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 plan and seeing where the research takes you?