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Sarbanes-Oxley for the Academic April 12, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in university.

The Sarbanes-Oxley act, fall out from corporate scandals like Enron, requires, among other things, chief executives to sign their company’s financial statements. The act is also has a reputation for a dramatic increase in the paper trails that public companies must keep track of (apparently, even instant messages under certain circumstances).

Here in Academia we have our own little version. And I stress little. It is called effort reporting. Here is the deal. I get a grant from the federal government, via the National Science Foundation. They pay for my students, my post-docs, my summer salary, computer equipment, etc. In return for the grant one thing I commit to doing is spending a certain amount of my time working on the grant while Washington State is paying my salary. This is called cost sharing. I’ve shared some my time on Washington’s nickel on grant duties. In return, the NSF has given me the grant and the state of Washington gets to keep some fraction of it.

Now, unsurprisingly, the NSF wants to know that I have actually spent that amount of time working on their grant. So every single quarter I get a form to sign. I have to sign it. And it says, basically, that I spent all the time that I committed to working on my grant working on my grant. No problem, right?

Well, not so. Despite being only a single page this thing is complex enough that I am constantly messing it up. Even experienced professionals mess it up. Apparently the university is trying to redesign the form because so many people mess it up! And check this out: when the government drops by to audit the university one of the things that they check is that all of these forms have been returned on time and correctly filled out.

I’m complaining about this right now because the last one I filled out was incorrect, apparently. I got a new copy today. The payroll person in our department is on vacation and I couldn’t find anyone else in the main office that could tell me how to fill it out! I know that I’ll feel foolish when the payroll coordinator comes back: “Oh, just write 100% here, 2% here, make sure that you then write 98% here, leave those two lines blank, and then sign and date!” It will take me 30 seconds.

This seems crazy to me because a bit of paper like this doesn’t in any way assure that I’ve spent the required time on the grant. Even more frustrating is I spend more actual time on it (i.e. nights, weekends, etc.). And this bit of paper seems to send the message that they don’t really trust me.

At any rate, hopefully they won’t dock my pay because I’m late with this form…



1. perry - April 12, 2007

don’t feel silly. We send our students to a national lab every summer, well 2-3 of them. Technically its a contract to us and we subcontract the students. I have to certify that the work is done at a drug free workplace. Well the work is done at the national lab, so I essentially certify to the lab that the lab is drug free…….

2. Gordon Watts - April 14, 2007

That is great! So if the lab ever does find drugs then they have someone to blame!

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