Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Case Study:
Paperwork Schmaperwork

Paperwork Schmaperwork

Steven Stella has been the department administrator in Everpure University's Chemistry Department for ten years. During this time, he's developed a number of methods for minimizing the time he spends administering sponsored projects and departmental accounts. One of these time-savers has been to avoid the limited number of training workshops and professional development programs offered by Everpure. After all, he figures, who could possibly know better how to manage the department's business than the person who has been doing it day in and day out for ten years?

Recently, Prof. Einstein has decided on his own to go outside the usual purchasing procedures for the Chemistry Department and order $3,000 in various chemicals and lab supplies. Now, he wants the expense charged to his NSF grant.

When Stella received the bill from Einstein, he checked the NSF grant budget and found that not only was there only one week left in the grant period, there were only $500 remaining in the account.

Deciding not to bother Einstein with details, Stella splits the $3,000 into three parts charging $500 to the NSF grant, so it can close-out properly, $1,000 to Einstein's NIH grant, and $1,500 to Einstein's NASA grant. He concludes that since Einstein is the PI on all three awards, the work must be closely related. Stella briefly contemplates confirming this with Einstein, but, like all the faculty in the department, Einstein has never exhibited any interest in the financial management of his awards.

"Besides," Stella tells himself, "I've carried out this sort of accounting adjustment many times, and no one has ever questioned my decisions. In fact, it's been the opposite. There was that time Einstein was so irritated, he told me he'd get me fired if I kept bothering him with trivial matters that have nothing to do with his research. So, I'll just continue as I have, doing as I think is best, and protecting the professors' time. Duplicating Einstein's signature on this form will save both of us even more time. He never reads anything I ask him to sign anyway."

Case Discussion
Interests of the Affected Parties:

Prof. Einstein has one overriding interest – to be freed to administrative burden so that he can do his research. He seems to feel that the paperwork involved in managing his grants is, at best, a distraction created by bean-counters. He feels that as long as his research continues to be productive, he should be left alone and allowed to do what he does best.

Steven Stella feels he knows how to manage the financial aspects of grants He does not mind assuming greater responsibilities, especially if it means that PIs are satisfied and are not irritated with him for bothering them with details he can handle. His interests lie in doing his job effectively and maintaining a good relationship with faculty,

The university, as always, has as its primary interest the proper stewardship of sponsor funding.

Ethical Issues:

Einstein is under the mistaken impression that all he has to be concerned about is his research. In fact, he is not providing ineffective management, but no management whatsoever. Documents are signed on his behalf and he has no idea what sponsor policies require or how his projects are being administered. He has, therefore, abdicated all responsibility for managing his sponsored projects. Unfortunately, he cannot ethically do so since in submitting his proposals and agreeing to serve as PI, he implicitly accepts all the responsibilities that comprise the PI's role. He cannot pick and choose only the parts of that role that interest him.

Steven is acting out of self-interest and is not helping to provide effective management of the sponsored projects. While he is probably saving his job by taking the actions described above, he is enabling Einstein's inappropriate behavior. Either he does not know what cost allocability means or he has taken a lazy approach in making the assumption that the work on all three awards is closely-related. Furthermore, signing the documents for Einstein, even it did save his job, constitutes forgery.

The university is not being served well be either Einstein or Steven. The university has the ethical responsibility to educate its employees in proper and effective management. The sponsored projects are executed in the university's name, and it has the responsibility to ensure, through education, self-assessment, and other means that its employees comply with the sponsored project conditions accepted in its name.

Consequences of Actions:

The consequences of the actions of all parties in this case are serious. The university is almost asking for negative audit findings by not providing effective training and education in the management of sponsored projects. It is also inviting trouble by not providing effective oversight procedures that would catch improper charging of expenses.

Einstein runs the risk of having current sponsored project funding terminated and future funding withheld if sponsors cannot trust him to provide effective stewardship.

Steven is setting himself up for even greater problems. He is worried about Einstein managing to get him fired, but he could wind up being disciplined or fired but by the university. His combination of misplaced self-assurance and his willingness to act unethically to protect himself is a dangerous combination. Even more significantly, he could be prosecuted as a forger on federal award documents.


The obligations of all parties can be summed up by saying they all need to take appropriate steps to ensure the proper stewardship of sponsored project funding. As noted previously, the university has the obligation to educate its administrative employees and faculty, regarding their responsibilities. The university also must establish appropriate safeguards to prevent incorrect charging of expenses and other financial mismanagement. If it appears that such matters are occurring frequently, then the university should conduct a self-assessment, and take whatever action may be needed as a result of the self-assessment.

Einstein's needs to accept and fulfill all of the responsibilities assigned to PIs. He needs to provide effective oversight of both his research and the management aspects of his sponsored projects.

Steven's attitude and skill level needs to be improved. For that to happen, he needs to realize that he his placing the university and himself at risk of serious consequences. Since he has avoided all professional development and training, such self-awareness may not occur until his inappropriate behavior is recognized by others. Unfortunately, by that time, it may be too late to avoid administrative or legal consequences.