Policy affects research grants

A recent change by administration to increase financial security around research grants may affect the process faculty go through to attain the funding.

As of August, two different policy changes placed around research grant funding at SIU alter both the way the funds are administered and the cost for graduate students who work as assistants in research. The changes, Chancellor Rita Cheng said, were made to increase internal control and fiscal authority over the money.

Cheng said administrators and college deans will monitor research grant spending to ensure the funds are not overspent.

“We had so many different people on the campus spending money without having co-signatures on it,” she said. “It wasn’t good practice.”

Cheng said faculty members’ grant spending went directly to the university accounting office, which was responsible for monitoring the grants and making sure researchers would spend within grant means.

“A lot of mistakes were made, and it was just a way over-the-top burden for our accounting department,” she said. “All institutions have a responsibility at the dean level to ensure that the faculty within their colleges who have grants don’t overspend the grants, because clearly if there’s overspending, somebody has to pay.”

Cheng said some faculty may think the fiscal accountability change limits what researchers can do in their roles as principal investigators of grants because it limits their ability to go out and make necessary purchases. She said the new process is only intended to ensure those purchases are made within the grants’ costs.

“I think it’s a change that some people misinterpreted,” she said.

Previously, grants were primarily administered through individual departments and faculty researchers.

Written into research grants are also indirect costs, which include additional money for the university to cover other costs such as support for other department faculty who need help with equipment or startup costs for other faculty to  seek grants, according to Randy Hughes, an associate professor in mathematics.

“A lot of that money was swept up by the central administration, so they’re no longer in control by the departments,” he said.

Hughes said if a faculty member receives a grant through an agency such as the National Science Foundation, he or she applies for the grant and hires researchers such as graduate students. The faculty member would be that grant’s fiscal officer, he said, although the contract would be between SIU and the National Science Foundation.

“Ultimately, the accounting at the university is supposed to make sure the money is used for those purposes,” he said. “But the person who proposed it in the past, they would be the one who decided how they wanted to spend it.”

Hughes said the change in fiscal responsibility could affect research efforts.

“So that means that there is one more hurdle now,” he said.

 

Tuition and Grants

Another change recently made to the research grant process came after the chancellor formed a committee last year to study what universities are doing to help fund graduate student education, Cheng said. An SIU research graduate assistant’s stipend, or paycheck, was charged to grants, but SIU paid the tuition, she said.

The committee found that some universities require a federal grant’s tuition and stipend to help them fund graduate education.

“So that’s the new policy, and I think that some faculty are concerned about it or just becoming aware of it,” Cheng said.

The new policy requires any grants applied for after Aug. 16 that request more than $50,000 must include the anticipated tuition charge of graduate assistants, according to the SIU website.

“Specifically, the policy aims to increase graduate enrollment by increasing the number of supported graduate students in the departments and the university in general … and to enhance graduate research opportunities,” the policy states.

The policy also states the change will lead to increased total research support by saving any potential lost revenue from the university paying tuition costs.

“It’s pretty new, and I think that it’s something that needs to be implemented and tested before people are concerned,” Cheng said.

For Punit Kohli, an associate professor in chemisty and biochemistry, research funding is key to his work at the university. He said he has graduate assistants primarily assist him with research. When he applies for a research grant, Kohli said, he must tell the grant agency how many students will assist him with research. Thus, he must write the estimated funding cost into the grant to pay for the graduate assistants if the grant’s cost is $100,000.

Kohli said $40,000 of a hypothetical $100,000 one-year grant might go toward student costs, depending on the amount of time spent researching and the number of assistants who conduct the research.

The first thing a grant review panel looks for on a grant proposal is how many students will benefit through the grant by participating and conducting research, Kohli said.

Criteria called “broader impact” is what grant agencies often look at to increase graduate students that work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, he said.

But the changes regarding tuition may affect how many students a researcher can afford to employ with a grant, which could affect the grant agency’s review of grant proposals.

An example of the cost changes with research grants is the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition costs. An in-state graduate taking nine credit hours may cost about $7,500 in tuition, which would be taken out of the grant funding. It may cost about $18,000 for an out-of-state graduate with the same amount of credit hours.

“I used to get, for example, two graduate students on one standard NSF grant around $100,000 per year,” he said. “Now I can probably only get one.”

Kohli said one aspect he appreciates about the changes is that the research faculty receives 25 percent of the remaining cost from the grant after tuition is deducted. The department through which the faculty member works receives 50 percent of that remaining cost.

He said the university would also receive 4.5 percent of the funding from that grant for indirect cost.

As principal investigators of grants, Kohli said, there may be some faculty who want to put all of the in-state students on research because of the costs.

“What’s going to happen is differential treatment,” he said.

However, a grant agency may look at a competing university’s proposal and award the grant because it is able to afford more research with lower tuition costs, Kohli said.

“Some people might argue that they do not want to give the graduate students stipends,” he said. “But you know what? All the programs in the U.S., if you want to attract good students, you need to give them stipends.”

Kohli said SIU may not attract as many international and out-of-state graduate students because the in-state tuition fee is so much less than the out-of-state tuition.

“We can lose out on talent,” he said.

Kohli said he is also concerned the change could affect what research faculty the university can attract because, while a part of the costs go back to the researcher and the department, there may be less funding that goes to the project.

“Ultimately, what’s going to happen is the number of students who are able to research is going to reduce,” he said.

Although grant funding process changes have gone into effect only recently enough that Kohli has yet to encounter problems with his grant proposals, he said he has these concerns because he wants his students to get the most experience possible through research. He also said he wants his undergraduate students to benefit from having teacher’s assistants who want to be in the classroom and are not there because they could not partake in research.

“I am here to educate my students,” he said. “I love my students; I want them to become better than I am.”

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