Dotting “i”s and Crossing “t”s

As federal budgets tighten, the US government is getting serious about enforcing reporting and administrative rules that accompany academic grants.

Sep 17, 2012
Bob Grant

Getting money from the US government to do research isn't exactly a walk in the park. With the hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding that come from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the 2009 stimulus act come a slew of rules that dictate how university administrators need to keep track of how the cash is spent. And recently, the government has been holding those administrators and grantees accountable for every dollar.

According to a report by The Chronicle of Higher Education, audits and investigations of highly funded research universities are on the rise. Inspectors at agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees about $25 billion awarded by the NIH annually, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have been finding oversights and minor misappropriations and charging grantees with repaying misspent grant money.

For example, Florida State University (FSU) was recently ordered to repay $3 million in grant money after an HHS audit uncovered nearly 100 expenditures that were misspent. One of those expenditures involved FSU biologist James Fadool, who paid an assistant $1,536 biweekly to manage the lab were his zebrafish subjects are kept. The HHS audit found that the zebrafish facility was also used for instruction, based on FSU's own survey, and therefore not devoted solely to the funded research. They ruled that FSU would have to repay 60 percent of the research assistant's biweekly salary, or $922, for the time since the grant was awarded.

The NSF inspector general conducted 16 such audits from late 2011 to this March and submitted the results in its annual report to Congress. Three of those audits uncovered a total of more than $865,000 in misspent grant money, according to The Chronicle.

But keeping up with every dollar in grant money is an expensive and time-intensive proposition. And while federal grants do set aside money to reimburse research institutions for indirect costs associated with grants, the costs of the administrative burden that comes with complying to stricter reporting rules are often not considered. A 2007 survey of federally funded researchers conducted by the Council on Governmental Relations, an association of research-intensive universities, found that grantees spend about 42 percent of their time on administrative duties related to their grants. "In effect, at a time of limited resources, compliance requirements are taking researchers out of the laboratory and reducing their ability to perform the research that leads to the innovations that improve our quality of life," the report read.

According to The Chronicle, the federal Office of Management and Budget is considering streamlining some of the reporting regulations for federally sponsored research, which may trim the amount of money built in to grants for indirect costs.