The ethics of lab spending

Jan 12 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In yesterday's post, CPP made the following comment with regard to using federal grant money:

I have *always* outspent my revenues on an annual basis, with the goal of increasing the rate of scientific growth in my lab, and thus the rate at which I can obtain additional funding in the future.

I can see where this is coming from - the need to grow now to produce data to cash in later - but the problems are many. Perhaps most importantly is dealing with the issues surrounding using funds from one project to start the next. This is essentially unavoidable to a certain extent because the bar for "preliminary" data is so high in the current environment and there is no question that taking what you proposed to the next level is within the bounds of fair play. Technology changes during the lifetime of a grant and sometimes opportunities come up that are well within the scope of the funded project. As I'm writing this, Drugmonkey left the following comment on the same post basically saying the same thing:

Regarding "between projects", I suppose you have to think about whether it fits the mission of the agency or directorate/IC. I would not worry too much about, say, pursuing a topic that differed in some but not all particulars from the proposed grant. In NIDA land for example, doing work of a similar nature that involved a different abused drug. Or pursuing different outcome measures for the same drug. Investigation under some cancer model might be too far, even though it is of interest to the broader agency.

Basically, does it pass the smell test?

Interestingly I've gotten critical remarks from a program officer even when doing pretty much exactly what we proposed *plus* some other stuff that I thought was clearly related to the core goals (and subsequent progress verified this). That only happened once and that whole branch of the IC is a little odd in their thinking at present.

So where does that leave NEW projects that sit just (or way) outside your current funding? I know what the company line is here, but what is common practice? How does one get money together to pursue a novel line of research? It happens all the time, but where does the money come from? Small internal pots? Exploratory grants? PI overhead return? Skimming from other projects? Perhaps using consumables paid for by the feds on an unfunded project is a pretty gray area, but what if there is a special reagent or need to generate specific novel data?

Or are people just leaving a preliminary proposal under their pillows at night?

13 responses so far

  • Medium Priority 4 Life says:

    As a new investigator with new NSF money I am following the CPP model. From my perspective because of the needed preliminary data to get funded, a good portion of the funded proposal has been paid for and done already. So person time and money can be redirected to other efforts.

  • Neuropop says:

    As per comment above. The "preliminary data" in my funded grants are pretty much figures for the paper(s) that are under review/in press. So Aims 1-2 are pretty much done bar crossing some Ts. As the personnel funded on said grant chug along finishing Aim 3 (or some such), the they can be deployed towards the next proposal. In NSF land there is no concept of renewal, and I am yet to renew my first R01.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    I just got done writing a Progress Report for budget year 1 of my current grant. It would seem that some of the things we are currently looking at are 'outside' of the Aims as originally described. To avoid raising eyebrows, I wrote about the negative data and how we continued to interrogate the Aim by doing X, Y and Z, and look we found B! Because this is year 2 of my lab, I don't really have the problem of disparate projects bleeding money into each other....but given the grants that I have and am putting in, this could get interesting....

  • Pascale says:

    Ah, but agencies are so much more vigilant these days. My former employer had people who made sure that protocols and stuff matched the grant to which they were linked. If I submitted an animal protocol that did not match the grant I wanted to pay with (even though I had noted a change in direction with annual reports), the "police" would not let me use that funding source.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm not questioning the practice of working towards the future on the current money. One would assume that the goals of the funded grant are still in line with the work on-going. I'm more curious about people using money for unrelated projects. I don't work on animals, so the protocol issue is not something I need to deal with.

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    "Related" is a very malleable concept, and if you aren't creative enough to explain how what you are doing is "related" to your funded specific aims, then it's hard to see how you would be creative enough to sustain a diverse research program, anyway.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Dude, you crack me up.

    The key unknown for new people, like myself, is how much play is in the line. If I'm asked to justify a certain expense I could easily come up with a plausible explanation, but don't want to be in the position where a PO calls bullshit. Without some experience it is unclear how gray that zone is and I, for one, would err on the side of caution rather get burnt.

  • gerty-z says:

    I agree with CPP here. I have made some pretty big leaps in progress reports, and seen Post-doc PI make even bigger jumps. It was never that hard to come up with some relatedness. So I think there is a lot of play. In fact, I have never heard of a PO calling bullshit. Does that happen (if you are not doing animal work)?

  • No idea about NSF, but as best I can tell, NIH POs don't even read annual progress reports: they just make sure you've submitted one. I have always wanted to test this by putting some really wackaloon shitte in one of mine--like cold fusion or perpetual motion--to see if they notice.

  • My old lab just did what the hell ever they wanted and then lied about/ omitted it until time for renewal, when look! Magical prelim data ! Worked for 30+ years. Unethical, sure, but effective.

    Snooty U, despite taking 68% overhead, provided so little oversight that we once accidentally bought all our shared general lab supplies out of the same grant instead of all three, leaving one grant $80,000 in the red before my PI finally got called about it.

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  • Dr Becca says:

    @CPP-- I too thought nobody read those progress reports. But for my F32, I was asked to re-write my 2nd year prog report because it wasn't detailed enough/sounded too much like my 1st year prog report.

  • anonymous says:

    I learned last year that my NSF program officer really read my annual report very carefully. He mentioned in conversation (I called when prepping a renewal) a very minor thing that I mentioned in the report. Since, then I've taken them really seriously - and the final report is a work of art. I think it really helped out with the renewal.

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