Financial sharing

Mar 26 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Grant finances can be complicated. If your institution is anything like mine, even the mildly complicated initial budget gets a bump of ridiculousness when it hits the university coding system. Suddenly some categories are lumped together while others are split, with no apparent rhyme or reason to which is which. It's taken me long enough to figure out the intricacies of budgeting NSF proposals, but spending the money is an adventure in itself. Luckily we have very competent finance people to marry the proposal budget to the uni system and make the money flow.

But the mechanics of spending off a grant are hardly the only complicated factor. Another issue is how lines between projects blur when it comes to the flow of money. I know granting agencies want you to dedicate every penny from a grant to only that project, but I also think they recognize that science doesn't work in a linear fashion. Many projects have overlapping aspects and we are always trying to do more than what we wrote about two or three years ago as technology changes and new things become possible.

Put simply, grant budgets are flexible guidelines.

Given this, I am curious how forthcoming most PIs are with providing budgets to their trainees. Personally, I have never had a problem giving anyone working in my lab the full proposal for anything we are working on. My reasoning for this is two-fold: First, I think it useful for those hoping to make a career of this to get a feel for how grant budgets work. Where does the money go? How much do things really cost? Second, I think it is helpful for people in the lab to see the personnel costs. It's easy to see a big number on a funded proposal and think they lab is rich, but dig deeper and once you take out the university's cut, people are what drives the budget. This is generally under appreciated.

One of the drawbacks of doing this, however, is that people tend to view a grant budget in a vacuum. When you are thinking about a single project and have the budget in front of you, it is easy to forget that the budget is just one piece of the lab puzzle. There are many other factors and it is not as simple as it appears in the budget justification.

As an example, my university does not cover summer stipends for graduate students, leaving this up to the PIs. I don't believe it not paying my people over the summer (yes, some people think it is fine to pay only the academic year) so I have to make sure I can cover everyone in the summer. We also have a unionized grad student body, and the union sets academic year pay scales, but only has limits for the summer. Oddly, however, there is Summer Pay and then an allowance of "extra" summer pay in the union contract.

When I wrote up my budget for our grant, I maxed out the summer pay category, including the full summer pay and the "extra" pay money. Looking at the project in a vacuum, one might assume that I intend to pay the student on the project very well (by grad student standards) over the summer. But in reality I intended all along to have the "extra" pay be available to cover the partial summer stipend of another grad student, whose project isn't federally funded. Summer stipends can be tough to cover, but here is a mechanism to ensure more students are paid.

Based on this and other shell games that sometimes have to be played with grant finances, I'm not surprised when I hear about PIs keeping their people in the dark when it comes to lab budgets. I would be curious whether anyone has seen any bad consequences to being open about finances.

8 responses so far

  • Bashir says:

    I doubt I could get the actual budget. The PI is like a game of 20 questions. Will answer any yes/no (or maybe) question, won't volunteer anything that you don't need to know. I assume this is so the PI can flexibly do what he wants and keep lab folks expectations in line with reality.

  • My boss does not give me the actual budget but based off of our total award and rough idea of what our indirects are, I can guess the total pot of money we have to spend. But the nitty gritty breakdown is no clue and it gets even more cloudy since we also have a P01 with multiple collaborators.

  • Liz says:

    My PI certainly would (and has) shared grant budgets. I honestly have a hard time understanding why this would be kept a secret. I think trainees can appreciate that things are more complex/nuanced than one grant's budget would show, and if they don't immediately appreciate it, this is a good learning experience in and of itself. If I saw a large value for student summer funding in the budget of Project A, I definitely wouldn't intrepret that as student X is getting paid way more than I am because they are working on Project A. My opinion may be unusal because I am in a very large lab with a large number of funding sources and I have seen the complicated breakdown of my own pay coming from more than one source.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Before becoming a staff scientist I had no idea of how the budget looked, how much the institution takes, whether or not stipends (and how much) are paid off of that. Last year, towards the end, the boss came in with the year budget, and turns out we had a small surplus on one of the categories (we had categories such as conference money, computer repair, service contracts, etc) and that showed me how the money has to be divided to keep the lab running. That, and the fact that I do much of the purchasing for the lab, gives me a bit of a clue as to how to make sure we don't overextended ourselves and how good is to have service contracts and/or warranty.

    I applaud you for taking the initiative to show your trainees this. As a student, and later a postdoc I had no idea. Had I chosen to stay in the TT, I would have no idea of how to budget, what goes where and how people and contracts and such get paid. This is such an important part of training, IMO.

  • postdoc mom says:

    I think PhD students and postdocs should be shown the grants and the budgets. If they are expected to run labs and balance budgets in the future, this should be considered part of the training.

    My PhD PI never showed me the actual budget, but was pretty open about where $ was coming from for different projects (and that some projects and students were paid with unrelated $). My postdoc PI has shown me the actual budget so I could see what it looks like and how crazy the university codes things and takes $ from one line and spends it on things from another line. I appreciate that my PI's have been open about it, but writing proposals has also been a good way to learn how much things really cost (salary, benefits, overhead).

  • ecogeofemme says:

    What an interesting post. I'm curious to see other responses.

    My university adviser never shared much financial information, saying that the students shouldn't have to worry about it. I found that rather annoying because I wanted to learn how he approached lab money management. My adviser at another, non-university institution was much more open, although she never shared details of budgets - probably because I never asked. She was very instructive about how overhead was charged, politics of funding at multiple levels, etc. and as a result, I seem to know a LOT more about how things work than most postdocs I know. My postdoc adviser shares even more, and I'm actually able to fill him in on details from time to time based on what I learned from my previous PI. However, he doesn't give me enough details to have to doubt my own support, even though I suspect it has been tight at times. Then again, we are involved in several collaborative projects, so he might not totally know the details of the broader situation all the time.

  • Whoosh... says:

    My supervisor keeps his grants budgets a bit of a secret - maybe because he liked to complain about how much money he had to spend on me. It even took me a while to figure out where the money came from that paid me. So when I got my first grant, it was (and is still) pretty confusing and I'm sure I could shift my money around more efficent, if I'd know the tricks. But so far, I can't even access my budget by myself because the finances are completely in the hand of the Schools Financial Manager. Means I have to ask her if I want to know the status of my budget and she's doing all the reimbursement stuff. Maybe she'll reveal more secrets about my finances in the future...

  • When trainees ask me to send them submitted or successful grant proposals related to their projects, I redact the section of the budget that lists the salaries of current, named, lab members - I just don't think it's fair to allow them to have that information unless everyone's salaries are publicly disclosed. But I keep in "postdoctoral fellow, to be appointed, $37,500 per annum" and similar line items - the boss makes it clear to all trainees that actual salaries / stipend amounts depend on which studentships / fellowships each individual manages to get, rather than just the grant budget.

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