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

 
 

A Houston expert shares how to improve on communication in the health care setting. Image via Getty Images

After spending hours with healthcare professionals as both a consultant and patient, I know that it takes a special kind of person to take care of others in their most distressing and vulnerable times. That responsibility has been in overdrive because of COVID, causing emotional burnout, which in turn affects patient care. By equipping yourself with emotional intelligence, you can be more resilient for yourself and patients.

Emotional intelligence is keeping your intelligence high, when emotions are high.

Health care sets up an environment for a tornado of emotions, and the rules and regulations centered around patient-provider interactions are often complex to navigate. This leaves many on the brink of emotional exhaustion, and for survival’s sake, depersonalization with patients becomes the status quo. Feeling a disconnect with their patients is another added weight, as few get into this industry for just the paycheck – it’s the impact of helping people get healthy and stay healthy that motivates them. I’ve seen it time and time again with people in my life, as well as on my own patient journey as I battled stage 3 cancer.

Before the pandemic, reducing job burnout among healthcare workers became a standard policy. Now, it’s more than a policy, it’s top priority with staff shortages growing in healthcare. A February 2022 survey conducted by USA Today and Ipsos of more than 1,100 health care workers found nearly a quarter of respondents said they were likely to leave the field in the near future.

It’s time to maximize your health by embracing emotional intelligence with these three tips, which will also enhance your communications with peers and patients.

​Recognize your emotions.

Pushing away emotions takes more energy than acknowledging them because rarely do you have to push them back just one time, it is a constant tug-of-war. When you don’t process your emotions, they can show up as physical pain. Recognize your emotions beyond the narrow definitions of sad, angry or happy — use as many adjectives as you can think of, get descriptive, look up synonyms. Write them down. Share with your therapist. Acknowledge it when you work out. Talk it out into a notes page on your phone. Once you recognize, you can acknowledge, process, and address.

Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses.

Your colleagues can be a catalyst. When you’re overworked, your endurance changes, and it’s important to share that with your team, because they are feeling the same — and in these situations you can lean on each other. Verbalizing that you need help and asking others how they can be supported cultivates trust. This dynamic between colleagues allows your team to be more adaptable, which leads to improved culture. Your patients will feel this shift, as they will be more at ease and more likely to listen to your instructions and advice

Don’t assume, ask. 

Assumptions lead to destruction. You can’t read minds – especially when you exist in a diverse city with an array of cultures that approach life and work responsibilities in various ways. If you need to take a day off, ask. If your patient is looking confused, slow down and ask what’s going on. If you’re starting to overcompensate because you notice a colleague struggling, ask them how you can help. If you need more resources at work, but think you shouldn’t ask because of budget cuts, ask anyway. Assumptions are rarely correct, and it leaves just one person carrying all the weight —YOU. Do yourself a favor, open up the dialogue.


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Sahar Paz is the CEO of Own Your Voice Strategy Firm and a Harvard-certified emotional intelligence expert with a mission to transform the patient-provider experience.

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