Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

Home Back Issues No 24: Grant Clinic: Stab in the back? Co-investigator now wants greater % of effort than agreed

Apr 05

No 24: Grant Clinic: Stab in the back? Co-investigator now wants greater % of effort than agreed

Posted by: PIA in

Tagged in: Untagged 

Sign Up to receive free weekly articles like these

Grant Clinic:

Stab in the back?
Co-investigator now wants greater % of effort than agreed

Reader Question: I plan to apply for an R21 exploratory grant with a two-year budget of $100,000. A co-investigator I expected to include at 5% effort now tells me the 5% is insufficient for the amount of work she will do. How can I resolve this amicably, so that the helper either is happy with 5% or declines to participate so that I can choose someone else?

Expert Comments:

First, step back and try to remove anger from the equation. Bringing anger into it rarely will resolve this kind of problem. It is important to realize that her request can be boiled down to a conflict between her perceived needs and your own perceived needs. Sometimes such conflicts can readily be resolved, and sometimes they can’t.

When you asked your colleague to join your proposal at 5% effort, are you sure she was aware exactly what and how much effort and output you expected from her? Typically a 5% role is small (e.g., simply acting as a consultant). In order to expect a real role with significant inputs of time and effort, one usually puts the collaborator on for 10% effort or more. If you expect a significant contribution from her, that may be why she is asking for more effort.

It is easy in the rush of grant preparation to overlook the need to be crystal clear about expectations. A scenario that I’ve encountered more than once is a PI making a short phone call or e-mailing a colleague and simply asking, “Hey, do you want to be on this project? I’ll put you on for 5%,” followed by a quick description of the project. Said colleague replies, “Sure, sounds like an interesting project, and I have 5% time to spare.” While that is a common occurrence, it also commonly produces misunderstandings like this one.

At the outset, your colleague may not have carefully considered what was being asked of her. Often it is after some reflection that a collaborator fully realizes the amount of time and resources they will need to commit. Your colleague may finally have realized that she could not do all the work entailed with only 5% effort. If that is the case, it is an honest mistake that arose from a lack of adequate communication and planning by both parties. Your responsibility was to spell out exactly what you expected, and hers was to think more carefully before agreeing to it.

Differing expectations arising from lack of adequate communication often cause misunderstandings. Therefore, if you want to fix this, you should have a clear and honest discussion with her about your expectations and her reason for asking for more salary coverage. If you do that with the intention of making things work (rather than with anger), you are likely to find a mutually acceptable solution.

You may want to tell her that this project will lead to larger future projects and that, although you don’t have additional money to offer now, you intend to increase her effort on any future grant awarded.

If that doesn’t work, then you’ll need to revisit your budget. Budgets are based on projections — and projections are not as inflexible as you might think. While it may seem the budget is too tight to change, you could shorten the project by one month, resulting in a considerable savings. Then you could ask for your colleague to work on an accelerated schedule to get her results to you. Another possibility is to approach your department for supplementary funds. Or you could scale back an experiment.

While an R21 budget is tight, there is almost always a way to make things work out — if you have the will to do so.

You should ask yourself, “Do I want a long-term relationship with this collaborator?” If you put her on the grant simply to improve the chances of success, then maybe it is not quite so vital to keep her as a collaborator — though you should still try to defuse this amicably. But if you need her skills and expertise, it becomes more important to try to make the collaboration work, using one of these approaches.

Because you’re both scientists, you probably like solving problems. Therefore, think of this as a scientific challenge — to find a solution that maximizes the future benefit for both you and your collaborator. Those solutions are always the best kind.

Comments by Morgan Giddings, PhD, is an associate professor of microbiology & immunology, biomedical engineering, and computer science at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. She also advises young scientists on maximizing their career, along with providing a free report on five tips to a successful science career on her blog at http://morganonscience.com.

