn't kidding when I said R01 universities had come to depend on federal funding to be able to do research at all. Three federal agencies were funding 90% of Yale's research. Not only does this seem a little risky if federal budgetary priorities should shift away from research, but it also seems risky if an institution is not committed to fulfilling all the requirements that come with that money -- even the accounting requirements.

I'm not an accountant, but I can imagine scenarios in which the type of accounting demanded by the feds might seem like pointless micromanaging. But, if doing it is a condition of accepting the money, and if you decide to accept the money, then you bloody well do the burdensome accounting they ask for. If you want to try to make the case that some other, less burdensome, sort of accounting would be better all around, you make that case before you accept the funds.

The Boston Globe reportsThe article continues:

A report by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services noted in February that university procedures were not always followed or were inadequate.

That report, which focused on a DNA grant, found that more than a third of the university's $508,000 in invoices did not comply with federal standards. Costs were improperly transferred across budget cycles to make up for shortfalls, the report said.

During the review, Yale told researchers that some documents had been altered and said it was investigating.

The report also criticized the school for its oversight of researchers. The primary researcher worked less than promised on the grant application and auditors said the school did not have a process to ensure its researchers were working.

It is true that research doesn't always unfold neatly on the timeline one sketches out in grant proposals. But there really are rules that come with grant money as to when that money can be spent. Breaking the rules will not endear you to the funder (and it may well raise the question of what other rules you're comfortable breaking). This is another instance where things might be better if the universities actually had resources to help their researchers make up for shortfalls.

Altering documents should be anathema to scientists and to the administrators and staff members supporting scientific endeavors. If you're going to change the "facts" in your accounting to a federal funder, what would keep you from changing the "facts" (say, in your preliminary data) in a grant proposal to the same funder?

I'm curious what the practicing scientists (including grad students, postdocs, and technicians) think about the funders' concerns that the principal investigators might be spending less time working on their funded projects than it seemed like they would be based on their grant proposals. Do you think it's a standard thing to get a project funded and then hand off the actual research to underlings (the better to write more grant proposals, perhaps)? If it is standard procedure, do you think it's problematic (e.g., because the PI might be the one with expertise to make the research successful, or because the grant proposals don't make it clear that the PI is merely conceiving of the project before dispatching his minion to carry it out)?

Or, could it be that the feds are worrying instead about ambitious research proposals ("We will accomplish A, B, C, D, E, and F in the next two years") that are seldom realized quite so successfully ("We accomplished A, and we're pretty sure now that we could accomplish B if we had two more months.")? Is this making the feds think the scientists are all slacking instead of putting in the hours at the lab? Do the feds not realize that what looks completely do-able on paper is sometimes a major challenge in the 3-dimensional world of the laboratory?

And besides, it's not like New Haven has a beach.

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I think the key would be to find out what spurred the feds on to initiate this investigation. It's possible that they found some irregularities. It's also possible that someone in Washington doesn't like the research that their doing (e.g., stem cells, climate change, etc.), and has decided to dig for dirt in some professor's accounting, which would probably be very easy to find in most universities. Not because professors are crooks, but because it's difficult to, say, balance the needs of a grant with, say, the needs of a student who needs to study for his comprehensive exam, which happens to scheduled at the end of the grant period, or something like that. Ot maybe a grad student flunks out and never finishes the research. Or maybe a post-doc loses his visa. There are all sorts of things that can happen that would strictly be forbidden, but that comes out in the wash. Maybe another student finished their research early with five months of funding left on the grant. Perhaps that funding could be used to support a student who has lost funding. etc. etc. These things might raise red flags with the feds, but I don't think they're criminal.

Do you think it's a standard thing to get a project funded and then hand off the actual research to underlings (the better to write more grant proposals, perhaps)? If it is standard procedure, do you think it's problematic

Yes, and, yes.

In my field, realistically, we are trying to get funding to pay for "underlings" -- post docs and graduate students. As such, proposals are generally up-front about this being a project for the post-docs or (more often) graduate students. But, the real truth of the matter is that people who are succesful at getting grants (not including myself, alas) spend too bloody much time writing and getting those grants instead of doing the science they love, that they trained for, that they're best at, and that they promise to do in all of the grants.

It's a completely stupid system, all the way around. Not that I am sure that there is a better one-- if research funding is limited, you have to have some way of figuring out who to say "no" to, and who is worth funding, and there will be some sort of competitive bidding involved. But a vast quantity of my job "success" and "performance evaluation" is based on how good I am at promising to do things, not at what I've done. And, I have to live with constant uncertainty, fear, and doubt about whether I'll be able to keep supporting graduate students, travelling to telescopes, etc., never mind getting bloody tenure.

It would be so much nicer if Univerisites who wanted to do research would hire faculty members they trusted and then support their research, instead of insisting that the faculty spend vast quantities of their time getting "external funding." Too much time, energy, and self is lost to those grant proposals, to the fear and pain that comes when they are cut or not funded; the mental state that results from all of that probably makes us all less efficient and mentally able to do our research when we finally do get time to work on it. Getting money not what we're good at (well, at least, not what we're trained for), it's not what we want to do, and it's not even what we're nominally supposed to be doing. We're supposed to be doing teaching and research. Alas, this isn't realistic; Universities don't have that kind of money, and putting the burden "external funding" on faculty members (whom you then throw away if they can't achieve funding even at long odds) is the norm, at least in the USA.

So, my reasons for thinking the "standard procedure" are problematic aren't so much ethical ones -- if it's standard procedure, then the grant agencies should realize that that is how it's done, that they're funding teams, and that for teams to survive the team leader has to become a grant writer -- as practical ones. When the senior, most experienced scientists are wasting huge amounts of time on administrative bullshit like writing grants, it's a loss to science. When the people who are best at writing grants are rewarded with tenure, raises, and attention, it's just like bad teaching -- tune your evaluations to your learning goals. Which, I suppose, is fine for Univerisites-- they're probably more intersted in high research funding than good research, honestly speaking. But as a scientific community, we should be more interested in the progress of science than the progress of funding levels.

-Rob the Bitter

I work at Yale and got the story from my PI. Apparently the investigation has to do with how Yale bills direct vs indirect costs, and how many hours per day a PI is actually working. Yale charges a lot of money for indirect costs and then adds charges on top that would normally be included as an indirect cost (ie phone lines and internet connections). In addition, the feds only recognize a 40 hour work week. So, many profs are doing administrative work and teaching as "service to the community" or as a volunteer.

By angiebean (not verified) on 10 Jul 2006 #permalink

I don't think it's so bad for lead scientists to be grant writers, while the students are the ones working in the lab. It's like any other business. Do we expect Bill Gates to be at his computer writing code? Absolutely not. We expect him to come up with great ideas and hire the best people to carry them out. No one faults Gates for that at all. Certainly not the shareholders.

Sounds like Yale is trying to double dip funds out of indirect costs. basically these places run the joint out of indirect costs and who knows what they are really doing and what they are propping up with the money.