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I have one postdoc hired on a H2020 project for 18 months. Fortunately, she worked rather well and all her tasks are going to finish soon (11th month of the project). I would like to reallocate her to other projects my group is working on now, and which fall a bit outside of the initial H2020 project, but in any case, she has the competence and capabilities to move to the other projects. I briefly talked her about this and she says it would be unethical and illegal to work on something she has not initially hired for. I think that even if these new tasks are not directly related to the H2020 project, if she works on them and gets new publications, it would be a clear benefit for her, and I told her, but she continues to refuse to work on them. How would you argue with her to move to the other tasks when the H2020 tasks are finished?

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    What is H2020 ? – GoodDeeds Jun 14 at 14:47
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    @GoodDeeds The major funding programme of the EU. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 14 at 15:07
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    Where is her funding coming from? Is it linked to the H2020 project? If it is, she's right. – Scott Seidman Jun 14 at 15:14
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    Maybe her ethical / legal concern is about using funds allocated for one project to work on another? – GoodDeeds Jun 14 at 16:41
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    The legalities of project funding aside, it strikes me as extremely odd that a supposedly bright post doc would not jump at a chance to gain the additional experience and publications. Have you considered the possibility that she tried to finish early to work on other projects? Have you asked her if she has a scientific preference? – nabla Jun 14 at 20:43
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+100

You can switch her to another project if you have the funding for it. What you cannot do is to have her work paid by one H2020 project to carry out work for some other separate project. If that's what your postdoc says, she is right.

However, even in your existing project, there should be sufficient leeway to do work on good publications, research etc. and improve the work that you have carried out on the core project. Research never stops.

Alternatively, if you have funding for another project, then you can ask for the budgets to be reassigned (Edit: if she agrees) so that she is paid through the budget of the other project. That's perfectly acceptable, albeit you may have to return some of the budget of the original project she was hired for if that is not used in its entirety.

What you cannot do is to have the original project budget pay for work carried out on another project.

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    And, you can't force her to switch. That would be, at least, unethical, and possibly illegal. – Buffy Jun 14 at 15:45
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    @Buffy I didn't imply to "force" her. I referred to her qualms of her workforce being used for something else than specified by the project. Do you think the answer is misleading and I should make that clearer? – Captain Emacs Jun 14 at 22:05
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    The answer is fine. The message was to the OP. – Buffy Jun 14 at 22:25
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    "What you cannot do is to have the original project budget pay for work carried out on another project." This is fuzzy in practice. What if the project has a close relationship to the H2020 work? For example, using the same technique to work on a related application? Or working on an analytical method that could be applied in the future to the H2020 project topic? It would seem unnecessarily limiting for grant-funded work to be restricted to be ONLY exactly what was proposed in the original project plan. – roger-reject Jun 19 at 6:22
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I'm just guessing, but she probably has the right of it. I would cease arguing with her entirely but suggest that something additional might be done on the original project that might also result in additional publications, etc.

Don't be the bad person here. And, especially, don't find some way to punish her for being both competent and ethical.

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    I did not say I am going to force or menace her. No, that I am not going to do. I am just looking for another rationale, since her tasks are almost finished, and if she switches, it would be benefitial for her and for the group. – Open the way Jun 14 at 14:59
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    Why not let said post-doc propose an alternative? A good postdoc should be perfectly capable of coming up with publishable projects, especially after having worked on the subject already. If the postdoc fails to do so, you may have the argument you were looking for. – Louic Jun 14 at 15:03
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    @Louic Fully agree with you. Giving a little bit of a freedom for postdoc is very stimulating. There are many ways to use the time productively, even to write/ prepare for a new project. – yarchik Jun 15 at 6:15
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Funding agencies usually understand that circumstances may change during the life of a project and have the ability to authorize changes in the project’s scope. A postdoc finishing all her predicted goals ahead of schedule seems to me like one of those situations where such a change is certainly justified and desirable.

I suggest that you write to the program managers of the program that funds your project. Describe the situation and the alternative project you are proposing to reassign the postdoc to. Ask (as an informal, hypothetical question at first) if they would allow a change of scope of the project to authorize this reassignment. If they say yes, you can show the postdoc this pre-approval - it mostly counters her argument that the reassignment is unethical or illegal (perhaps still leaving a bit of room for argument, though, depending on the laws in your local jurisdiction).

If she then agrees to the change, you can go ahead and obtain formal authorization through whatever formal process the funding agency requires you to go through, if such a formal process is required (typically filling some web form on the funding agency’s grant management website and having the program manager submit approval on their side, something I had to go through once or twice).

Now, if upon your initial request the program managers don’t want to authorize the reassignment, well then you have your answer, even if it’s not exactly what you wanted to hear.

