Reading the budgetary tea leaves

Jan 07 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Budgets. They're kinda important when it comes to writing a grant proposal. Not only does it let the agency know how you plan to spend their money, but it also tells your financial office how to categorize the money when you get it. In this way, every federal or foundation dollar you bring in finds itself predetermined for a certain function. Some agencies are more or less stringent on money moving between categories or how strict those categories are, but you get the point.

Beyond that, there is certainly pressure to keep the dollar amount of a proposal as low as possible while making sure you can do the work. If you don't think that panels notice the "bang for buck" of grants when deciding between two similarly rated proposals, think again. Therefore "padding" numbers to ensure you have some leeway in the final accounting is a fine line to walk.

Where all of this comes to a head is when numbers change during the time between when you make your budget and you have to spend the money. Sudden spikes in the cost of reagents, services or personnel can soak up grant funds too quickly and leave PI scrambling for ways to rob Peter to pay Paul.

The one place you might expect to understand this issue would be a university, right? Right?

In writing my proposals for this round, I mistakenly used the grad student tuition and stipend numbers for the `11-`14 academic years and postdoc health care costs for that same time period. When I went to review my budgets with my college, they had different numbers (I'll give you a guess which direction the numbers went). Okay, got that all sorted. When I sent the budgets for approval at the grant office it turns out that my college didn't have the brand new shiny number from three weeks ago, so the numbers needed additional alteration.

In a six month period the numbers we were given that projected out to 2014 went up, twice.

Okay, I can handle making the changes to my budget, but you can see where this is going. If my proposal is funded at $X and the cost to the grant in year three (or even year one) is $X+20%, where does that money come from? I'm not sure yet, but I wonder why we bother giving exact projected numbers to faculty ($15,812? Really?) for budgeting purposes when someone somewhere is just throwing a dart at a board to come up with them.

8 responses so far

  • WhizBANG! says:

    I'm always amazed at how exact my internal budget has to be for a modular NIH grant.

  • When are you going to start applying for NIH money? Don't waste that ESI status.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Thanks, Mom. I just got the summary statement back from the summer and I'll be submitting two in Feb. I'm still a spring chick by their standards, so I'll be aright for a few years.

  • rknop says:

    Very few people understand significant figures. I know this is true, anyway, for students who take physics and astronomy classes in college. (This is true even of the science focused students. They eventually figure it out, but for a long time "significant figures" remain arbitrary and annoying rules whose origin they don't really *understand*. I remember being in that state myself, from 8th grade when I first learned about them until my second or third year of college when I really *grokked* uncertainties, after seeing them in a few different courses.)

    Spreadsheets and calculators certainly don't understand significant figures, and we don't want them making our judgement calls for us. So, they report lots of digits. Most people think that the more precise an answer, the more right it is. As such, we get $15,812 out the other side, because that's what the calculator says... even if the *right* answer is $16,000.

  • physioprof says:

    If my proposal is funded at $X and the cost to the grant in year three (or even year one) is $X+20%, where does that money come from? I’m not sure yet[.]

    I hate to be the one to tell you this, holmes, but the money doesn't "come from" anywhere. Once your grant gets awarded at a particular dollar amount, regardless of your submitted budget or desired budget or inflation or any other fucken thing, you've simply got to make do with the amount of money you're awarded.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Dude, that's my point. If my university can't come anywhere close to projecting close to accurate numbers it'll be me who has to scrabble to figure it out.

  • drugmonkey says:

    it’ll be me who has to scrabble to figure it out.

    Simple. Write moar grants!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Hey, why did "The Circle of Life" start playing just now?

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