Funding Gaps

I love my job. It’s awesome even when it’s not. But there are aspects of it that are best not thought about lest you really enjoy feeling helpless. One of them is being able fund research with students, which requires long-term planning and flexibility, through 3-year-grants with small budgets and very low paylines (probability of funding). Add to it a completely dysfunctional legislative part of the government, coupled with increasing institutional overhead rates but reduced overhead returns, and sprinkle with lots of evidence of ever decreasing institutional support, both monetary and in kind. We are in seriously surreal, effed up territory, and thinking about everyone’s conflicting expectations of the PI just makes me enraged. 

Here is an example. I am a co-PI on a grant that is expiring in the fall. The PI and several co-PIs each have a student on the grant and, while we have money left, the agency had stopped considering no-cost extensions a year or two ago so it won’t give us more time to spend the money. The project has progressed very well; we applied for a renewal and it’s been sitting with the agency for over 6 months. The program manager says it will be funded, eventually. They can’t or won’t tell us anything more because federal budgets and whatnot.  The old grant is expiring, not “eventually” but in September 2014. We have students who are midway through the program and won’t be graduating in September. It wouldn’t be a good idea to graduate everyone then even if it were possible because then the renewal would have to go from scratch with all untrained people. So what the heck are we supposed to do, how are we supposed to pay these students between September and “eventually”?

We could pay them as TAs! Oh, wait, the college slashed our department instructional budget into tiny, tiny confetti, so very few courses are actually getting any kind of TA support. So we might get one student a TA, but others will be out of luck.

Sure, we can temporarily or not so temporarily fund the students on other grants! Alas, that’s not really what any of the federal agencies want us to do — people have gotten into trouble in the past for moving staff around like that, as electronic grant management systems have made audits much easier to do. The question is what the student does and who actually funds the work, and things can get really hairy unless you have a pretty iron-clad justification for the transfer and the topics are similar. A few months ago, at the PI meeting of one of the agencies that fund me,  the agency division director gave a pretty terrifying speech about how problematic the way  in which we all acknowledge grants usually is. For instance, saying in a paper, “This work has been funded by the NSF, grant DMR-12xxxx, DOE grant BES-6748463yyyyy, and ONR grant FA-@#-789&*&*&483” is woefully inadequate. You are supposed to separate work done, for instance “scanning electron microscopy of leprechaun feces was funded by the NSF grant DMR-12xxxx, the instrumentation development for catching leprechauns was funded by the ONR grant FA-@#-789&*&*&483, while the development of a process to harvest energy from leprechaun feces was funded by the DOE grant BES-6748463yyyyy.”

So what are we going to do? Beats me. There are still 8 months left. It will, as usual, probably be a combination of all of the options — students who can will graduate, we’ll look for TA support in the department and outside (some departments like math actually have a shortage of TAs!), as well as move students to other grants if we can reasonably justify so. But it certainly does not help the project for the students to be terrified that they won’t be able to pay the rent. It’s a huge waste of time and energy, as multiple PIs are engaged in trying to scramble for bits of money so we’d be able to pay the students, who depend on this funding completely, in order to continue to do research on this project until “eventually” the money comes in again. It seems that the scientists involved are the only one who actually care that the research get done. To the powers that be, which either bestow or manage the funds, it’s just money and paper pushed around, not actual people doing actual science.


  1. Love your blog! You are right on the money about grants administration. The funding model for science is so effed up, it is a miracle that anything gets done. Since at least in biomedical sciences, extensive preliminary data is expected for a reasonable chance at a grant these days, I’m not sure where people think funding to support getting preliminary data for “new ideas” would come from, if it can’t come from existing grants. Maybe we should start a tracking system for pencils and test tubes to make sure that each tube used in our experiments was paid for by the appropriate grant.

  2. @BugDoc, if you are buying pencils off an NSF or NIH grant, you are in violation of the rules. Those are office supplies and are supposed to be bought with the overhead funds that you aren’t getting. (More expensively, paper and printer cartridges aren’t supposed tobe charged to grants.)

    Are you saying that your institution does not have inventory control for Eppendorf tubes?

  3. Those are office supplies and are supposed to be bought with the overhead funds that you aren’t getting. (More expensively, paper and printer cartridges aren’t supposed to be charged to grants.)

    This is one of my favorite gripes, don’t even get me started. All I know is all the things that I cannot do — feds say can’t buy paper/toner/computers on grants, must use overhead. University says tough luck, we spent overhead money already, nothing is coming back. How the fuck are we supposed to do work? The universities got too comfortable with the idea of overhead being “free money” whereas it was never supposed to be that. As usual, it’s PI’s in the bind.

    I do computation and you have no freaking idea how much paperwork I have to go through to buy desktop computers for students. Federal agencies consider them office supplies, but for us they are a key tool, so every time I get a new student computer I have to fill out justification why it’s necessary and allowable and that the student is only working on that grant etc.

  4. The timeline sounds incredibly frustrating. I’m still so bewildered why everything takes so long in the public sector. Not just in government, but in academia, administrations, and committees. If those in charge did realize that there are people attached to the numbers then maybe they would get off their asses and do things in a timely manner. Or, maybe they choose to deal with numbers because having people attached just complicates things.

    I guess you could always have a lab car wash or bake sale… 🙂

  5. yes I know that!!! And no, I don’t buy them with NIH funds, but with the overhead I don’t get (as you say). Just easy to be snarky about pencils. Also computers can’t be charged to grants since you might use them for multiple projects. Not totally clear on the logic there since you can buy equipment that could be used for multiple projects, e.g., tissue culture hoods, but hey, logic is overrated. We shouldn’t even joke about inventory control for Eppendorf tubes; that is essentially where my institution is heading.

  6. I am so lucky that my students can easily be covered with teaching assistant-ships. My research area was in part chosen by my desire to avoid being as tied to external funding as your work is. I admire your ability to juggle it. I can’t do any research without a grant, but my students are much more independent from my funding status. Funding is so poor in my research area that we don’t usually fund more than one student at any one time on a grant anyway, as funding agencies don’t like to do it.

    Indirect cost recovery is such a frustrating thing. My university’s chancellor started a meme saying that NSF and NIH-funded research actually costs the university so much more than what is recovered by the in-directs that, he insinuated, it was the main reason we were facing budget problems. Us selfish faculty, always wanting to do externally funded research… and all it brings the university is prestige. Prestige pres-schmige. Money for new football stadiums, now that is what we really need.

    The administration even seriously considered charging faculty for the internet off of our research grants. Yep, cause you know, we never use the internet for anything other than research, right? Can you imagine?! Which grant would cover THAT if pencils and computers are so difficult to justify as project-specific? Craziness.

  7. NASA has no problem funding computers either, so those sort of expenses vary from funding agency to funding agency. The rest of it is a complete eff-up, though, I agree.

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