Archive for: February, 2016

Let's stop blaming the alcohol

Feb 10 2016 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As more and more cases of academic sexual harassment continue to come out into the light (and I believe this is barely the appetizer course), there's a lot of people navel gazing about what can be done. And rightfully so - this is a problem that has festered WAY too long, as the stories make clear. Pretty much every field has AT LEAST one dude who "people know" is a lecherous asshole, but there he/they is/are at every meeting. They still have labs and trainees and still get funding. They exist within the field, in spite of their crimes.

An obvious focus has been the use of alcohol at university functions, society meetings, social gatherings, etc. I get it, it's those nighttime functions where a lot of this stuff is initiated. Lower inhibitions, or in some likely criminal situations like the Richmond accusations, an inability to consent. Those in the power position of these situations are quick to blame the alcohol for something they would never do otherwise (until the rest of the stories spill out) or use it to victim blame. So, The People Say: BAN THE ALCOHOL!

But here's the thing. It was never the alcohol. The alcohol didn't let the lecherous predator out from the normally totally cool prof dude who is universally beloved. That's not how this works. If someone has a couple of drinks and goes into sexual harassment mode, chances are they do it sober, just not in front of *you*. If someone is a couple drinks away from endangering someone, especially someone they have some form of power over, it has nothing to do with the alcohol.

So rather than ban alcohol, I have a better solution. How about we actually punish people when these situations arise? And don't give me all the "well but" hypothetical solutions that come up all the time. I'm sorry, but if you find yourself aroused by someone you have career power over, then deal with the situation through proper channels while sober before advancing things. If you want to consensually knock boots someone at a similar career stage without a loaded power dynamic, I'm not talking about you. Will there be some gray areas? Yeah, but I'll take that if it means consequences for serial harassers.

It's well past time to address the culture that enables this behavior without pretending like the real problem here is adults acting like adults after a beer or two. It was never the alcohol.

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What IS indirect cost money, anyway?

Feb 09 2016 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Based on discussions on twitter, it seems pretty clear that a lot of Non-PI scientists don't really understand the concept of indirect costs, aka overhead. Most people know that a university's overhead rate is what they take from federal grant dollars to "keep the lights on", so to speak. But how is it calculated and how is it spent?

The indirect rate is something each university negotiates with the federal government. So, when someone tells you their overhead rate is 51%, that the number their university has worked out with the feds. The rates for NSF, DoD and NIH are always the same, USDA and (I think) NASA are lower. That's a discussion for another time. Now, a rate of 51% does not mean half your grant goes into the dark cauldron of university expenses. Overhead is calculated by taking the total of adjusted* direct costs and finding the 51% of that number and adding it to the total direct costs.

So, if your adjusted direct costs are $100k, the overhead on that will be $51k. If, once you add tuition and equipment in, your total direct costs are $120K, the total budget will be $171k. In this hypothetical case, the overhead amount on the grant is only about 30% of the total budget. NIH applicants only ever deal with their direct costs in a budget (ie, NIH budget limitations, inasmuch as the exist, are on direct costs only, not total budget), but everyone else calculates the total budget.

Ok, so now that we have calculated overhead and you were awarded the grant, what happens to all that money? Well, it doesn't get freed up into the coffers until you spend money off your grant. For every dollar you spend, fifty-one cents of overhead money gets it's wings. As you spend, the university gets cash.

Most of that cash will find it's way directly into the university-level machine. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-80% will get gobbled up right away, with the rest landing next in your college. Your college will take a giant bite out of that (usually at least 50%), before your department gets to swing the bat. Different departments do it differently, and I've seen situations where the department takes everything that remains, whereas others return all of the overhead back to the investigator. Usually the solution is somewhere in between, so let's say that 50% goes to the department and 50% goes to the PI.

The PI is allowed to use that money to do things like cover shipping, buy software and journal subscriptions, bring in people for interviews for lab positions, cover salary, etc. In many places, this is a very useful, if small, pot of money to have available. However, overhead generated on a particular project should, by law, be expended entirely by the end of that project. In practice, this is almost impossible, but stockpiling overhead money to CYA later is heavily frowned upon.

What the university and college do with the overhead money varies, but much of it is related to supporting costs of the research enterprise (think, compliance, university vet, grants staff, etc.). Additionally, those monies are often used as part of start-up packages for new hires, meaning a lean year for indirects directly effects the hiring and recruitment process.

* Some things like equipment and tuition are non-overhead bearing budget lines, so they are subtracted from the total.

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