Federal granting agencies give extra money with each grant funded for so-called “facilities and administration” – is that money ever used for the intended purpose?

Today I got an email from the faculty member who leads the charge for equipment issues on my floor of a 30 year old antiquated building.

The email said that the department had decided to stop paying for shared printers, because they can no longer charge them directly to our NIH grants.

Yeah. Ok. Um….

So now I’m scratching my head, along with several other faculty, wondering, “exactly how am I supposed to pay for printing in an NIH-compliant fashion?”

I can’t technically pay for it directly from grants – not if I need to print something not directly related to that research program.  I suppose I could buy 3 different printers – one for each grant.  But then when it comes to print out a class syllabus???  Sorry, out of luck.  (The astute reader might point out that I could just do it anyway, and that astute person would be right, I could do it, if I wanted to accept being forced to violate NIH rules).

What, exactly, is the “Facilities and administration” fee that my university charges going for?  It charges 48% from any grant.  This is supposed to cover space (I have about half the space that my peers with similar sized labs do), equipment (but apparently not printers, centrifuges, or anything of the like), administration (my lab is so big that we regularly overwhelm the capabilities of my department’s staff – but the department won’t pay for extra help for me), and etc.  I guess it all goes into “etc.” (whatever that is).

This year my grants will bring in several hundreds of thousands of that “F&A” money.  I once calculated that I’m receiving about $30k worth of space (calculated at the regional rate of $25/sq ft), $40k worth of administration (being generous to account for portions of several salaries in our main office), and maybe some miscellany worth $20k (like hosting our cluster and paying for electricity).

At best – given this very generous calculation – I’m getting about 30% of the F&A in terms of actual F&A.  The rest is for ???  Come on UNC, you could pay a measly few hundred (or even few thousand) for printer maintenance out of this bonanza of grants!

I don’t understand why the NIH doesn’t crack down on this kind of “redirection” (to put it kindly) of F&A money.  I don’t understand why more faculty don’t question this, when they get emails like the one I just got telling them they will have to pay for this out of their own pockets.

If anyone wonders why I’ve gone off and started a for-pay class to teach scientists to be world class grant writers, it’s because I’m going to need the money to support my family when I just can’t stand the hypocrisy anymore within my institution, and decide to resign.

Addendum: I was contacted early this morning by someone in my department with a clarification that, in fact, I do have free access to a shared color printer in my department that can be used for things like class syllabi, and therefore, I am not actually going to have to violate NIH rules.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that printing on that  printer is expensive for things that don’t need color printing.  And the central point of this post remains: what is happening to all those F&A receipts?

    2 replies to "When facilities and administration means neither"

    • Daniel

      I completely agree. I’m at a DOE lab and it’s the same story. Some time ago one of the big managers made a big point about how unethical it was to use the printers (free or not) for private use, like printing pictures of your family (which of course, is true). The same day I was invited to sit on a review committee that would require about four weeks of time from each of us(!)I asked how we would pay for this. (You have to understand that all scientists are on “soft” [grant] money all the time.) The answer came back that we were supposed to charge our grants. (Only managers get hard salary money; the higher the manager, more hard salary s/he gets.) Lecture employees about the ethics of a few dollars of printing, then instruct them to bilk a funding agency (whoever it would happen to be) for thousands….

    • Brian Risk

      I suggest you incorporate a printer as a legal entity. Individual printing agreements can then be drawn up between the printer an each grant. Non-grant-related print jobs could fall under a “pro bono” clause in the printer’s incorporation charter.

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