Can one grant even get its own science done?

Oct 24 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The current issues with federal science funding are well documented. Anyone familiar with the science blogging world or running their own lab will be way too familiar with the downturn in support for science in the US. But even before the overall funding decline, there's been a stagnation that is really catching up with us.

Drugmonkey has talked about the static modular budget at NIH. Briefly, the budget for your average NIH R01 hasn't changed in years, whereas all the costs have increased. Consumables, salary, tuition, travel, services... they are all more expensive than the were 10 years ago. Substantially.

NSF is similarly impacted. A big difference here is that indirect rates are calculated into the overall NSF proposal budget. Guess what else has risen 10% since I started my position? So, we have costs of everything climbing and a static budget. The reality is that we can't afford the same work we could 5 and 10 years ago. Period.

When writing a proposal there's pressure to keep the budget down. As such, we whittle away (often negotiating for crumbs with collaborators on the proposal). Once funded, the budget is almost certainly cut by some amount, further reducing the buying power. NIH grants can even be cut substantially during the funded period!

But, in the increasingly competitive environment, does anybody dial the science in their proposals back? Hell. No. The demand is higher than ever.

So here is the reality of running a lab right now: You need multiple sources of funding that can offset one another. I am watching people taking the one grant-at-a-time approach and falling short in big ways. Without substantial resources from somewhere that allow you to add personnel or leverage grant funds, completing the work as written gets harder by the day.

Think broadly, my friends. Collaborate. Leverage funds against departmental, college or university resources. Apply for local money that will allow you to offload a salary for a bit. Be on the lookout for these additional pots of money, because a single grant can easily collapse under its own weight these days.

6 responses so far

  • mytchondria says:

    As someone who has solely resided in NIH funding land, I was horrified by the inclusion of directs and indirect rates in the budget. I hadn't noticed it until this month when someone contacted me about if we could collaborate on an NSF RFA. The budget look tight but do-able at first. They then started talking about real money we would each have and it was like a starter grant. I just shook my head. Wasn't worth it. Wanting more complex data, systems and reagents for less and less money has really hit the fan in general and to the extreme in NSF.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Oh, I am painfully aware....

  • MorganPhD says:

    I think this is going to depend on the institution, PI salary structure, and trainee funding structure of the department the single grant holder resides in.

    A PI with a hard money salary (from, say teaching) is in a much better position to get more done on that single R01-equivalent than a soft money-only PI that draws a salary from the grant. Similarly, depending on the department/university, PhD-level trainees can be completely free (teaching assistantships, etc) or completely burdensome (stipend+tuition).

  • MTomasson says:

    I would underscore Morgan's point to stress what a shitmess we are in. My experience is that PLS is right..grant budgets need to be tight, but study sections demand amazing 23rd century technology and ideas. This gap between budget and aims gets worse when the budgets get cut at the admin level.

    One depressing point and one practical piece of advice (to myself)

    Even as a hard money dude, I am competing against people with even harder money. Many of my frenemies receive *substantial* funds from donors and from their institution. Rather than extra money making these PIs more independent from gov funds, it allows them to garner an even larger share of the grant pie. This is one mechanism I see helping the rich get richer in sci land.

    A grantsmithing idea: since the budget is supposed to be tied to the aims, there should be nothing wrong with pulling out one of the aims when the budget is cut administratively. This can then be recycled into a new grant or saved for renewal. So I am thinking about aims and subaims that might fly on their own.

  • drugmonkey says:

    POs should be entirely cool with that. and they are for the most part. but the killer is in your next review. if it is a competing renewal, there is simply no way to enforce the study section reviewers recognition of your budget cut and revised Aims or whatever. They are simply free to say "nope, not enough progress". Even if it is a totally different project, they can still look you chopped one up on RePORTER for the Aims and bust your chops. Throwing yourself on the mercy of the reviewers is nice and all but how much whining are they going to listen to?

  • Yes, you can drop an Aim, but this has somewhat massive consequences at the NSF level. With slower deadline turn-over and less ability to stack awards on top of each other, recycling of aims can be a major challenge.

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