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.