Enjoy this article? Sign Up to receive these free every week

Do lab animal regulations and compliance issues concern you? You should see our NEW sister e-newsletter, Lab Animal e-Alert, which is devoted exclusively to providing Principal Investigators WEEKLY alerts on the welfare and regulatory compliance issues pertaining to laboratory animal research. It is distributed worldwide, without charge, to hundreds of thousands of Principal Investigators whose research involves animals. Just register your email to get your issues flowing.

Comments (15)
written by anon, April 13, 2010
As a long time grant reviewer I agree that 5% effort is just a consultant. Anyone that is listed as doing experiments but is only getting 5% can sometimes raise a red flag. If want a few experiments done, 10-15% is more reasonable. If you want a chunk of the studies done by that collaborator 25% is about right. Any less makes it seem to the reviewers that you have that collaborator on as "the expert" to make you look better but that you won't really get any help from them. Hope this helps
written by anonymous, April 13, 2010
With 5%, the most work you can expect is either 2 1/2 weeks concentrated effort or alternatively about 2 hours per week. Unless the co-investigator is highly invested in the project and it advances their own research program, a higher % time is likely needed to get that person to invest more time than that. The PI could ask the co-investigator to only put in the time agreed to, and if that isn't enough to complete the work envisioned for him/her, the PI or a research assistant will do the remainder. Given that R21 limits are substantially higher than $100,000, and the question is stated as if it is a proposal still at the planning stage, I am confused as to why the PI wouldn't just add another $25,000 module to the proposal to allow a greater time commitment, if that is what the Co-Investigator would need to complete his/her portion of the work.
written by adriana, April 13, 2010
I disagree with anon. I have been reviewing grants for over 10 years and I do not recall ever hearing a red flag raised over the percent effort of a collaborator because the effort was too small. Usually it is the other way around. As the PI of the grant I usually put myself on for 20 to 25% so a collaborator at that level is rarely justified. I am on a lot of grants as a collaborator for 5% or even less. I am also a consultant on a lot of grants at 0 effort. Consulting is hardly an effort. I have had statisticians try to get on my grants for 10% each year for analyzing one set of data in one year of the grant! I would prefer to pay this sort of thing on a fee for use basis but they have to cover their salaries somehow. You haven't even written the grant yet so you have no obligation to put that person on it if you don't want to.
written by Gazzelle, April 13, 2010
I agree with adriana - I've been reviewing grants and serving on panels (mostly NSF) for 18 years and have never seen % effort raise any red flags. I think that may be because the interpretation of "% effort" is interpreted in a wide variety of ways. Since my co-PIs and I all teach (and receive academic-year salaries from our faculty lines), our listed effort comprises some percentage of the summer months and is tied to our summer funding (up to 2 months, but often taken as 1 month or less since money has been so tight in many of NSF's programs). Our projects often include PIs from Psychology, Computer Science, and Linguistics, and since the salaries are so different across these fields, we often agree to take the same dollar amount of summer funding (resulting in different %s of effort listed) even though we plan to put in equal effort in our collaboration.
written by Eye, April 13, 2010
One other possibility to consider is that your collaborator is in financial difficulty of some kind. Is she on soft money and dependent on grant support for salary? If so, the situation may have changed since the original discussion and additional salary support (if justified) may be critical for maintaining salary, benefits, etc.
written by duje, April 13, 2010
How does one calculate what 5% or 10% effort is? Is the calculation based on an academic year or a 40 hour week?
written by anon 2, April 13, 2010
I agree with the first "anon." If the author is using the co-investigator's resume as an expert to build up the proposal, then the co-investigator is sharing responsibility for the results, and 5% is insufficient. Several consultants consider 40 hours as the bare minimum for including their name in a proposal - they will accept smaller jobs, but not ones that use their reputation to win the grant. If the collaborator is providing a job-shop service rather than really being a collaborator, then the task and its cost should be carefully defined.
written by jane, April 13, 2010
Perhaps a review of ALL expected time and energy commitments are in order, coupled with a formalized justification of what 5% means in each jobline allocation? I've written funded grants when my % was less than others, even though I was the PI, because of what the grant entailede and the focus on purpose or desired outcomes. No easy answer, but a great time for reflection and "truth in advertisement".