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    No, sorry, you may not be familiar with EU funding, but in my experience this would be a bureaucratical nightmare... – Massimo Ortolano Jun 14 at 21:43
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    @MassimoOrtolano It's possible and has been done. It's not fun, but was not exactly as bad as every bodies war stories claim it to be. – Captain Emacs Jun 14 at 22:07
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    Limited changes to a project can indeed be negotiated (not really to the scope, but to some of the activities, deadlines etc.), as pointed out also by @CaptainEmacs. But, at least in my experience, they are such a burden that people try to avoid them as much as possible. I'd really consider this as a last resort. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 15 at 5:48
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    Also, you shouldnt write, but if you really want call. An email which states that all work has been completed might be very difficult to undo (and could technically lead to that you cannot bill hours anymore) – lalala Jun 15 at 16:04
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    The most probable response to "we've finished the work that you've given us X years and Y dollars to complete in less than X and Y" is "Great, please send us the difference between Y and what you've spent" – Scott Seidman Jun 15 at 20:51
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EDIT: This answer is wrong in the specific case of Horizon 2020 funding where you must sign a declaration of exclusive work, or keep a timesheet

Legal and ethical are not necessarily the same thing.

Legally its going to depend on whether the funding is your name or the postdoc's name. I can't speak for H2020, you'd have to check the funding agreement, but for UKRI funding would usually be in your name, and the agreement is that you propose some reserach, the funder says "what do you need to do that?". You say I need a postdoc for 3 years and they say fine. The deal is the reserach in return for 3 years of postdoc.

The postdoc will be an employee of the university not of the EU, just paid using money that EU gave to get that reserach done. And the research is now done. You provided the research, you kept your end of the bargin as far as the funder is concerned.

You don't say what country you are in, but every postdoc I've seen in the UK basically has a job description attached to it that says the postdoc's duties are to design, perform and interpret experiments, prepare manuscripts, present at conferences, and any other reasonable task required by the employee's line manager. (that last clause is always there, even my contract, as a permenant faculty member, has that clause). This means, you would legally be witin your rights to force the postdoc to work on something else. You could probably, in theory, start disciplinary proceedings against them if they refused.

That absolutely does not mean that doing so would be a good idea from ethier an ethical or a practical point of view. From a practical point of view, its takes around a year to conclude a disciplinary case, and even then you are going to be stuck handling someone who will very definately not want to work with you at that point. From an ethical point of view, this sounds like someone who has worked very hard and achieved well in furthering the aims you set out for them, and thus deserves to be rewarded for that by having some say in what they do next. Also, as a postdoc, you need work that is yours and you can take with you to start your own group to apply for a fellowship. This is hard if you've been working purely on someone else project.

If they really believe it is unethical to work on any project other than the H2020 project, and that is now finished, I don't see how they can continue to take the salary in a way compatible with their ethical beliefs. Perhaps they don't agree that the project is finsihed?

I would ask the postdoc what they want to work on. The project you hired them for is finished. And you clearly aren't going to pay them to sit around doing nothing for the next 7 months. As they will need experimental resources, its going to have to be something you both agree on, because you are not going to give them your resources to spend on something you are completely against.

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    If that postdoc does work unrelated to that project for these 7 months, then you can't fund these 7 months postdoc's salary from the project budget. (You could use that freed-up money to fund some other employee for the project goals, though, with appropriate paperwork.) That's a strict contractual obligation for the institution and the PI in a H2020 project, this gets checked in an external audit in every single H2020 project, and faking documentation to say that the postdoc is working on the project when in fact she's working on someone else would not just be unethical, it's felony fraud. – Peteris Jun 14 at 23:16
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    H2020 projects compensate eligible costs. You have your costs (salaries, equipment, etc) and EU compensates them afterwards if the expenses if they're appropriate. If someone's job is finished faster than expected and comes in under budget, that's great, but the "saved up" money for the seven months of postdoc's work is not yours to spend as you wish. You only get funding to cover the actual eligible costs (i.e. the salary paid to the postdoc while they worked on the project) that you spent on the project, if you didn't spend something, then you don't get funded for that. – Peteris Jun 14 at 23:30
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    To put it shortly, I'm asserting that "You provided the research, you kept your end of the bargin as far as the funder is concerned." is very much not true in this situation, you're required to document what specific expenses you want to be covered by the EU funding and demonstrate that they're eligible to be covered; achieving the project goals is not sufficient to demonstrate that all the costs were valid and should be funded. – Peteris Jun 14 at 23:38
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    As I commented in the my answer, I only know the specific rules for government funded and EU Marie Curie funded projects. In those situations you have to say "£X on staff, £Y on research services, £Z on chemicals.." etc, and you have to stick to that, and will be audited, but not what you spend within those categories. However, it does seem that for H2020 you have to sign a "Declaration on exclusive work". – Ian Sudbery Jun 15 at 9:32
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This answer is based upon observations from computer science at German universities. Experiences in other countries and fields may easily differ.

As other answers have explained, legally, she is right. H2020 projects require that people funded from them work exclusively on the project. Working on tasks that are explicitly and specifically meant for another project is not permissible and can only be done based on another funding source.

However, that does not mean everything has ended up in a desirable way in the described situation.

