Non Transparent

Jul 05 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

A reader wrote with an interesting question about asking department heads (and deans) for matching funds. How are decisions about matching funds made? In this case, the reader asked for a rather modest amount of matching funds for an NSF grant, and was turned down, although the same department head had given 20x as much money to someone else recently.

Even in departments and institutions that have tried to make other aspects of academic life more 'transparent' in terms of how decisions are made (e.g., hiring, tenure), the distribution of discretionary funds remains one of the more mysterious and seemingly-arbitrary processes. In many places, these decisions are made by department heads and deans, with no systematic evaluation of who gets how much money and for what purpose.

Perhaps some administrator-readers will chime in to explain the basis for their decisions on these matters, but the following are likely factors in a decision about matching fund requests:

- How much $ is requested?

- Is the requested amount realistic given budget constraints, including other recent requests for such funds by this person and others?

- Who is doing the requesting? (leading to additional factors regarding this person's productivity, other contributions to the department/institution, previous requests for matching funds)

These requests are typically rather episodic. They are tied to grant deadlines, but in a department in which faculty receive grants from many different funding agencies and programs, there may be many such deadlines, so these requests are typically made one or a few at a time throughout the year. There is no time when all the requests for a year or a term are considered against each other, such that decisions could be made using some prioritization or sharing scheme. This might contribute to the apparent arbitrariness of decisions about matching funds in some cases.

Administrators: How do you make decisions on these requests? What factors do you consider? Are you systematic or arbitrary? (according to you)

From my point of view as a requester of matching funds, I have never had a request turned down, so I can't speak from experience of what I would do in that case. Has anyone reading this ever successfully argued for a reversal of a negative decision on matching funds? If so, how did you approach it?

And has anyone who was turned down in a request for matching funds asked for (and received) an explanation that seemed reasonable?

 

12 responses so far

  • moom says:

    I asked for matching funds neccesssary to submit a proposal last year. I was turned down and so couldn't submit the proposal. This year luckily the rules were changed and I submitted a proposal withou the matching fund requirement.

  • Phen says:

    Did you ask why you were turned down?

  • SLAC prof says:

    Turning down matching funds to strengthen a proposal is extremely short sighted on the part of any administrator. You don't have to actually give out the funds until the proposal is funded at which point you often have things like indirect costs which offset the matching funds anyway on top of the equipment and training and research that comes from doing the proposed work. Once you have the grant in hand, there is definitely not as much leverage except generating good will (which is good also).

    When I first started teaching at different institution, I was turned down because the institution thought that research detracted from teaching and they didn't have matching money anyway. Note-I am not still there for a reason.

  • R1 Dean says:

    Despite SLAC prof's statement, indirects don't offset matching costs, they don't even really cover the full indirect cost of doing research. Matching funds are pure subsidy to the direct cost of doing research, and the sticker price of matching of course doesn't even include the additional indirect costs generated by that increased activity.

    That said, I have awarded lots of matching funds. The primary question must be how well aligned the project is with the institutional goals: advancing core educational programs, increasing diversity of the scientific workforce, building true centers of excellence or distinction that will attract faculty or students, buying share instrumentation that will significantly increase the capacity for research.

    What I won't do is use matching funds to buy ordinary research support, or to bribe non-profits into making grants that mostly advance their own interests. If I'm diverting student fee funds (which is what I'm essentially doing most of the time), it better be advancing our institutional interests. Simply increasing the amount of external money coming in is not a core institutional interest.

  • Asst Prof says:

    I've asked for matching funds and other forms of disc funds from both my dept and my Dean's office (lab rehab funds, student travel funds, etc) many, many times. I haven't been turned down yet, but I know that many of my colleagues have. Looking at trends, I would say the key factors are (in no real order):
    1) overall research productivity: if you bring in a lot of money, then they are willing to give you a lot of money
    2) service - if you do a lot of service, then they give you $. kind of like a bonus.
    3) your argument for needing the money, and how far in advance you ask for it. I always ask really far in advance. My colleagues who ask less than a wk in advance are always turned down.
    4) being nice to everyone - not just the faculty, but the staff too. This should be obvious, but for some reason it isn't.
    5) being timely in turning in receipts for the previous request and saying thank you. also giving credit to them for giving me money.

