Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 23 - March 13, 1997
The rules for faculty members have changed and continue to change. There is a new spirit of "budget-checking" called accountability. Once accountability meant achieving project objectives for the lowest-possible dollar expenditure. Now it tends to mean sticking to the budget estimate made one to four years ago.
I teach. I am becoming a teacher. I am also becoming an ecologist. I try to practice what I preach so I have encouraged student research teams, strong interaction, diversity, shared function, improving systems, stability over long periods, and synergism. All of these have been part of my work here for 30 years. The efficient staff of the Sponsored Programs office has been concerned about this work occasionally because it sounds like "co-mingling of funds."
As an example of a potential problem area: programmer "a" paid by project-A funds, sits next to programmer "b" paid by project-B funds. Programmer a helps b. The next day b helps a. They work together; they are a small team. They learn; they develop ecological models; clients A and B are satisfied, probably to a greater extent than if the projects were conducted independently. Seems reasonable? Perhaps this example is trivial but I suggest that faculty members should immediately start (if they do not already have one) a documentation of these relations.
Budget checking (not old-school accountability, mind you) will get worse soon; it seems expedient and a reasonable strategy for faculty members to get ready for it. In the above case, if clients of project B objected to the objectives or likely outcome of project A, they may object to their programmer, b, helping in any way the programmer on project A. Unlikely? Perhaps, because agencies change; project administrators change; the politics behind "good" well-funded projects are unstable.
The rules are changing. "My job is to do research!" Part of doing research is now, more than ever, keeping up with the rules. The "paper trail" is essential (e-mail won't work well in a legal transaction or "hearing").
I would once go to a conference and present two papers on separate projects. I would charge expenses to one project, planning to change another highly-likely-equivalent trip expenses to the other project in a few months. I may have assumed that one project was more important and there were travel funds budgeted so no travel costs were borne by the second project reported at the conference. I figured I saved my tax-payer-paid time, secretarial time, accounting time, and computer time. I was trying desperately to save personal time (my most limited and highest-tax-value resource). I will not do that now.
I am saddened by the changes. These changes have been caused by there already being too many breeches of confidence, too many peculiar interpretations of appropriate use of funds, too many clearly illegal transactions, too many shortfalls, too many moves or reductions-in-force without there having history of been left past transactions or balances.
Once I was in the Corps of Cadets. We would announce a GTD, a "general tightening down" of cadet discipline. That's what is now happening in our society. There will be gross inefficiencies and horror stories about the pain caused, but for the time being (say at least 10 years) I'd recommend faculty members keep a brief daily journal; get clear lines of budgetary request approvals; hold carefully kept copies of dated and signed materials; and get signed memoranda addressing situations as simple as funded programmers helping programmers (or graduate students working in the same area or lab).
Clients and taxpayers have every right and good reasons to be concerned about proper expenditure of times of funds in any state university. Over-zealous concern or over-zealous response to concerns can result in inspections, audits, and records management costing many times more than any errors or inappropriate transactions ever found. Clear lines of authority, renewed emphasis on trust and loyalty, strategic sampling for audits, and fines for discrepancies (not merely editorial change) can allow rapid realignment of activity and let faculty members get on with productive scholarship.
Robert Giles, fisheries and wildlife science