Effort Planning and Allocation

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Effort planning is the process of planning how you allocate your effort to different activities such as teaching, research projects, service to the university and the profession, and other academic activities such as editing and peer review. This guide explains effort planning and allocation as they pertain specifically to sponsored programs, where prospective planning is particularly important.

Guide to Effort Planning and Allocation

About effort planning

At Lehigh, we use the common plan and confirm approach to effort allocation and reporting. Individuals prospectively plan how they will devote their time, devote effort accordingly, and then retrospectively confirm their effort. When the university charges effort to a sponsored project, we’re obligated to know that the allocation of effort makes sense in light of the totality of your commitments. While we avoid an overly simplistic or formulaic approach to determining the effort required for each of your various commitments, what’s on your plate needs to be tractable.

Effort planning therefore has two main purposes:

  • Determining how you will allocate your effort in the near term to meet all of your existing commitments
  • Looking ahead at pending commitments, with an eye to anticipating adaptations that might need to be made

This also helps us to fulfill important obligations to sponsors when submitting proposals and accepting awards:

  • When submitting a proposal, have a reasonable expectation that, if an award is made, each person listed will be able to make and fulfill commitments of effort as described in the proposal.
  • When managing awards, ensure that actual effort devoted to each project is at least what is committed and is accurately reported to the sponsor. This requirement applies to all commitments, regardless of whether the sponsor is supporting people’s salaries.

Percent effort is a portion of a person’s effort, as a percentage of full time.

While effort is commonly expressed as a percentage over a time period, it’s often helpful to think about effort in months. For example, someone who is full time and has a 50% allocation of effort to research over a 9-month period has 4.5 months of full-time effort available for research over that 9-month period.

Percent effort is specifically not a percentage of a 40-hour week. It is a percentage of the entirety of a person’s time for which the person is paid by the university. Per federal grant rules, one cannot create additional time by working nights and weekends, as faculty members so often do. Having expanded one’s week, the same percentage of that time remains committed to the project. The long days typical of a faculty position do, within reason, reduce the percentage of effort necessary to complete other obligations. As is discussed in more detail below, it must be clear to a reasonable but critical observer that the person has enough time to fulfill all commitments.

Committed effort is effort necessary to fulfill a person’s commitments. In sponsored programs, commitments are almost always expressed as percent effort, or as full-time months, over a period of time. Your committed effort is, literally, a resource that you commit to devote to each project. It must always be wholly sufficient to fulfill your role on the project, yet not excessive. 

Many sponsored programs require commitment of more effort than that for which the sponsor will reimburse. NSF’s annual limit on salary reimbursement is an example. Sponsors may require cost sharing, which often takes the form of unreimbursed faculty time. In such cases, reimbursed effort will be less than what’s been committed. It is necessary in every case that the totality of the commitment - both reimbursed and cost shared - be realized.

Reimbursed effort is effort for which a person’s compensation (salary or stipend) is paid (reimbursed) from the sponsored project account. 

Remember: Effort must always be contemporaneous with salary reimbursement and with claiming fulfillment of commitments.

Certified effort is the total effort that the university documents to have actually been devoted to a project or program, during the reporting period. At Lehigh, we certify effort three times a year, for Fall Semester, Spring Semester, and Summer.

Salary recovery is salary for which reimbursement is received from a sponsored program.

Salary savings are university funds budgeted for a person’s salary that remain unexpended because the salary was reimbursed from a sponsored program. Because most faculty appointments include coverage of 9 months’ salary, these savings are most often realized from reimbursement for effort in the Fall and Spring. 

In some fields of study, a faculty member will usually have a major project underway, with or without external grant support, that involves a substantial commitment of their time. If budgeted separately, the costs - including salary corresponding to the effort devoted to the project - are reportable as research expenditures.

Organized research is any research activity that has documented goals and is separately budgeted. This includes sponsored research projects, internal seed grants, and any time funding for a research project has its own budget. 

Pre-semester planning

Prior to each semester is a natural time for effort planning. The semester also corresponds to the time period over which the university formally certifies effort with federal sponsors.

The more numerous and complex your commitments are, the more likely it is that you need to think further ahead than just the next semester. Prior to the start of each semester, however, is still a natural time to review your commitments and make necessary adjustments.

Pre-semester planning provides:

  • an opportunity to review the full scope and variety of your commitments and contributions with your department chair.
  • a venue for determining what adjustments to those commitments need to be made, or might need to be made, or what support you might need to ensure that you can keep all commitments within your available effort.
  • important documentation of your effort available for organized research in the coming semester.

