Uncle Sam Wants to Know Your Working Hours

Proposed federal guidelines urge universities to better document when researchers are doing NIH-sponsored studies.
November 29, 2005

If you receive grants from the National Institutes of Health -- the top federal agency in supporting academic research -- the federal government wants your university to do a better job of tracking your hours.

Under proposed guidelines released Monday, universities are urged to take additional steps to know exactly how much time a professor spends on an NIH research project vs. teaching and other responsibilities. The guidelines are the type of regulation universities typically find frustrating, given that they appear likely to create mounds of additional paperwork and may not reflect the realities of many professors' professional lives, where research and teaching cannot necessarily be divided into neat boxes.

The new proposed guidelines acknowledge that it "can sometimes be hard to discern" the division of a researcher's time. But they also call "time and effort reporting" a "critical task" for universities because researchers' compensation makes up a large share of many federal grants to universities. So, for example, if a researcher says she is spending 60 percent of her time on a federal research grant, but ends up spending only 50 percent of her time on that grant, the federal government is being overcharged.

Universities must be "especially vigilant in accurately reporting the percentage of time devoted to projects," the guidelines say, adding that failure to do so could "in certain circumstances, subject an institution to civil or criminal fraud investigations." Federal officials, the guidelines state, "are aware of situations in which researchers falsely report the amount of time they intend to devote to research projects."

The proposed guidelines -- on which universities have a month to offer suggestions -- do not stipulate a required way to keep track of researchers' hours. However, the guidelines state that "at a minimum," universities should:

  • Develop and distribute "written standards" on the issue.
  • Designate a compliance officer and compliance committee, with authority to report directly to the university's president.
  • Offer "regular, effective" training programs to relevant employees.
  • Create a hotline or other ways to "receive complaints or questions" and to protect the anonymity of those raising complaints.
  • Use audits to test compliance.
  • Enforce the rules with "appropriate discplinary action" for any employees found to violate them.


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