Why is my PI usually non-committal on budgetary questions?

Feb 20 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I often have people in my lab come to me with requests for non-day-to-day things they would like to purchase for our research. They come to me with travel requests or questions about committing funds to something next summer. They are planning ahead and that's a good thing. But I can't always answer them right away.

Why? Because budgeting for a lab is a balancing act with many unknowns.

For instance:

A lab budget is a bit of a puzzle. At the moment the lab runs off of five different pots of money that vary significantly in the amount and duration. Some are scheduled to end this year, some a few years from now. Some have more or less restrictions with what you can do with the money. Each one of those pots has sub-categories with different strings attached. Whereas you can rebudget between most of the categories, they don't all work the same way (e.g. Equipment).

The single biggest charge to any grant is personnel. In a lab environment, the goal is personnel turn-over. Of course, when people leave and when new ones arrive is a moving target. A PhD student might leave after three years or take over 5 and there is little way to know a couple years in advance which will happen. Spending heavy now could mean leaving someone out in the cold in two years.

All of the different pots of money can interact. People often work in overlapping budgetary areas. Reagents exist within the intersections of the lab budget Venn circles. Services? Software? Consumables? There's no way to charge everything in a project-specific way*.

Given the constantly moving parts, in particular the people, a lot of budgeting just can't be done on the fly. If we spend $20k from Pot A, how is that going to affect the activities supported by Pot B? If everyone goes to Big Fancy International Conference, will we have the $$$ to pay everyone the following summer and still fulfill our research goals? Will Sue still be here and in need of support? Can we pick up Bob on an RA for another semester so he can finish after has last experiment imploded?

Ideally, I'll have made the right decisions to ensure that we keep people paid and keep doing good science, but to make that happen each significant expenditure needs to be thought out.

*We do the best we can. Please don't audit me.

14 responses so far

  • Ilovebraaains says:

    Thanks for posting this! Most grad students are never told this or taught how to budget.

  • boehninglab says:

    You have 5 pots of money? I am jealous!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's not as glamorous as it sounds. I think my start up account has ~$3k left in it, for instance.

  • GMP says:

    There's no way to charge everything in a project-specific way

    Truer words have rarely been spoken. For instance, I am currently buying extra nodes for my computer cluster and all the students use it. I am going to spread the cost proportional to how many students each grand supports. It makes my admin crazy, but that's the only clean way I can justify it. So with 8 students, I will then charge 1/8 of the cost on this grant, 1/4 on these two grants each, and 3/8 on this one. It's an upgrade to existing capital equipment and all use it.

    And I second the insanity of predicting who'll be there and who won't two years from now, and the likelihood of money drying up versus new grants coming in...

  • This might be a naive question but I am going to ask anyway 😛

    If you have e.g. budgeted for equipment in your NIH/NSF grant, do you sometimes spend it on travel or books or whatever? If yes, probably you will have to report back on the report?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    You can't spend from the equipment line unless the object is >$5k, so those expenses would not be allowed in the line. You CAN rebudget from that line, but at a cost. The equipment line is non-overhead. As soon as you move money out, it becomes O/H bearing, so some of the money you could previously spend will be diverted to the indirect category.

  • Forget the equipment. If I have budgeted for category A and want to spend it on category B, can I do it. If yes, what need to change or can I just spend money as long as it is for research purposes, it is kosher?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, you can move money between categories at the university level (no fed approval) relatively easily.

  • pyrope says:

    Wait - some of your PhD students are taking only 3 years? Or do you mean they leave prior to graduating? I have a PhD student who is killing it in year 2, but I still can't imagine getting hir out in under 5.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I've had students get a PhD in around 3yrs, but it's not the norm.

  • […] PLS's post about budgetary complexities, we have to keep an eye on the expenses in our lab too as our funding has seriously tightened up. […]

  • anonymous says:

    Umm. Companies, especially small and mid-size companies, have to do the same kind of planning -- with much less long term certainty about incoming funds, outcomes of new product development, changes in customer preference, competitors, regulation, etc.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    And your point is....? I'm not comparing the two, simply explaining lab budgets.

  • […] of the aspects of this job that I find the most stressful is budgeting. I have discussed why budget issues are not very straight-forward in a lab with multiple support streams and projecting years ahead is tied up into that vortex. The current funding climate only […]

Leave a Reply