Grant money tempting

August 6, 2002 

N.C. State University uses a simple formula in reimbursing its library for its role in supporting sponsored research.

The library provides about 4 percent of the support. Therefore, it gets the same percentage of grant money that's designated for indirect costs, commonly known as overhead receipts.

As a result, as NCSU's research grants have grown dramatically over the past decade, so has the library's share -- from $383,300 in the 1992-93 academic year to $864,880 this year.

UNC-Chapel Hill officials also tell grant providers that its libraries contribute roughly the same percentage to its research efforts. But as UNC-CH's grant money has also grown tremendously, it hasn't passed that growth along to its libraries.

UNC-CH now gives its libraries less grant money than NCSU, even though UNC-CH receives about three times as much overhead receipt money. This year, the libraries received $631,557.

So, if the grant providers aren't covering these costs, who is?

Tony Waldrop, UNC-CH's vice chancellor for research and graduate studies, said private gifts and endowment money picked up some of the tab. But the share paid by state taxpayers grew as well -- an additional $1.4 million over the past four years.

Waldrop said the library's overhead receipt money was redirected to other research efforts, such as recruiting top researchers and constructing research buildings. Those measures help the university attract more research grants.

But the shift in library money illustrates a concern some state legislators and officials have with the way universities spend $120 million in overhead receipt money annually. Such transfers make it hard for legislators to know whether the state is paying for expenses that should be covered by research sponsors, such as the federal government.

"The big issue, the big question, is a full revelation of how the monies are used," former State Treasurer Harlan Boyles said. "I think every effort ought to be made to avoid treating those receipts as a slush fund."

The federal government doesn't require the universities to spend the overhead receipt money specifically on the research costs that they document. Nor does the state legislature, as Boyles suggests, require the universities to designate it for research spending.

But some legislators have talked about taking all or part of the overhead receipts to help plug the gap in the state budget.

Missing the Big Easy

The 56th annual meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference continues through today in steamy New Orleans, but not a single member of North Carolina's General Assembly has signed up to attend, according to Colleen Cousineau, executive director of the conference.

Cousineau said Tar Heel lawmakers sometimes miss the annual meetings because of legislative sessions extending late into the summer.

But other reasons may be keeping state lawmakers at home.

For one, the state House is poised to roll out its proposed budget today, with the goal of sending it back to the Senate by the end of the week.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the state travel freeze that has been in place for more than a year applies to lawmakers, too, according to Amy Fulk, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat.

If any House or Senate members had wanted to attend a conference in the Big Easy, they would have had to pay for it themselves.

By staff writers Dan Kane and Amy Gardner. Kane can be reached at 829-4861 or dkane@newsobserver.com.

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