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 byMiguel 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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Building Houston

 
 

SurgWise is giving surgical teams the right support for hiring. Photo via Getty Images

A surgeon spends over a decade in school and residency perfecting their medical skills, but that education doesn't usually include human resources training. Yet, when it comes to placing candidates into surgical programs, the hiring responsibilities fell on the shoulders of surgeons.

Aimee Gardner, who has her PhD in organized psychology, saw this inefficiency first hand.

"I worked in a large surgery department in Dallas right out of graduate school and quickly learned how folks are selected into residency and fellowship programs and all the time that goes into it — time spent by physicians reviewing piles and piles of like paper applications and spending lots and lots and of hours interviewing like hundreds of candidates," Gardner tells InnovationMap. "I was just really shocked by the inefficiencies from just a business and workforce perspective."

And things have only gotten worse. There are more applicants hitting the scene every year and they are applying to more hospitals and programs. Future surgeons used to apply for 20 or so programs — now it’s more like 65 on average. According to her research, Gardner says reviewing these applications cost lots of time and money, specifically $100,000 to fill five spots annually just up to the interviewing phase of the process.

Five years ago, Gardner came up with a solution to this “application fever,” as she describes, and all the inefficiencies, and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgWise. Photo via surgwise.com

These are the non-technical skills, like the professionalism, interpersonal skills, and communication. While SurgWise began as a service-oriented consulting company, the company is now ready to tap technology to expand upon its solution. The work started out of Houston Methodist, and SurgWise is still working with surgery teams there. She says they've accumulated tons of data that can be leveraged and streamlined.

"We're now pivoting from a very intimate client approach to a more scalable offering. Every year we assess essentially around 80 percent of all the people applying to be future surgeons — those in pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, and more,” Gardner says. “We’ve used kind of the last five years of data and experiences to create a more scalable, easy-to-integrate, and off-the-shelf solution.”

Gardner says her solution is critical for providing more equity in the hiring process.

“One of our goals was to create more equitable opportunities and platforms to assess folks because many of the traditional tools and processes that most people use in this space have lots of opportunity for bias and a high potential for disadvantaging individuals from underrepresented groups," she says. "For example, letters of recommendation are often a very insider status. If you went to some Ivy League or your parents were in health care and they know someone, you have that step up from a networking and socioeconomic status standpoint."

Personal statements and test scores are also inequitable, because they tend to be better submissions if people have money for coaching.

SurgWise hopes to lower the number of programs future surgeons apply to too to further streamline the process. She hopes to do this through an app and web tool that can matchmake people to the right program.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a platform for applicants to obtain a lot more information about the various places to which they apply to empower them to make more informed decisions, so that they don't have to apply to a hundred places," Gardner says. "We want to essentially create a match-style app that allows them to input some data and tell us 'here's what I'm looking for here are my career goals and any preferences I have.'”

While that tool is down the road, Gardner says SurgWise is full speed ahead toward launching the data-driven hiring platform. The bootstrapped company hopes to raise early venture funding this summer in order to hire and grow its team.

“As we continue to consider this app that I talked about and some of the other opportunities to scale to other specialties we're gonna start looking for a series A funding later this summer.”

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