Archive for: January, 2011

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

Lessons learned last night

Jan 06 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

1) Despite the fact that your child decides that she is "sick" every night on car ride home, the one time you decide to completely ignore her is the time she will fill your backseat with vomit.

2) My child needs to chew her food better.

3) Pillow pets soak up a decent amount of vomit.

4) The universe likes to fuck with me (although this is not a new revelation).

Four days left before the first of two deadlines and the stomach bug hits day care. I fear it is only a matter of time before I am walking down the street like this:

13 responses so far

Prepping the lab for the proposal bomb

Jan 05 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

A couple of people, including Jen and Leigh, brought up an important point about grant proposal time from a trainee perspective on the post from the other day. Essentially the message was "It's all well and good to depend on data from your trainees as long as those data are not demanded on an impossible time frame".

Agreed. There's nothing worse for morale than feeling like the boss is over demanding or "doesn't get what it takes" anymore. I say that with the caveat that there may be occasions during the life of a lab where everyone has to focus on certain things and burn a little extra midnight oil to get shit done before a deadline. It's part of the funding game and it should not be a regular thing. But, that doesn't mean that a PI should storm into the lab demanding that a ten day experiment produce data in three days because of a deadline.

So what can one do to prep the lab for an upcoming deadline?

Well, I can tell you what I have had some luck with and let others weigh in on their experience. The lab submitted several proposals in June and July and the summer was a bit crazy with travel and such. When September rolled around, I used a lab meeting to talk about each project in the lab and what needed to get done during the semester to make the next round of proposals competitive, should they not be funded. I gave each person in the lab a list of things that they should focus on and we talked about papers that we could / should start writing.

At the end of November I revisited these things and talked with each person about how I was structure the proposal their work was related to and what they could provide. That gave most people a head's up on what was coming and the data I needed. Based on that, there has been very little data that we have been trying to squeak out at the last minute. Sure, there is some, but the amount is relatively low. I also found that this approach helped me to focus the direction of the proposals (because any resubmit needs something a little fresh to spruce it up, no matter how high it was rated in the previous round) and think hard about what papers we can start to get out.

All in all, it was successful this year so far. Part of that is related to the maturity of the lab (much more settled and established than even this time last year) and the fact that we have been producing a lot of data so that we have plenty to analyze and not a lot to produce for these proposals. Nevertheless, I think the people in the lab liked knowing what my more long-term thoughts were for each project and what they could contribute to the whole while advancing their own agendas.

6 responses so far

I'm sorry, I can't do that

Jan 03 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If there's one thing that has been clear with this round of grants, it's that when I need some data to slot into a section, I've got to walk down the hall and ask the right people in the lab to rustle up the data I need. Gone are the days when I could seemlessly alternate between Word and the bench, laying the groundwork for the proposal as I wrote the sections. I knew this point would eventually arrive, I just didn't expect it to get here so quickly.

Part of me is thinks this is not a great development. I mean, I could get most of this stuff done, but it would take hours of time invested that I just can't commit in the same way that the people in my lab can, so I don't. At the same time, I'm happy that I have trainees who have pushed the limits of what we do to the point where they have gone outside my comfort zone and continued to plow ahead. I've asked them to do things that I can't directly train them in, but pointed them in the right direction, and off they have gone. This is a good thing.

It does feel a bit strange to have to depend so heavily on others so that I can craft a compelling proposal, but taking the big picture approach is the only way I see to thrive. I know some PIs spend all sorts of time at the bench (to which everyone always ooohs and ahhs when it comes up) or insist on being able to perform all of the work going on in their lab, but I just don't see that as a viable strategy for me. My best place seems to be directing the course of the work by discussing strategy and troubleshooting and I'm slowly getting more comfortable with that.

11 responses so far

Getting me through

Jan 03 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

One song, two videos:

The Rube Goldberg machine version done with a bunch of students from MIT (posted by DGT a while back):

Or perhaps a marching band style is more your thing:

Either way, enjoy. And don't forget the message.

3 responses so far

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