Archive for the 'grants' category

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

Grant Expiration

Mar 16 2011 Published by under graduate school, grants

This post addresses grant-related questions sent by readers who wonder how to deal with the mismatch in timing that may occur between the life-time of a grant and the time-frame of a grad student supported by a grant. What do you -- as a PI or as a student RA -- do when the mismatch in time is rather large?

If a doctoral student and a 3-year grant start at exactly the same time, and the student finishes their PhD in 4-5 years, things are probably going to work out fine if the grant goes into a no-cost extension for a year or two (it may not have any RA salary left in it, but it can cover some research expenses) and if the student and advisor are efficient about publishing dissertation-related papers so that any publication costs can be charged to the grant.

PIs in doctoral programs that typically take >4-5 years need to get successive grants in order to support a student fully during their grad program.

In a 4-5 year PhD program, if a grant kicks in after a doctoral student has started, chances are even better that one grant will cover the student's research expenses during the entire program of graduate study. And of course it is also possible that a later, related grant might be acquired that can reasonably cover a student's research expenses during their grad school years (and perhaps beyond, if there are continuing expenses relate to the dissertation research).

But what if that doesn't work out? What if the student, for reasons beyond the control of the advisor, takes a really long time to finish their PhD, and the original grant or grants have long expired? Or, in one case described by a reader, what if an advisor suddenly leaves (quits, retires, dies) before a student has completed their research, or leaves just after a student finishes but the student has post-graduation dissertation-related expenses that would normally be covered by their ex-advisor's grant?

Case 1: student time-to-degree >> expiration date of grant(s), through no fault of advisor

Unless the advisor has a slush fund (from indirect cost return, from an award, from residual start-up funds) and is very nice, there may be some expenses that can't and won't be covered: e.g., publication costs, travel to conferences to give presentations related to the dissertation research. This case sounds straightforward, but it may not be if the reasons the student took so long to finish and write their papers were owing to health problems, family situations (including childbirth/adoption), or other factors that have nothing to do with procrastination, writing problems, or a strong desire to remain in graduate school as long as possible. As has been much discussed elsewhere, however, PIs have limited means to provide long-term financial help in these situations.

In this case, students should think ahead and be aware that their advisor might not be able to pay for some research-related expenses after a grant has really and truly expired. PIs should communicate about these issues as well, but students can be proactive about getting the information they need about the lifespan of grants.

Case 2: student starts project after grant has started

Sometimes it can be hard to recruit a student to start on a project at exactly the same time a grant begins. I can typically get someone by Year 2 of a grant and then deal with the mismatch via no-cost extensions, but sometimes even this is not sufficient. It is the PIs responsibility to make sure the student has sufficient resources to do their research in a reasonable time-frame, perhaps by getting a new, related grant to continue the project.

Case 3: the advisor leaves academia (e.g., quits, dies) during or soon after their advisees' years of graduate study

If a PI leaves academia before a grant expires, another colleague can take over the grant so that it can continue to fund ongoing research by students and/or postdocs. It is the department's responsibility to find the best solution that minimizes harm to the personnel involved.

I once had a colleague leave suddenly to take an industry job; we were co-advising a student in his department. I had been PI on the first grant that funded the student, but after that expired, my colleague was PI on the second grant. When he left, his department chair got a professor in that department to take over the grant (there were logistical reasons why I couldn't do it) and co-advising responsibility until the student finished. These things can be worked out.

The department's responsibility may not, however, extend beyond the graduation of a student. If there are lingering expenses for publications etc., a former student or postdoc could contact the department chair to see if there are residual funds, but if not, the outcome is not so different from in case 1 -- when a grant is gone, it's gone -- but in this case there is no chance of additional funding to continue the research.


My biggest challenge with this general issue has been finding ways to pay for publications by students (long) after a grant has expired. PIs can't just charge expenses from one project to another, unrelated grant. In fact, we aren't even supposed to use a pencil bought by one grant to scribble a note or equation or brilliant illustration related to another project. Actually, I don't think we are even supposed to buy pencils with grants. In any case, there are restrictions. So, even if a PI seems very well funded, it doesn't mean that s/he could pay for your publication costs if s/he weren't so cheap.

It would be nice if grants never really expired, and continued to pay for all justified research expenses for as long as needed, but so far this doesn't seem to be a realistic option.


12 responses so far