Industry-Sponsored Research Week

White House rescinds grant funding exceptions that kept research money flowing during shutdown

By David Schwartz
Published: July 7th, 2020

The White House has modified its relaxation of rules on how U.S. universities manage federal research grants during the coronavirus shutdown, leaving them with less flexibility to cope with the pandemic. The changes rescind many temporary measures adopted this spring as COVID-19 shuttered campuses, despite continued uncertainty over the fall semester and the status of research activity on U.S. campuses.

“I am speechless because I just don’t know” what lies ahead, said David Mayo, head of sponsored research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

In March, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) authorized a slew of short-term exceptions to its guidelines on how federal research dollars could be spent in order to soften the blow of lab shutdowns. These exceptions allowed universities to keep paying the salaries of researchers from their grants even if their labs were shuttered. OMB also allowed reimbursement for travel, meetings, and other activities that had been canceled and get funded for replacing medical equipment they had donated to hospitals to fight the pandemic.

Although the latest guidance from OMB allows institutions to continue to charge salaries of locked-out scientists against their grant, a new requirement insists that grantees “exhaust other available funding sources to sustain its workforce” before paying out salaries from the grant.

They also must “document” their attempts “to reduce overall operational costs.”

However, the OMB’s memo announcing the changes doesn’t explain how to do that, and research managers are still hoping for clarification. “Many of our institutions are engaged in broad-based cost-saving measures,” says Pamela Webb, a research administrator at the University of Minnesota, pointing to widespread imposition this spring of travel restrictions, salary reductions or furloughs, and hiring freezes. “If these items were deemed to satisfy this requirement, I think we would have collective confidence that we would meet the intent, and documentation is straightforward.”

Meanwhile, research labs are faced with the fact that drawing down on their grants means less money will be left to do the research they were originally funded to complete.

Research leaders hope more funding is in the offing finish their projects, but that would require additional money from Congress, which is divided over the next COVID-19 relief package and

has yet to pass spending bills for the next fiscal year. In the meantime, labs are left with more questions than answers. Webb said the flexible rules were much appreciated while they were in effect, “but there’s also a huge amount of angst and uncertainty over what will happen next.”

The new OMB stance reflects the Trump administration’s belief that things should be getting back to normal despite the continuing rise in COVID-19 cases. As spelled out in an OMB memo, the government assumes that universities have figured out how to deal with the pandemic and no longer require special consideration. “During the Coronavirus pandemic,” it notes, “many recipients learned the capabilities and are now getting the experience to perform the objectives of the Federal programs remotely, with limited access to their physical office.”

Almost all of OMB’s other temporary measures have been rescinded, including provisions to recover the cost of canceled travel plans. Grantees can still spend their money to replace medical supplies donated before the new memo was issued, but not for future donations.

Source: Science

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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