written by RKS, April 13, 2010
This problem is best solved by making a detailed list of the experiments and figuring out who is doing what. Then it's easier to come to an agreement. If the argument is only between 5% or 10% (ie. a delta of 5%), I would not bother to risk a disagreement, just agree for the higher figure and make your collaborator feel obligated to participate wholeheartedly in the study.
written by Dr Deek, April 13, 2010
Eery reviewer knows that on R-21s, the budget is so tight that the % effort usually has nothing to do with the % of effort the indiidual is actually going to devote to the project, Often, an individual listed at 5% is so only to get his or her name into the budget, as this is (or was) the lowest % allowed by some institutes. In the instant case, it appears that the five &#xte;r must have lost a grant and needs to make up the funds. The investigator is thus wisely and ethically informing collaborators to up the ante or delete the proposed participation. It also seems that the 5 &#xte;r is a well recognized scientist whose collaboration is sought by many at this applicant institution. If that is in fact the case, I would encourage the R-21 applicant to do everything that can be done to accomidate the participation of this individual since the participation of this individual seems to be key to the success of this application. ---- Denis English, Ph.D.
written by Vanderbot, April 13, 2010
From perspective of regular member of NIH study section, I agree that it would be rare indeed for concerns to be raised about a co-investigator or collaborator 'only' devoting 5% effort, especially on an R21. The bigger issue is a fundamental (and largely unresolved) problem raised by the collision of historical practices regarding '% effort' (and inattention to the issue), ambiguities created by the DHHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and varying interpretations of how things should be done, and an approximation of 'the rules'. The proposed % effort (now "calendar months of effort") OUGHT to represent a realistic and good-faith appraisal of the total hours of job-based, professional time that is spent working on the project in question divided by the total hours of job-related professional time (per month, per year, whatever). What is put in the proposal should, in principle, only be a starting point. Regardless what went in on the application, if the PI were to expect the co-investigator to spend more (or less) time than originally anticipated in order to achieve project goals, then adjustments in the % effort ought to be made even AFTER an award was made. [If the co-investigator works on average 60 hr per week on the job - net of time in external consultancies, etc, etc - and is simply providing guidance to experiments, meetings to help interpret results, and whatnot, they might only work 3 hr per week on average, ergo 5%.]
written by NH, April 14, 2010
R-21 is usually issued only when the reviewer are fully satisfied that they get more for their buck nay way! The PI has to suppliment R-21 these dyas that is the norm lsat few year or say a decade! PI must anticipate this and talk up front with colaborators about this and sell programs only if colaborator is aware of such situations. Supplimenting R-21 is art and few institutions are aware of the non sence of the selfish reviewers, and arm their PI ways to suppliment R-21. You need also a good busness development professional advising you!
written by Mack the Knife, April 14, 2010
Get your noses out of "percentages" and the other lint PIs love to play with.. You're overlooking the real problem! It not the percent presented. It's that your "friend" agreed to help you under one set of terms, and now he/she wants to pull a switcheroo and is demanding more money (i.e. effort). PIs not "as good as their word" have no place in a lab. Suggest boot this guy out of your circle of friends, and never again ask him to do anythng collaboratively. You've got to show such people their ransom shtick won't be tolerated.
written by Dr P, April 14, 2010
Denis English, would you please communicate that to the study section that reviewed my last R21? ;) I agree, though. The budget on these apps is so restricted that it's hard to judge from percent effort. And Mack, you're jumping to conclusions. The description didn't say the Co-I has agreed to 5% -- just that s/he agreed to collaborate. I've been there--agree to work on a project only to discover that your role is viewed as peripheral. In fact, I've asked collaborators to take me OFF budgets because the percent effort was so low that I didn't think it was either believable or worth my investment of energy. One last question, though: Why an R21 with 2-year limit of $100k? The standard is $275k over 2 years. Was this a special RFA?
respond this topic
written by ArmstrongShelia24, July 13, 2011
Houses and cars are not cheap and not everybody is able to buy it. But, loans are invented to help people in such cases.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters