From the Executive Director's Desk: Following the NSF Money Trail

As many of you know, the National Science Foundation has funded FLATE for many years. Between
writing, implementing, and reviewing proposals for all sizes and kinds of projects, I thought there was not too much we didn’t already know about NSF. However, when NSF announced that it was “coming to town” for one of its regular grants workshops, I decided to attend. The two-day event provided an enormous amount of information presented in very interactive, intense sessions so attendees could ask a lot of questions – which we all did.   There was the expected bountiful information about ongoing and new programs in the different disciplinary directorates; the nuts and bolts about FastLane, (www.flastlane.nsf.gov) including a few ‘NEW’ nuts and bolts we needed to know and learn about; hot tips from the Inspector General’s office about how to avoid a permanent position inside a federal penitentiary; fine details about the “gold standard” NSF merit review process; and a lot of what’s new in policies and procedures.  It was fascinating to hear that a lot of what is “new” in the policy arena is driven by efforts of the federal government to have more policy and procedural consistency across its many funding agencies.

Although there was a lot to learn about what is new and what is changing that affects FLATE, I decided to slip
away to the “dark side” for one breakout session to attend the breakout session on “Award Cash Management Service (ACM$) and Financial Reporting.” Wow – it was truly amazing! I did almost leave when the presenter asked if there are any principal investigators in the room and kindly suggested that the few of us who raised our hands, might not really want to be in his session. FLATE has a good relationship with our college Grants Accounting team and thought I knew what they “did” for us, so decided to stay, despite the warning.  But, when you are talking about all of NSF and billions of dollars, my perception of us “shaking coins out of the NSF piggy bank” was only about 5% of what goes on. 

The most impressive thing shared in that session (truly, it was hard to keep up with all the foreign acronyms) was that in Fall 2014, NSF had gone a cash system that was truly “real time,” or in manufacturing lingo, “just in time”.  What does this mean? It meant that NSF (and the federal government) wanted all the thousands of awardees to draw down cash in real time. It does not want to be a “bank”. Typically, colleges and universities invoice NSF on a regular basis – quarterly, monthly, etc., but daily, or weekly would have been thought to be too often. The advantage of “real time” is that NSF gets to know better what money is where. The goal is for all colleges to perpetually be in the theoretically happy state of being “owed” no money from NSF during award periods. I was thinking that it might be like a “debit” card rather than a “credit card”. You swipe it and the money is gone from NSF instantly. No more collecting invoices for a period of time, aggregating them, and then submitting a request to NSF.  The concept is a bit mind boggling for our own grant and gave me a bit of a headache thinking about a lot of grants taking money out of the NSF “bank” simultaneously, 24/7 for everything including “payroll” with all its burden to miscellaneous transactions typically done with petty cash. 

Although the system is in place, it’s not being utilized to its full capabilities yet. The amount of money that NSF owes
grantees on average at any one moment has gone down appreciably in the past months; there is still a long way to go.  To that end, this Office of Cash Management is doing some “tests,” or “snapshots” on small groups of grantees to see how they are doing based on sophisticated statistical sampling strategies. I was captivated, but not enough to apply to join the NSF financial or audit teams. However, they were truly amazingly smart and amazingly friendly.
    
Well, there was so much more. You can find the presentations (unfortunately there is no recording of the rich dialogue) from all the sessions at this conference website (https://www.signup4.net/public/ap.aspx?EID=NATI606E&OID=160), and I highly recommend attending future NSF Grants Workshop to anyone who has, or wants to have funding from the NSF. I also recommend for good “summer” reading in the newest Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide. (http://nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=papp).

Following up from the Spring Engineering Technology Forum NSF ATE Workshop and this workshop, FLATE will
be hosting an informal Q and A online meeting on Tuesday June 30 at 2 p.m. for anyone who wants to ask questions about proposals they are currently writing for the October 2015 ATE submission deadline.  Please email me if you would like to join – I will confirm the online meeting and send connection information to all who contact us.  There will be no formal agenda – just Q and A about your NSF ATE proposals.

Stepping aside from the NSF money talk trail, we have a full supply of stories in this edition of the FLATE Focus. June is when our summer robotics camps on site and across the state kicks into full gear. Be sure to read up on all that we have in store for our campers across the state. Continuing our focus on Women in STEM, we’ve brought you a story highlighting recent STEP awardees who continue to make a mark in their field. This edition also brings you a fresh sTEm puzzle, updates on robotics teams across the state and highlights from the recent FLATE-FESC Job Task Analysis workshop. These and much more in this edition of the FLATE Focus…..we hope you enjoy the stories.