Righteous Indignation! on behalf of former trainees

Jun 12 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a marvelous former student (master's) from about 20 years ago. Former student (FS)  at a mostly-teaching place and trying to get a proposal in and get research going. There have been lots of bumps on the road, but FS is good-humored and takes them in stride, or at least in flying form. FS isn't well liked by everyone in my lab, for all sorts of reasons, but I am in a place where I can take a slightly larger view of things. All I'm saying here, is things are not quite simple.

This proposal is to do something that will be in my lab, which is fine with me, and acceptable to the current lab folks.. I am helping with the proposal, which has had problems, and is a resubmission. In fact, I was surprised it got the relatively good reviews it did on the first go-round (not triaged! scored!). For this version,  I suggested adding a third person (TP), as a consultant who is working with the animal model (different from my standard, in some significant ways) that is integral to this project. I know TP to be Good People. I thought.

FS copied me on a string of emails to and from TP discussing the project and asking TP about being a consultant.  I noticed something that FS did not. (This would be their first NIH grant). Third Person is asking for a subcontract to do something that is essentially minor consulting. Yipes! And a fair chunk of salary. In fact, it wasn't so much asking, as assuming, and sending instructions.

TP's view might be defensible, but I think it has crossed a line.  So. Some more details.  Despite having just got tenure, and thus technically a "senior" faculty, FS teaches 12 months a year, about 4-5 courses a term, and really can only do research if  funded. That FS is in this position is clearly a function of choices made along the way. FS has two small kids, a working spouse, and all the complexities of life that go with that. Yet, FS published a first authored paper as a UG, and got two first -auth and two mid-auth papers doing  a masters. I think there is potential. Hence, my support, and help and etc.

The proposal is an R15, a wonderful mechanism, IMO for folks at primarily UG institutions,  the determination of which is based on total Institutional funding. R15's however, are limited to a total of 300K and 3 years. You can go non-modular, by asking for only 2 years  per year, or one really big year and 1-2 very small ones. But, if your costs are fairly consistent, and consist of sufficient salary for a term off, or enough course reduction to have time to do the work, money for ug's to do research and the actual costs of doing research, there really isn't room for much else, let alone 10-20% of a consultant (med school prof) salary.

Now, to make things more complicated, TP is up for tenure this year (I know TP from meetings). TP is good, published, and I think tenure is a no-brainer. But of course, we all know no-brainers that don't go the way we thought they would. I don't think this proposal would happen in time to make a difference for that decision. But again, we all know problems that started at "we didn't think...".


I let this post sit for a bit, and now am trying to be more generous. I am hoping TP just thought it was an R01 and there would be plenty of money and space. I am hoping that this all is a misunderstanding on everyone's part. It's hard to ask for something, no matter who you are. Maybe that is my problem: that I want to think everyone is a good guy and no one is out to screw anyone else. And you know, that's not such a bad attitude to have.

[Note: there are some gender and URM issues here. But I wanted to stick to the main issue about funding and support and asking to be on someone else's grant. It gets even more complicated when you consider those things. I struggle with these things when they are real. In theory, I have no problems. Its just real life that's such a pain in the ass].

7 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    I've never asked to be on a grant for $, and I've never been asked by someone to put them on my grant for $. This decision is 100% up to the PI on the proposal - they're the person who asks "would you like % effort?" If someone I was pursuing as a consultant asked for $, I'd find a new consultant.

    The other issue buried in all this is the mind-numbing bullshit that comes with sub-contracts. They are an absolute nightmare to administer. There are constant problems with invoicing, with indirects, etc. And RPPR on a grant with a subcontract is just a whole new level of inferno. I keep swearing I'll never do another grant with a subcontract, but then they just keep coming along.

    If there's no workaround, the solution here may be for FS to price up the sub-con including fringe and indirects, and go back to TP with the real numbers, to shock them into accepting less. Just spit-balling the numbers here... Assoc-Prof @ MRU say $120k, with a 30% fringe, and 50% indirects, so 10% effort comes in at $23,400 - almost 1/4 of the annual budget. FS just needs to say "you're good, but not 1/4 of my whole budget good". If TP is a decent sort, they'll back down.

    • potnia theron says:

      You are quite generous about the solution. I advised FS to just say: sorry, no room for a sub. Are you ok with just being a consultant this time around?

  • Kate says:

    How much of this person's time are you asking for consulting? If they are pre-tenure, perhaps they can't afford to do things for free at the expense of other things?

    • potnia theron says:

      This is why it is tricky. TP's tenure documents are in; this project will not impact the decision one way or another. But, people at this stage are often (justifiably) anxious and nervous. Or maybe even just unsettled. To my thinking, its not a lot of time. A one-day visit from FS to TP's lab. A one-day visit to FS (and me), with giving a talk (always a good thing for junior/or even newly tenured people) here. The chance for some co-authorships exists too. It's not clear how TP is perceiving this. But its also not really my role to be sorting out things between TP & FS.

  • clueless noob says:

    At my uni (R1), the research office has a policy forbidding unpaid effort on proposals -- they call it "voluntary uncommitted cost sharing". If you're on the proposal (other than as a mentor on a K or director of a T), you're paid. You can't get around this by volunteering as an unpaid consultant, although this seems impossible to police. (The faculty handbook does explicitly allow paid consulting.) They also set a threshold for the minimum FTE that constitutes measurable effort. To put the most generous possible spin on things, it may be that TP used some similar minimum institutional guidelines, or is clueless about budgeting, or overestimated what their role would be.

    • potnia theron says:

      So does every uni I have ever been at, and that goes back a long time. Yet, there are ways around it, cases that can be made, exceptions that will be granted. Part of grantsmanship, even professionalism, is knowing what those are, and when you are asking for something perceived by the grantors of such exceptions as being ridiculous. This may or may not be TP's problem. We await updates.

  • Sam says:

    Ugh, why are people just awful? A close collaborator of mine, newly minted asst. prof, asked a full professor to come on as a co-I/consultant as part of her proposal was on the edge of her expertise and that was recommended to her by Learned Elders. She thought 5% effort looked reasonable, maybe even generous. After months of not providing feedback on her submission (for the stuff he was supposed to be onthe grant for), she finally heard from him - he told her to put him on for 10% because "it looks better to [his] chair." Keep in mind, this is a full prof at a med school that makes over the NIH cap. So there's a whole module. It just kept going from there.

    I'm super appreciative of the mentorship I received from people that have been where I want to go, but I feel like I got lucky in that regard, science sure does have its share of exploitive jerks.

Leave a Reply