When I finished my PhD, I was working on a small grant project worth €6000 with the aim of integrating computational software and public services offered by another institution. In our final report, I stated why we did not achieve one of the objectives (due to technical complexity discovered during the project beyond the project scope: the technical complexity might be known by experts; however, we were not experts at the time of writing the grant proposal).

The other objectives were met; the grant report was finalized and left to my supervisor, who was the coordinator of the project.

Due to several circumstances, the project was evaluated after 2 years. It was rejected, as the funding was not met in part of university participation, the reviewers rejected also the project due to not fulfilling some of the objectives.

It seems that supervisor will be liable and need to return the funding, or it will be deducted from his salary.

Am I morally liable to participate in this return, even though no fraud or misconduct was done?

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    What do you mean by "the opponents"? (Paragraph 3) Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:04
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    I have never heard of a grant that had to be returned, particularly if the work was done, research is not an endeavor that guarantees success and even the definition of success can be debated. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 15:13
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    " we were not experts in the time of writing the grant proposal" Shouldn't the PI of a project be an expert in the topic?
    – user64845
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 16:20
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    PI are never experts in every topic of an H2020 grant Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 21:18
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    "supervisor will ... need to return the funding" : are you sure that this doesn't mean "will need to return the funding from his current general research budget"? (Everyone is reading it as "from his personal bank account", and as everyone is saying, that seems unlikely.) Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 20:46

5 Answers 5


You are absolutely not responsible for returning any funding, certainly not at a moral level and almost surely not legally either. You were engaged in research to the best of your ability; as you were not the person who obtained and was responsible for the funding, you are not responsible to the funder for any failures.

Moreover, I think it is pretty unlikely that the funding body will actually claw back any money from your former supervisor. Unless there was genuine skullduggery and/or intent to misuse the funds, the worst that is likely to happen is that the supervisor will be required to resubmit a much better explanatory report.

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    I agree with this answer and especially with the second paragraph. Deducting grant money from a professor's salary two years after the final report was submitted?!? That seems nuts. (On the other hand, the OP's description of what went wrong is far from clear, so maybe there are key aspects we are not appreciating...) Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:47
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    @PeteL.Clark Indeed. I don't know what laws/jurisdictions would allow an employer to recover paid salary from a non-executive employee, but I can honestly say that I have never heard of one successfully (and legally) accomplishing that. Sure, plenty of threats, but not much else. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 21:53
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    @RBarryYoung : If an employer suffers loss because of the negligence of an employee, it is open to the employer to sue the employee for that loss. However, unless the negligence is both gross and very widely known, that is a good way of an academic institution saying to everyone "please find new jobs" - in practise it will only happen if there is a criminal conviction for fraud. Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 20:40
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    @MartinBonner I have been a consultant for over 40 years, and have worked for well over 1000 companies, and I as a indicated above, I have never heard of a company successfully doing this to a non-executive employee through any means other than docking pay. And as you rightly mentioned, that has an obvious remedy, the employee can just leave. The problem is that even in criminal cases, the cost of litigation divided by the probability of success does not equal the likely amount of recoverable money. Except for executives, who generally get more pay and have more culpability. Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 14:05

I am not a lawyer, but I live in the same country as indicated on OP's profile so I can add some specifics.

Per Czech law, not even your supervisor is the bearer ("nositel") of the grant; the research institution is. There have been at least a few cases where the director of a research institute rejected a proposal by a research team to apply for a very large and realistically obtainable grant, because the particular grant conditions meant that the whole institute would end up in financial difficulties should any objectives be unattained or disputed.

Likewise, the institute (university, faculty) needs to deal with any situations like the loss of the principal researcher along the route. That just happens.

You are not morally or financially responsible and neither is your supervisor (fully financially responsible) unless he can be proven to have caused the situation intentionally or in connection to alcohol or drugs, or WITHOUT any connection to his normal job description. First it would be unusual and difficult for the employer to assert his liability in the first place, and second, the liability would be capped at 4.5 times his average salary. On the other hand, your supervisor will likely see a reduced salary bonus or other indications of his sudden unpopularity.

(Outside of the Czech Republic the legal/contractual situation may be more complicated.)

This situation isn't exactly a career promoting achievement for your supervisor and you can learn some lessons from it as well.

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    This is disconcerting. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 21:24
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    Why is this disconcerting? Assuming that "no fraud or misconduct was done?" Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 21:37
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    @BasileStarynkevitch The answer is excellent. I find it disconcerting that grant conditions can be organized in such a way that entire research institutes can go down if the research objective of a grant proposal wasn't achieved. Research is inherently a high-risk-high-reward endeavor without guarantee of "success", and that's precisely why public funding is needed. Putting too much risk on the researcher is a huge (dis)incentive to pursue all but the most trivial and boring research projects. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 22:39
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    @henning But how do you ensure a research establishment actually carries out the research it is paid to do, unless there are conditions attached? Remember that this is not publicly funded from this institution's POV - it is being paid by another organisation to do this work. Of course there is a challenge to establish SMART criteria for research which could potentially fail to achieve its desired objective, but conceptually this is just good business sense.
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 13:05
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    @Graham from a public interest perspective, I would say researchers should be held to account regarding their actions (and other criteria such as relevance, perhaps efficiency), i.e. that the funding is used for the research project and nothing else and with sound methods. There should even be some accountability for results. But the latter cannot be specified ex ante, because research findings are not known ex ante (hopefully). It can be asked, however, that whatever findings there are (positive or 'negative') should be published. Industry research is again a different matter. Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 14:18

Moral/ethical liability and fiscal liability are two different things. I am not sure how things work in Europe, but I would guess that the administrators above you are on the hook. I would avoid getting involved if possible. Good luck.


