Tight funding budgets make for tough times in academic labs. Some PIs who were used to a certain approach in their funding strategy (i.e. renewal of a single award) are running into funding gaps that they did not worry about before. University budgets to bridge these gaps and support labs in other ways are also feeling the squeeze.
At my institution, the major resource that is critical to many of the laboratories is the pool of Teaching Assistants. This academic year support for students means the difference between some labs having students to do research, or not. Labs with no personnel money depend on the TA pool to continue running, but labs with active grants also utilize this resource to spread the funding (e.g. split an RA between two students) and allow more funded work to get done.
This year, available TA slots are extremely restricted. In programs where PIs would like to accept a cohort of 10 students, there might be 2 or 3 TAs available. How do you pick which labs get the support? Rank the students? Rank the labs? Support the supported or keep the boat afloat? Many departments around the country are asking these same questions and there's no good answer.
I think the hardest hit are the mid-career folks. Everyone can agree that our pre-tenure people need to be supported and there's general agreement about certain labs at the other end of the spectrum that they really aren't in the game anymore. In the middle is where the debate lies. Who is likely to get funded even if they currently are not? Who has a production record that affords them another shot? Who is just spinning their wheels? Who just hasn't admitted to themselves that it's over?
And once you go down the rabbit hole where lack of funding means more teaching, which means less time to ramp up the granting effort.... Are you going to bounce back? Should a student be placed in your lab and then be subject to the outcome of your funding situation that could be pretty bleak? And who says no? The department? The Dean? The grad program? The grad committee? Where does the buck stop for that decision?
I wish I had the answer, because it isn't getting any easier.