Why are we so close to going broke?

Mar 27 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Recently I had one of those moments where something you have lived with about for >10 years all realigns and you see it differently. In all my previous labs, incl undergrad, my PI's always seemed to be near the edge of running out of all their money. Grants were obtained in the nick of time, things looked bad and then got worse, post-docs were hired despite the dire straits, etc. Then I started to manage a lab, and started to have people ask me for things that cost money, and I realized the value of telling everyone how close to the brink the lab is. That there is a never-ending strong pressure to tell the underlings that the money situation is parlous. I'm not saying it's a lie. Things ARE pretty much always dire, if you look at it from the right pessimistic perspective. And, running a lab, there is an incentive to take that perspective.

Telling people you are close to broke makes them less likely to ask for things, makes them likelier to think first before asking for inessential luxuries, puts them in the frugal frame of mind. It provides an incentive for people to apply for F and K and NSF awards, and to not just phone it in. It gives you a no-hurt-feelings excuse to reject lab applicants at all levels, and even provides some help in ushering out bad students + post-docs if it comes to that. It's a flexible control system: if you have to spend, you can just say, "oh we found a small pile of money", or you can blame the department accountants for misleading you, and then say, "but now we really are broke."

This deceit is helped along by the fact that it's really hard to know exactly how much money one has. Grants are unpredictable, money is budgeted into different accounts with weird rules, and money gets allocated without appearing on the budget until later, etc. As far as I can tell, it's basically impossible for lab members to guess how much money there is. I had no idea what a start-up was when I was in grad school, and it was embarrassingly late when I realized that an R01 is 249 per year not for a lump sum to be spread over 5 years. I also wasn't sure whether overhead came out of that 249 or not. And so on. It wasn't too relevant to me at the time - back then I was focused on learning the science. Now, I worry about the money. And I try to spread that worry around, in overly pessimistic bunches.

11 responses so far

  • Scicurious says:

    I'm always surprised that grad students and postdocs would "phone in" a grant application. Whether the lab "needs" the money or not, applying for grants is important and extremely relevant experience, and having those grants on your CV is incredibly important for getting a post-doc, another grant, or a job (nothing spells "record of past productivity" like a grant). So why on earth would people ever phone it in, regardless of the financial situation of the lab? This always surprises me.

  • drugmonkey says:

    People phone it in because they are lazy, yes. But also because they really do not understand what it takes to compete. These days, NRSA applicants learn that one the hard way. Hello, revise and resubmit!

  • neuropolarbear says:

    Some programs require students to submit an NSF or NRSA. Some PI's require students to submit them. Often the students don't really understand why they do so. Often, the students receive no remuneration for their efforts. Often in the interest of not hurting anyone's feelings, the PI or the department doesn't make a big deal about it, and so the students come to think it's just a meaningless requirement, like writing a quals proposal or a dissertation.

  • BugDoc says:

    "students come to think it's just a meaningless requirement"

    I'm trying to figure out why students are having a hard time recognizing that proposal writing is a key aspect of their professional development and that receiving a fellowship award contributes to making that student more competitive for future positions. It's true that in general students receive no additional remuneration for receiving these fellowships....since their tuition & stipend is already paid for.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      In my experience, many graduate students have only a vague idea of how $$$ works when you are a professional scientist. Even at good programs. Many advisors tacitly teach the "care bears picnic" model of science careerism.

  • katiesci says:

    "I'm trying to figure out why students are having a hard time recognizing that proposal writing is a key aspect of their professional development."

    I'm lucky to be in a lab that is open about grant writing. Even our undergrads are expected to read one of the lab's grants once in awhile before submission. Even if they just look for typos they are learning about the research in the lab, why it takes to write a grant, and how important it is. As in your lab, neuropolarbear, we don't know the specifics of how much money the lab had in each pot but we are told when it's low and when we have some we need to spend.

    I have friends though that are in labs where they don't get to see the grants or know anything about the funding situation. There are some grad students who have no idea where the money for their stipends comes from... THEY need guidance on how important grants on and WHY they should be applying for fellowships.

  • DJMH says:

    Far better than constantly pretending to be on the brink of poverty would be a regular education session for the lab. Once every six months or year, give a lab meeting with the budget. It doesn't need to be super-complicated, but a general $X from this grant + $Y from this grant for FY 2012, of which XX% is spent on salaries/stipends, YY% is spent on tuition and benefits, ZZ% goes to equipment, etc etc.

    That way, your trainees (a) learn something about lab budgets, a good component of training; (b) can see for themselves how important their salaries are in terms of the lab budget....a good nudge if ever there was; (c) can begin to evaluate the relative utility of Gadget Q vis-a-vis the lab budget. If the new gadget or reagent is going to save them three days of work, then they can start to think about what that means, cost-wise.

    I have never been in a lab that does this, but for the life of me I don't understand why.

    • arlenna says:

      I do that each year--it takes a lot of time to put the data together, that might be the main drag on people doing it. You have to go back into your actual spending (rather than your budgeted spending) and categorize all the expenditures. Since I am not macro savvy, I end up doing all of this by hand in Excel. And my admin assistant can't really help because she doesn't know what we do with all the things we order.

      However, it's totally worth spending the time, because it helps me see how much we spend per month per person per type of work they are doing, and what kinds of things we are spending the most money on, so I can plan future budgets with that in mind.

    • Also, you lose that powerful leverage gained by obscurity. Leverage that can be used to fire or reject unproductive lab members in a face-saving, conflict-avoiding, and potentially lawsuit-avoiding manner.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Because the trainees will start getting entitled and opinion-y about PI choices, DJMH, that's why.