  • John Vidale says:

    Matching funds, so far as I can tell, tend to come from a grab bag of sources, and are only rarely distributed with a comprehensive thought process. The tendency is for the money to mainly go to those who are most ambitious, outspoken, and aware when the bank is flush.

    The funding can be a combination of left-overs from funding a department, unused start-up funds (which depend on the outcome of searches), sabbatical leave savings, or just plain money passed down from the Dean above. Perhaps there is a typical amount spent on matching per year in a department, but it would be a rough number.

    The requests come in at various times, the amount of funding on hand can fluctuate unpredictably, the size of the requests is highly variable, and the commitments are not used if the proposal does not succeed. The level of matching itself can be negotiable, even if an agency specifies a minimum level.

    Maybe the system is regularized and on a schedule somewhere, but not any place of which I'm aware.

  • John Vidale says:

    Matching funds, so far as I can tell, tend to come from a grab bag of sources, and are only rarely distributed with a comprehensive thought process. The tendency is for the money to mainly go to those who are most ambitious, outspoken, and aware when the bank is flush. Of course, it helps to have a compelling proposal of value to the broader community in the university.

    The funding can be a combination of left-overs from funding a department, unused start-up funds (which depend on the outcome of searches), sabbatical leave savings, or just plain money passed down from the Dean above. Perhaps there is a typical amount spent on matching per year in a department, but it would be a rough number.

    The requests come in at various times, the amount of funding on hand can fluctuate unpredictably, the size of the requests is highly variable, and the commitments are not used if the proposal does not succeed. The level of matching itself can be negotiable, even if an agency specifies a minimum level.

    Maybe the system is regularized and on a schedule somewhere, but not any place of which I'm aware.

  • SLAC prof says:

    I am not surprised and deeply troubled by R1 Dean's remarks. I am guessing that the training and research experiences for both your graduate and undergraduate students provided by adequately supporting the research activities is not enough of a reason to provide matching funds. Neither is the increased reputation of your institution in the local or larger community? So some research activities are more meritorious than others (feed into a center of excellence for example)? Did you make that clear to your faculty and department chairs when you were hiring?

  • Eli Rabett says:

    SLAC buddy, you may have noticed where the funds R1 was using to match came from? "If I'm diverting student fee funds (which is what I'm essentially doing most of the time), it better be advancing our institutional interests." He or she has to look at the overall picture. Offer the dean 2 for 1 on student support and you may have a case.

  • OnlyOneBrain says:

    SLAC prof has a point though. Notice what R1 Dean smuggled in, among all the rhetoric about fiscal responsibility and educational mission: "building true centers of excellence." My experience is that this means building "reputation," in a sense that is orthogonal to "quality."

    To use an example from my own field, administrators favor irresponsible, meaningless fMRI research over elegant, ground-breaking low-tech behavioral research.

    Administrators intuitions about "excellence" are a TERRIBLE way to allocate resources.

  • Research Administrator says:

    If by matching funds you mean funds that would be reported to NSF as cost-sharing, then I'm not surprised that the request was declined. NSF has a policy of not permitting cost-sharing for most of its programs. Should cost-sharing be offered, the proposal could be rejected. Typically, most universities frown on voluntary cost-sharing in any event because it reduces the university's F&A rate.

  • Curt F. says:

    OnlyOneBrain - it is unclear why anyone should defer to your experience as to what "building true centers of excellence" means. I think it would make more sense to defer to R1 dean's view, which was quite clear: True centers of excellence are those that would "attract faculty or students".

    It makes sense to use student fee money in ways that impact a large number of students, not just one or two. Helping to provide access to popular, expensive instrumentation that would otherwise be unavailable on an entire campus seems like it could, in certain circumstances, have that impact. If you happen to be part of a minority that dislikes said instrumentation, I don't know why it would be the Dean's job to agree with you.