10

After managing a project at a research institution in the US, I was awarded a grant (did it for free, so this is the remuneration). The grant covers travel, books, research equipment ("that does not contain a hard drive") and some other things. They strongly recommended confirming with their representatives if certain expenses are covered by the grant. I decided to purchase PC components and just build it myself. Last August I contacted them to check if they would cover the components cost (2 reps said it should be fine, both were in 1 email thread). Over Black Friday I purchased all parts and sent them all receipts for reimbursement. Now, middle of January, they claim they did not realise I was building a PC (although I explained everything in detail in our email communication back in August) and would not reimburse me as the institution tracks parts "as part of their on campus computing inventory". It is past return period time now for the components I purchased. What should I do now? All communication was over email, so I have everything in writing.

  • 8
    What do you mean by: "... explained everything in detail". Did you specifically say the equivalent of: I will use the grant to purchase the listed supplies in order to build a PC without a hard drive? – Jeffrey J Weimer Jan 17 at 18:33
  • 7
    I have repeatedly seen grants forbidding the use of their money to buy PCs. A headless number crunching server would theoretically have been OK, but how do you tell the difference if you look at the hardware? The problem is that whatever you buy becomes a property of the granting institution. Keeping track of special scientific hardware pieces is simple, but a PC, consisting of numerous, easily exchangeable parts? – Karl Jan 17 at 18:52
  • 2
    Is it possible that the institution tried to get it approved by the funding agency and were told that it can't be done? Or something else caused a change of perspective in the interval? – Buffy Jan 17 at 19:10
  • 4
    I'm a little confused who "they" are. Are these officials at the funding agency, or the research institution where you did the work, or somewhere else? Which organization actually awarded the grant? Are there formal written rules on purchasing? – Nate Eldredge Jan 17 at 19:17
  • Is the rule in place perhaps to prohibit improper storage of PHI? And, just to be clear, was your goal to put your own hard drive in this PC? Or did you have some scientific need for a PC without a hard drive? – Azor Ahai Jan 19 at 0:57
20

What you need to do is work it out locally. If necessary, the grant funder may need to make a judgement. But it seems like you were trying to get around a restriction by somewhat questionable means. Not necessarily ethically dubious means, but questionable. A pedantic interpretation of the statement in the grant, and ignoring its likely intent is what got you into the current situation. You need to argue that your interpretation is correct and you need to get others, who have some authority here, to agree with you.

I can't guess whether you will win this or not, but the situation is between you, the institution and the funding authority. Make your best argument there. And note that you can't impose your own will on this.

If this is PC level equipment, I doubt that it is going to be a serious setback to your finances. Maybe it is best to just absorb the cost and spend the funds on things that aren't so close to the margin of acceptability.

  • 1
    thank you for your answer! I am a PhD student and we are talking about thousands of dollars here (not a serious, but a noticeable financial setback). But why would PC components be not considered research equipment? What is research equipment then? On top of that, I asked them 5 months ago if parts would be covered and they said yes. I further made my financial decisions based on their assurance. – Joshua Calvin Jan 17 at 14:35
  • 21
    @JoshuaCalvin by your own admission the grant restricts reimbursement to research equipment "that does not contain a hard drive". You very obviously tried to creatively (and I'd argue, in bad faith) get around this by basically buying a PC without a hard drive. This was clearly not the intent of said rule. – Maeher Jan 17 at 18:20
  • 2
    @DanRomik, while I don't disagree, the people with the money often get to make the rules. Also see: dilbert.com/strip/2020-01-07 – Buffy Jan 17 at 18:50
  • 3
    Joshua: I refer to Karl's comment to your question for a possible reason why. But I suggest you accept the consensus (saying your actions tried to subvert rules/intent) as how people in charge are likely to judge things, even if you don't like it. The "no hard drive" rule was probably not made to allow HD-like things like SSDs on a technicality, but rather to prohibit things like Xerox copiers that may have an internal hard drive (so, to be more restrictive, not to enable a loophole). It isn't clear to us how much authority your advisers are treated with, or how much their word will be honored – TOOGAM Jan 18 at 12:32
  • 3
    @Buffy Sure I have to argue it. But it should stop right at "Here I have written confirmation that I'll be compensated for buying those things". Isn't that the whole point of asking in advance? – Voo Jan 19 at 15:20
15

I strongly recommend that you talk to your department chair and ask for their help.

The situation as I understand it is that you obtained confirmation in writing from university employees that the equipment you wanted to purchase would be covered by the grant and you would get reimbursed. Now the institution is refusing to reimburse you. This is pretty unconscionable and sounds like a screwup on the side of the relevant officials.

It is the job of the department chair to try to help you resolve the situation and get the people involved to either find some way to be flexible about the stupid inventory issue (I am reasonably optimistic that if somebody beat them over the head with a hammer they would suddenly find some magical way to make it happen), or own up to the mistake and find some other way to cover your financial loss. The chair may also end up deciding that the department should absorb the cost if the reimbursement issue is truly unfixable.

Finally, before you talk to the chair I suggest carefully examining your own role in the events that took place and thinking about whether your own behavior might be seen to have played a part in this misunderstanding. Did you communicate your question clearly in the emails you sent? Did you miss some ambiguity in the email thread about whether it was okay to go ahead with the purchase? Did you make any assumption about the meaning of what the employees wrote that wasn’t explicitly written in their email (say, interpreting “research equipment” to mean “whatever I think research equipment means”)? If there was some negligence of this sort on your part, the chances of getting the purchase reimbursed would be much smaller. In that case the best thing to do may be to suck up the loss and use the experience as a lesson for the future. Anyway, good luck!

  • 1
    I think this is the only legally correct answer. If written confirmation was explicitly given there is no way they can refuse reimbursement. If the grant cannot be used to reimburse then the employees/dept that gave incorrect advice will be forced to reimburse personally. – casper.dcl Jan 19 at 8:41
11

In my experience in the US, computers and their parts are considered part of overhead, as are things like desks, office chairs, etc.

When you get a grant, part of it goes to "you", and part of it goes to the university as overhead - they use this to keep the lights on and for other various expenses that you don't directly see, but they also often make some of that money available to the researchers to buy capital equipment including computers.

It's unfortunate that you got incorrect information due to a miscommunication, but it's likely nothing can be done about those funds directly. It's possible there is overhead money that can help you out retroactively, but I don't have experience with that circumstance.

From my perspective, this looks bad for you - it seems like you tried to skip around the "has a hard drive" rule.

  • It's not uncommon for NSF budgets to include funds for the purchase of workstation computers that will be used in the research for computing the goes beyond standard office equipment. That doesn't seem to be the case here. – Brian Borchers Jan 19 at 2:51
  • 2
    Don't they give you precise rules so you know precisely what not to do? I'm puzzled by this "skip around" thing. They could have given more vague rules and communicated intent but they chose instead to give a precise rule. If they gave a precise rule when what they wanted was for you to respect a vaguer intention, they're the ones acting in bad faith. – David Schwartz Jan 19 at 10:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.