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Earma 2021: Covid-19 has changed grant audits—but some advice is timeless, says Ellen Thompson

On 16 March last year, many lives changed in an instant when people in the UK were told “to start working from home where they possibly can”. Our grant audit department upped sticks and moved to home offices, taking screens, docking stations, keyboards and other paraphernalia with us. 

All our files are held in the cloud, so besides having to relocate our computers we experienced little disruption. But for some of our clients the auditing of their research projects came to a shuddering halt. This was mainly because paper files, such as invoices, expense forms and receipts, were sitting in offices that had become out of bounds. 

The largest cost in most research projects is personnel. In terms of evidence, payroll data could easily be extracted online and timesheets completed via spreadsheets. The biggest problem here is the authorisation of timesheets—usually by a ‘wet’ signature. Fortunately, funders have given permission to allow email authorisation. 

Invoices themselves could be re-requested from the suppliers, and procurement documentation is usually maintained electronically. The predominant force majeure exception we have been making in audit reports is for a lack of evidence for travel expense forms—that is, the supporting receipts for pre-pandemic travel. 

Some funders, such as the European Commission, have been lenient in accepting an exception for these expenses, but others are requesting their removal. We always suggest leaving such a cost in and allowing the relevant funder’s project officers to decide on their eligibility.

Initially, funders were largely amenable to delays in the submission of audit reports, but now project officers don’t seem to be as lenient. Additionally, after 12 months of signing audit reports electronically, recently one funder on the continent requested wet signatures (in duplicate) from both the beneficiary and from us, the auditors. 

Despite the UK national lockdown, my director and I went into our offices to collate the relevant audit reports (socially distant, of course), sign them (in blue pen; the Commission doesn’t like black ink), and then courier them to the continent. 

When or if restrictions lift, what will the new normal look like? We have already told our grant audit team the choice of location is theirs: work from home, work in the office, or a hybrid. 

We were also already encouraging more clients to work remotely with us, saving both travel time and reducing our carbon footprint. Hopefully, the enforced restrictions of the pandemic have shown that grant audits can be completed efficiently remotely, although we do still anticipate making a small number of on-site visits.

With a third wave of Covid-19 cases raging in Europe, it is premature to draw definitive conclusions. In the meantime, research managers and administrators can do several things to make their working lives easier. 

By the book

First and foremost: read the manual. Every funding stream has its own terms and conditions, and it’s vital to understand these thoroughly before, during, and after the project, to ensure costs are being claimed in accordance with them.

The biggest errors we see involve incorrect staff methodology being used to calculate personnel costs. For example, Horizon 2020 projects must use 1,720 annual productive hours to calculate an hourly rate, if annual hours can’t be derived from the employment contract. US National Institutes of Health projects, in contrast, allow beneficiaries to use their standard productive hours, which is usually 1,650 hours in the UK. 

Our second biggest query is not having the project relevance clear on claimed costs, so document this on all evidence. Who did you buy a computer for? How did your flight to Sydney relate to the project? If something doesn’t look right, don’t claim it. 

We could fill a book with anecdotes of misguided claims. For example, on one Framework 7 project we were auditing, a postdoc had claimed a taxi to the supermarket, dried fruit, flour, eggs, spices, marzipan, and other food items, and a taxi home. 

When we queried the project relevance, we were told it was to bake a Christmas Cake for the lab. Needless to say, we disallowed the costs. It’s not that the grant holder shouldn’t have covered the cost, but they should not have been charged to the project. Another thing we see more often than we should is when employees are travelling with their family to conferences, and then the partner and children’s travel and subsistence costs are charged to the project as well. 

Research managers need to keep an open mind, but be sceptical. And above all…read the manual. 

A presentation on this work is taking place at the Earma 2021 conference this month. Research Professional News is Earma’s media partner.

Ellen Thompson is the senior grant audit manager at LEES Chartered Certified Accountants, based in Norwich, UK

This article also appeared in Research Europe and a version also appeared in Research Fortnight