Responsible Conduct of Reality

May 26 2011 Published by under grants

Today's post involves discussion of a situation that arises when you collaborate with others on grants, and perhaps particularly when you are part of a large project involving many other PIs: different people have different views about grant budgets, and in particular, different people have different views about time and money and how to spend both.

I have a rather 'fluid' relationship with time and money, in research and in life in general. I know that grant budgets, no matter how meticulously constructed, are to some extent approximations. We can't predict exactly, to the dollar, how much we are going to need for particular research activities. We can guess -- and it's best if we can guess very well -- but I am never able to guess perfectly.

Things change during the course of a research project. This can be bad, but it can also be very very good. As long as what we do with the grant money is consistent with the research aims of the work proposed, there is some flexibility about how the money is spent.

It's best when a multi-year grant arrives all in one big chunk instead of as year-to-year increments because that allows the maximum flexibility for optimizing the research activities. We do have to itemize our budgets year-by-year, but again, reality and opportunity typically intrude.

I was thinking about this recently because I was trying to work without someone who takes budgets literally; i.e., if we budgeted X, we are going to do X and nothing more or less than X, and we are going to do X exactly when we said we would do X, even if it doesn't make sense to do that anymore. In my opinion, it might make more sense to do X + 7 and to do that in Year 3 instead of Year 2. That's part of the fluidity of a research project. To some people, that is chaos and unacceptable.

I don't get the impression that Literal Budget People think it is unethical to change research plans; it's just that some of them can't imagine doing so. They make a research plan, and they follow it, like a set of directions from point A to point B. I view research plans as a rough guide for where I think I want to go, and then I dive in, perhaps get a bit lost, but eventually end up somewhere interesting.

I don't mean to make the Literal Budget People (LBP) sound uncreative and entirely rigid in all respects. The ones I know are excellent scientists. Perhaps a preference for sticking to the original plan relates to some very positive characteristics in their intellectual pursuits. Strangely, I have found some LBPs to be less efficient at certain research activities, as they spend a lot of time trying to find ways to stick to the original plan and have trouble when there is no choice but to make some modifications.

I suppose these LBPs are being more responsible than I am about spending grant money, but, as long as I am not being unethical and as long as I am making decisions based on what is best for the research and its personnel, I prefer to take a more holistic, syn-optic approach to research activities (and their costs) and not view my budget plan as a rigid, untouchable object.

So the trick now is for a group of us with different views on how to do research (and spend research money) to find ways to work well together and keep open the lines of scientific communication and cooperation, even as we disagree about some of the logistics. Perhaps we can isolate the research logistics of the various research components without isolating too much of the actual science we need to do together.

How do you view (grant) time and money? Do you try to stick to your original plan as much as possible, or are you comfortable veering from the planĀ  and seeing where the research takes you?

11 responses so far

  • Your colleagues who behave this way are motherfucken dumshittes, who are not only fucken clueless about how science works, but also fucken clueless about the federal statutory laws and administrative rules that govern the use of research grant funds.

  • mihos says:

    As long as I am not radically changing the scope of the funded work, I have no problem at all revising my budget or research plans, nor have I had any objections from my funding agencies. I *do* sometimes have issues with administrators at my university, whose job it is to count and track my beans, but for the most part the worst they do is throw hoops into my path rather than full blown barriers.

  • Respi Sci says:

    Research is meant to be fluid. If someone never deviates from their original plan as new data emerge, I salute their ability to predict the future with such a high degree of accuracy. I function by having a "'big picture" plan to which we do try to adhere, but the individual steps to achieve that plan changes, both in regards to time, money and resources allocated.

  • Since the original budgets are fantasies made up to fit NIH modular increments, it is absolutely essential to be flexible. One of the most important flexibilities is converting almost everything in the budget to grad student support, and using no-cost extensions to get an extra year out of the grant.

  • GMP says:

    Thankfully, I haven't had to work with Literal Budget People so far. I have several micromanaging/anally retentive collaborators who need to have the last say on everything, but even they are aware that fluidity in directing research and rebudgeting is very important.

  • gekko says:

    It seems like the main issue is how to work with people like that? I guess it could be good in that it could make you justify any changes to the research plan (and so you'd have to really think them through and have good arguments), but it would also be annoying.

  • Anon says:

    Why work with someone with drastically different views on money? Just like, why marry someone with drastically different money views.

  • Science Professor says:

    How do you know that about someone in advance? (I mean a colleague, not a prospective spouse.) I formed a research team of colleagues I knew to be excellent, productive scientists, realizing only later that there was a great variation in approach to spending grant money.

    • Anon says:

      Here is a way to test the potential collaborator: put a post-it note on a twenty dollar bill that says "this money is for you to buy a coffee for you and a collegue, from an anonymous citizen". Then put this twenty bucks somewhere where he/she will see it and you will be the next person they see. If they take you to coffee and also buy a scone, you have a winner, if they insist to spend all the twenty dollars on coffee in one sitting they are not going to be a good collaborator.

  • Marie Anne says:

    "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
    Gang aft agley"