Am I morally liable to participate in this return even though no fraud or misconduct was done?

No (specially since there is no fraud or misconduct). However, you could be empathetic to your professor (he might have been too light on something).

(I am assuming that both you are your professor are honest persons. We all do mistakes!)

For European grants (H2020 calls for example), there is an obligation of means, not of results (otherwise, it is no more research): your institution should have allocated enough (human) resources on the project, and should be able to prove that (that is the job of lawyers, and accounting people, not of scientists, and that is why there is plenty of support personnel for research).

At most your professor's lab will have its (current, i.e. 2017 or 2018) budget diminished by 6K€. This is bad for people working in it today (e.g. they won't be able to buy the computers needed for current research, or won't be able to attend conferences) and might be bad for future proposals.

It seems that supervisor will be liable and need to return the funding, or it will be deducted from his salary.

This is very surprising (If this really happens, there have been some misconduct you are not aware of).

But unless your professor was dishonest (e.g. stole University equipement to sell it on Ebay, or made a personal tourist trip instead of going to some conference) I don't think he will have to pay it - with his own salary. Of course, he could get some blame, or could be removed some bonus.

the technical complexity might be known by experts, however, we were not experts in the time of writing the grant proposal

This happens all the time. I am writing (and I have written in the past) an H2020 proposal (and seeking partners for it), and like most persons, I can't be expert in all the domains of a proposal (and European funding requires more and more puridisciplinarity and "impact").

PS. I am not a lawyer, and I am working as a computer scientist in a French RTO.


There is a huge difference between grants and contracts. A contract requires the recipient to perform something known to be likely possible (for example, paint a house, create a database structure, write a program with a well defined functionality and algorithm, measure the level of XYZ protein, etc).

On the other hand, a grant always involves the risk of failure or negative result, accepted by both grantor and grantee. Example for a grant can be "Identify the inhibitor of XYZ protein syntheses" and example of negative findings can be that "neither ABC, BCD nor CDE are inhibitors of XYZ". Here you couldn't find what you asked the money for, but you also established that your best shots, ABC, BCD and CDE, were not valid choices. So even if you failed the grant, at least the next one trying to get the research done knows what not to start with. At the moment you wrote the grant, the scientific community was probably believing strongly that one of your choices is the right one, so your results will likely cause a change in perception, hence an advance. This way, you or somebody else will find that MNQ is the right approach to the problem.

On the other hand, saying that "I've couldn't do research, was too busy teaching, but I've spent the money in a noble cause" disqualifies you from further grants.

If your PI was not expert in the field, why was the grant awarded anyway? My understanding of being awarded a grant is that I have to demonstrate that I am the best person IN THE WORLD able to conduct this research (PhD in ML/CS here), or at least the 11th, but the first 10 specialists are busy with something else.

Legally nobody seems to be liable of anything. You mentioned multiple objectives were met, so I guess there were at least three objectives in the grant, hence, missing one would be a "damage" less or equal then 2000. We seem to talk about petty cash here, or there is some personal issue your PI has with the granting agency. Even if some liability is to be established, the PI acted as an agent of the institution he/she works for. Since he/she cannot own patents on the perform research, I find highly unlikely to be personally liable in the things are not going as planned.

Morally it is hard to judge. In an ideal world, both the granting agency and your PI carry some guilt, because of not doing their research ahead, which is explainable by the small amount in cause.

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    The first paragraph of this is just wrong. Any research project could be handled as a grant or a contract. Eg NIHR (biggest public funder of pragmatic clinical trials in the UK, and possibly in Europe) doesn’t give any project grants - stand alone trials are funded through contract. Of course you can’t contract for a particular result - NIHR contracts for delivery of a particular research protocol, and whether they show an effect, or demonstrate no effect, the results are published and disseminated.
    – rhialto
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 12:12
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    I'm not aware of the situation in UK, but awarding contracts only will amplify too much the bias of the funding agency to the whole research community. Clinical trial looks like a contract job, since the protocol is provided ahead, and there doesn't seem to be any risk involved (the absence of the effect is not the fault of the one performing the trial, if the protocol has not been breached).
    – user83564
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 13:11
  • "If your PI was not expert in the field, why was the grant awarded anyway?" - we succeeded in previous 2 or 3 grant application within the similar domain and we had satisfactory or good results in last 5 years. It was multidisciplinary project - computer science, mathematical modeling, biology.
    – TJK
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 18:02

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