First, the practical angle: As has also been noted in a comment, things are much fuzzier in reality. For anyone who works in an institute with other researchers, the following appear to be typical professional interactions1:

  • Regular status updates by telling each other about one's current progress or interesting new results in one's project(s).
  • Brainstorming meetings to help one or more colleagues to find solutions for current problems in their project(s).
  • Colleague A helping out colleague B with topics or skills that A knows about and that B needs in their project(s).
  • Collaborating on joint publications, challenge entries, supervised student projects, presentations, etc.
  • Doing organisational work useful for themselves but also for the entire institute, e.g. creating document templates, taking care of certain mutually used technical equipment (no matter whether that's a server with research-related data or being in charge of the institute's coffee machine), etc.
  • And of course, tentatively taking part in various efforts that maybe end up contributing to the project, maybe not. This is sometimes not clear from the onset.

Now, most of these can be argued to yield some results related to the project, though they certainly also contribute to other projects. They are simply a normal part of daily interaction working in a team, and the idea that colleagues in the same institute ignore each other because they are working on different projects seems simply out of touch with reality.

Second, though, there is another aspect that I'm more worried about in this case - let's call it the intended goals: The postdoc in question seems to be under the mistaken impression that finishing a project as early as possible is a commendable result. In contrast, my impression is that the goal generally seen as more desirable among researchers is to conduct as much research as possible within the parameters defined in a project grant.

That does not mean resources should be squandered or abused. But it does mean that, if considerable amounts of resources are left, one should think twice whether there really isn't anything worthwhile left within the scope of the project that could be further explored.2

It may be too late to change anything in the described case here, especially if the postdoc in question has already reported their project work as complete to the grant agency, or conducted finalizing steps on their project (such as finishing a concluding report that would have to be redone, were some earlier steps in the project to be retroactively enriched with additional studies, experiments, or aspects). For the future, though, two things may be important:

  • First, the OP should have a conversation with the postdoc to clarify the above. A research project is not a race for time won by the fastest researcher, it's a race for content won by the researcher with the most comprehensive, reliable, and useful results.
  • And second, something that I'm actually somewhat worried about: As said postdoc seems to be so convinced she has absolutely finished all of her requirements, maybe a part of the problem is that the grant application was too restricted in its focus? As far as I have been told, a crucial part of the art of writing grant applications is to find a good balance of being concrete enough to gain the grant, but being vague enough so as to allow those working on the grant to still do what makes sense for the project, even though it isn't known at the time of applying for the grant (many months earlier!) yet. This question leaves me wondering a bit whether the grant in question failed to create sufficient opportunities, so after finishing a couple of items on a checklist, there is nothing left to do for the postdoc.

1: I'm not saying every institute will feature every single one of these, or only these interactions. But they are typical examples of what arrives during the workday at a university in my experience.

2: The reasons appear to be threefold:

  • It's beneficial for both the institute and the involved researchers to conduct more research.
  • It's beneficial for the project to produce stronger or more comprehensive results.
  • And, as I have been told time and again, whoever finishes a project while leaving considerable amounts of granted resources (time and/or money) unused will get granted less in the future (because, from the point of view of the grant-giver, "obviously, they can achieve their goals with less than they claim").
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I think User Peteris wrote a wonderful answer in comment to answer,

If that postdoc does work unrelated to that project for these 7 months, then you can't fund these 7 months postdoc's salary from the project budget. (You could use that freed-up money to fund some other employee for the project goals, though, with appropriate paperwork.) That's a strict contractual obligation for the institution and the PI in a H2020 project, this gets checked in an external audit in every single H2020 project, and faking documentation to say that the postdoc is working on the project when in fact she's working on someone else would not just be unethical, it's felony fraud. – Peteris Jun 14 at 23:16 3

H2020 projects compensate eligible costs. You have your costs (salaries, equipment, etc) and EU compensates them afterwards if the expenses if they're appropriate. If someone's job is finished faster than expected and comes in under budget, that's great, but the "saved up" money for the seven months of postdoc's work is not yours to spend as you wish. You only get funding to cover the actual eligible costs (i.e. the salary paid to the postdoc while they worked on the project) that you spent on the project, if you didn't spend something, then you don't get funded for that. – Peteris Jun 14 at 23:30 3

To put it shortly, I'm asserting that "You provided the research, you kept your end of the bargin as far as the funder is concerned." is very much not true in this situation, you're required to document what specific expenses you want to be covered by the EU funding and demonstrate that they're eligible to be covered; achieving the project goals is not sufficient to demonstrate that all the costs were valid and should be funded. – Peteris Jun 14 at 23:38

What does it legally mean for you? You can have potential legal issues if a dispute between you and postdoc arise. Not to mention that you would need to return the money.

Also exclusivity of work is pretty clear

For this purpose, "working exclusively" refers to an uninterrupted period of at least one full calendar month during which all the hours worked by the employee for the beneficiary were dedicated to the H2020 action.

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you question How would you argue with her to move to the other tasks when the H2020 tasks are finished?

I wouldn't argue her, I would offer a raise or extra income, depending on university, country and legal system, in case of my country, I would pay on hand. Im not sure how it is regulated in your country.

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