Research budget overhaul
Three heads of top Taiwanese educational and research institutions issued a joint statement urging courts against charging researchers who are under investigation for allegedly making fraudulent reimbursement claims or embezzling approved research funds (“Charges against professors ‘unfair,’” Jan. 7, page 1).
The case, unfortunate as it is, provides an opportunity to strengthen current research and legal practices in Taiwan.
As a legal researcher experienced in federal grants in the US I would like to offer the following observations.
In the US, a research program can be initiated with the principal investigator (PI) responding to prospective funder’s “request for proposal.” Upon the proposal’s approval, the PI enters a contract by meeting the terms and conditions of the proposal-turned-contract, consenting to fulfill the research contract as proposed and approved. Three elements of contract law; expectation, reliance and restitution, are legally binding for the PI and the funded institution.
The PI is responsible for overseeing the proposed research scope (ie, fulfilling the expectation), executing the budget on behalf of the funded institution (reliance) and assuming liability if it fails to perform (restitution).
The PI is liable for fulfilling all the terms and conditions of the signed research contract as agreed upon, with the PI ultimately accountable for successful implementation of the proposed project.
Proposed research projects are approved on scientific merits, and any revisions of the accepted proposal — including those that may affect the original approved merits or budget items used to support the merits — should be kept minimal.
A one-time, minor budget revision is permissible when the award is made, the research contract is developed and then finalized. Research grants or contracts are, unless otherwise agreed upon, awarded to institutions (eg, universities or organizations, the “grantees”) which are responsible for overseeing research and budget operation.
For every new project awarded the grantee creates a research project account, and covers expenses for the PI and project team, before requesting reimbursements from the funder; either on a quarterly basis or upon project completion.
This arrangment is so that to the burden of oversight is placed on the grantee — such as the university — to ensure that the PI follows through the proposed research.
For the present case in Taiwan, there is a need to improve oversight of the disconnect, buy-ins among program sponsors, researchers and grantees as the PI institutions, with the latter being liable for researchers’ failure to execute the contract governing proposed research. In addition, considerable latitude in budget revision should be allowed for justifiable items approved by the funded institutions.
Lastly, the joint statement by the three educational heads — though emotionally charged and forceful — has little dispositive value in trials of this case where great reliance would be placed on legal precedents and jurisprudential reasoning.
For it to be made legally useful, the statement could have been offered as an amicus curiae (ie, friend of the courts) brief. Amici briefs allow anyone who has a strong interest in, but is not a party to a lawsuit, to petition the court and present positions relevant to the trial. The briefs, submitted before a trial, may be admissible in court if they are persuasive and representative.