Houston voices

Houston expert shares advice for navigating confusing costs for researchers

Researchers focused on finding breakthrough technologies also have to deal with some financial red tape — but this UH expert shares why it shouldn't be so daunting. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Facilities and Administrative costs (F&A), also known as Indirect Costs or IDC, are at the very least misunderstood by researchers. At their worst, they smack of "Big Brother." But F&A costs truly are transparent and nothing to fear (or despise!)

Keeping the lights on

F&A are costs that cannot be uniquely associated with a particular project, but which are nonetheless incurred by the university due to the project.

"If a Principal Investigator (PI) is using on-campus lab space, there is no easy way to determine what the electricity costs or maintenance costs are for the PI's work in the lab on any particular sponsored project," states University of Berkeley's website. "The same problem exists when a piece of equipment is shared by a number of PIs or projects; there is no way to determine the cost attributable to each PI or project."

Unfunded costs

So, we know it isn't easy to calculate how much utilities or janitorial staff cost a university during a sponsored project. But the question persists: do universities "make money" on sponsored research projects?

"No," says Cris Milligan, assistant vice president for research administration at the University of Houston. "Sponsors do not cover the full costs of conducting the research that they support. The unfunded costs are subsidized through university, college, department and faculty contributions."

Where has all the money gone?

F&A costs are a relatively small percentage of the actual costs that a university spends on any given project: for instance, operations and maintenance typically includes the day-to-day activities necessary for the building and its systems and equipment to perform their intended function.

Other monies go toward departmental, sponsored program and general administration costs. Rent needs to be paid on buildings where the research takes place, equipment must be purchased and libraries are maintained.

What goes in, must come out!

Grants can be funded by federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Other support from companies, foundations and state and local agencies can be pursued by development officers within the colleges.

Recovered F&A costs totaled over $22 million at the University of Houston in 2019. Salaries and benefits, maintenance and operations, travel and business expenses, scholarships and fellowships and lastly capital outlay and contracting of services all take up their fair share of the pie.

"Of course, to be successful in research, PIs need a whole ecosystem of supporting teams, from grant administrators to student services, operations and maintenance to IT. That is what indirect spend is: it relates to every purchase not directly related to the performance of the sponsored research," says Milligan.

Determining Rates

The aim of most every university is full recovery of costs associated with sponsored projects. For instance, the University of Michigan Office of Research states, "Periodically, the Department of Health and Human Services (acting on behalf of the federal government) and the University negotiate an agreement setting forth indirect cost rates for three types of sponsored activities: organized research, instruction and other sponsored activities."

The agreement specifies the rates at which the University can recover its indirect costs associated with projects sponsored by all agencies of the federal government.

Non-federal sponsors (i.e., private sponsors, whether industry or non-profit) are not bound by the terms of OMB Uniform Guidance. These monitored costs are not necessarily guided by the principle of full cost recovery for universities. Your friendly development officer will come in handy when applying for this kind of support; just be clear that the percentage of F&A may be determined on a slightly different scale.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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