ORSP will require evidence of prospective effort planning involving the investigator and the department chair or equivalent (e.g., center/institute director, dean’s office) for anyone with both:

  • a commitment to any sponsored program, and
  • a total of more than 40% commitment of effort to organized research in the Fall and Spring semesters, or more than 60% commitment in the Summer.

A pre-semester plan includes:

  • your total available effort. If you are full time, this is 100%.
  • consideration of all of your commitments, including teaching, service, other academic and administrative activities, and research.
  • consideration of pending or contingent commitments such as pending proposals.
  • a statement of the balance available for organized research after consideration of all other commitments and expected activities.
  • as needed, an indication of what steps will be taken if and when there are new demands on your time such as funding of a currently pending proposal. This might include steps such as re-arranging effort on other projects as possible, reduction of time spent on exploratory research, additional assistance with other commitments, etc.

Your statement of available effort provides ORSP with documentation that, together with your chair, you have reviewed the totality of your professional commitments and determined the net percent effort available for research activities in the coming semester.

Because you and your chair are in the best position to determine the effort required to fulfill all of your commitments, including consideration of help that can be provided and accommodations that can be made, ORSP relies chiefly on your determination of effort available for research activities. The statement of available effort is our shared record of you and your chair having reviewed all of your professional commitments and having determined the balance of your time available for research. That available effort is then allocated to your organized research projects, with any balance available for other activities.

The simple template at the end of this document [LINK] can be used as a guide for pre-semester planning.

Pre-semester planning should be a collaborative process. Especially for a faculty member, the department’s collective obligations to students, the need for course schedules to be determined well in advance, limited availability of TA’s and other added support, departmental and university citizenship, etc., are all important considerations. Your chair is obligated to raise concerns, and you are both expected to be involved in planning and problem-solving.

Adapting to changing opportunities and commitment

It’s common to need to adapt to changes that occur with little advance notice. You may have an unexpected opportunity, or the need to fill in for a colleague who’s fallen ill. You may have had greater success with pending grant applications than you would have reasonably expected. It’s important to keep in mind your ability to adapt.

Naturally, various commitments come with different levels and kinds of flexibility. If you are committed to teaching a course in a given semester, that commitment is immutable, but the required effort may vary according to the nature of the course, whether you have the assistance of a TA, etc. Numbers and nature of committee responsibilities may vary and may be changeable, within the bounds of everyone’s obligations to citizenship and shared governance. Likewise, with sufficient notice, you may have control over external commitments such as peer review work. And the time you devote to pilot research, proposal writing, etc. tends to vary according to how busy you are with established projects.

Many, but not all, commitments of effort to sponsored programs come with some degree of flexibility. In many cases, a commitment of three months’ effort to a project during a 12-month project period may be distributed over the year in various ways. In other cases, the commitment may be tied to a rigorously scheduled project plan, a seasonal window for field work, or a window of time for travel.

When you are listed among the personnel on a proposal, we (you, your department chair, your dean, the university) are making a provisional commitment of your effort. When we submit a proposal, we are telling the sponsor that we have a basis to believe that if an award is made, the people named in the proposal will be available to devote effort as described. While the commitment is provisional, needing to make changes can affect others involved in the project as well as our collective relationship with the sponsor.

It’s important, therefore, to think ahead about commitments in the pipeline. Because only a fraction of proposals are funded, it’s OK for these provisional commitments to exceed the effort that will actually be available. At the same time, it is important that you know what you will do if and when the proposals result in offers of awards.

Clear communication with your department chair is a critical part of effort planning. It is in collaboration with your chair that you will determine how you will meet all of your commitments, as an educator and mentor, as a citizen of the university community, as a member of the profession, as a scholar pursuing your research, and as an investigator on one or more sponsored programs.

Charging effort to sponsored programs and cost share accounts

When a commitment to a sponsored project includes a specific commitment of effort, salary is charged to the project in accord with your effort plan:

  • to the project account if the sponsor is providing salary reimbursement; and/or
  • to a cost share account associated with the project for any effort for which the sponsor is not providing reimbursement.

Salary can be charged to a project or cost share account only during the period in which the effort was devoted to the project. You can never, for example, devote effort to a project in the Fall and charge salary for that effort in the Spring. Accordingly, it is critically important to:

  • adhere to your effort plan, and
  • if changes become necessary, recognize the need as early as possible so that adaptations can be made, remembering that many sponsors have strict rules requiring prior approval of changes.
Effort certification

The university certifies effort based upon payroll records (account(s) to which salary was charged) and the individual’s formal verification that at least the effort reflected in these records was indeed devoted to each project. Misrepresentation on an effort certification is an instance of research misconduct and can also give rise to criminal charges. It’s important that you:

  • never sign an effort report that you recognize to be incorrect*,
  • plan well, leaving sufficient room for contingencies, and
  • recognize as early as possible if you might have difficulty meeting all commitments as originally planned.

* Effort reports can be corrected or a manual effort report can be generated to ensure accurate and timely certification. If a correction is necessary or a manual effort report required, please contact ineffort@lehigh.edu for guidance.

College and departmental support

Throughout the year, your commitments to each of your projects, your sources of monthly salary, and your plans for the coming months should all be tracked and reviewed regularly by your department or college. This is among their roles and responsibilities in management of sponsored programs. Your effort commitments agreed with your chair at the beginning of each semester should be provided to your department administrator for tracking purposes.

Be sure that your department administrator, or the office that covers these responsibilities for your department, is kept current of any changes for tracking purposes. This is especially important whenever new proposals are submitted, new awards are received, or other responsibilities affect available effort.

Part-time appointments and other activities

Most members of the Lehigh faculty and staff have full-time appointments, so the total of available effort is 100%. For faculty, complementary and non-competitive outside professional activities as described in R&P Section 2.5 are not subtracted from that available effort. For a faculty member who does have professional commitments other than those described in R&P 2.5, you should have arrangements, made with your college and the Provost’s office, for modification of your faculty position and your reduced total available effort should be specified.

You should be aware that Federal agencies may require the university to certify that it has reviewed any contracts into which you have entered for professional activities outside of the university or that the agency be provided with copies of them.

Summer effort

The same principles that apply to planning of Fall and Spring apply equally to Summer effort. While total effort committed to university activities in the Summer may be less than full-time, it remains necessary that you are able to fulfill all of those commitments in light of the totality of your professional activities. Accordingly, it is essential that professional activities that you commit to in parallel with your university activities in the Summer be included in your effort planning for the Summer. The note above with regard to review and provision of outside contracts applies here as well.

It’s possible that all of your substantive commitments to Summer effort will be to research projects or other sponsored programs. It’s unusual, however, for a person to commit 100% of their effort to organized research projects over the full course of the summer. This is because of allowances made for other necessary professional activities, including any work with students outside the context of organized research projects, any pilot projects, substantive professional activities such as editing and peer review, etc. In addition, because members of the tenure line faculty do not get paid time off, a faculty member who commits to 100% all-Summer effort cannot take any vacation.

The Provost’s office policy requires your dean’s approval to commit more than 2.5 months’ total effort (83%) in the Summer. Commitments exceeding that amount must be entered into only with great care. Be aware that effort can’t be aggregated over the course of the whole Summer when a program or reporting period begins or ends in the Summer months. Most importantly, be aware that if contingencies arise that prevent you from fulfilling your commitments, the university will be unable to certify your effort and salary dollars would need to be credited back to sponsored program accounts.

For the best approach to funding Summer salary, see the information below regarding reimbursement for effort and salary savings.

Reimbursement for effort and salary savings

You should seek reimbursement for your effort whenever the sponsor allows it, and especially with a sponsor such as NIH that routinely expects to provide it. 

For members of the tenure line faculty, salary is provided as part of the college budget. When a sponsored program provides for a portion of the salary, the college therefore realizes salary savings. Salary savings can be used for a variety of purposes, including extra student support, repair and replacement of small equipment, etc. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) limits salary reimbursement to two months per year. Because years ago the NSF limit was two Summer months, and because it is a common source of Summer salary, many investigators continue to think of NSF salary support as being limited to the Summer. In reality, reimbursement for actual effort can be provided from an NSF grant at any time as long as the two-month annual limit isn’t exceeded. Remember that reimbursement for effort must be contemporaneous with the actual effort. We can never seek reimbursement in the Summer for effort devoted to a project in the Fall or Spring.

Accrual of salary savings from reimbursement for Fall and Spring semester effort, can be a source of support for Summer salary. With sound effort planning, this allows a prolific investigator to fully fund their Summer salary without creating the overcommitment risks described above, and also to have funds available for other important needs.

You should consult with your department chair and dean’s office regarding use of salary savings. There may be salary recovery expectations for members of the faculty who have been afforded with additional time for research by reduction of other responsibilities.