Learning about already awarded grant money?
April 20, 2009 6:53 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn more about the grant money my lab already has?

I'm a first year PhD student (but older, organized, with loads of transfer credit from my M.S.) in a medium-large science lab (psych and neuroscience), and I'm trying to get a better sense of how money works in the lab so I can effectively use what's been earmarked for me as well as argue well for how pooled money is spent. (Things usually end up happening here in crazy scrambles at the last minute. I feel like having a cool head and a long view will give me massive leverage to do good things.)

I'm on a T90 and the lab has maybe three or four R01s.

I found all these grants on CRISP, but I want more information.

Where can I find the breakdown of what money has been earmarked for various purposes? (e.g., there's been money set aside for me for travel and supplies, separately. How much? When do I have to spend it by?)

There is also pooled money for all the graduate students on the T90. A few are in other labs. How can I figure out who those people are? I'd like to A) use my share, B) tell at least the three people I know who are on the grant that they have supply money which I'm sure they don't know about C) politely use more than my fair share of the pool if time is running out and I definitely know (by asking) that other people aren't going to be proactive enough to spend the money.

I'd also like to know how much of various earmarked sums have already been spent.

Presumably my lab keeps this information on file, on site. What do I ask for? Does the NIH keep up-to-date, in-the-trenches records, or do they get updated maybe once a year (and/or it's not available to me for access)? Does the university or department "business office" keep track of all this stuff?

I realize that a lot of these questions can be answered by people in the lab, but generally the PI and more advanced graduate students tend to be rushed, terse, and cryptic. Also, because they're so scattered, I need to use my face-time with them for science questions. There are a few administrative people connected with the lab who are knowledgeable, but they're 9-5 and, again, I need to spend my time during the work day doing science, not sitting down with them for 15-30 minutes a few times so they can walk me through X, Y, and Z. (I'm sort of dense about this stuff, so I'd ideally want information I can look over, contemplate, and daydream possibilities about on my own time. I may just need to spend some time with the administrators and I know I should hang out as much as possible with the post-docs and advanced graduate students, regardless.

I'm picking up things by osmosis--that's why I know enough to ask this question. But it's too slow. And, this is taxpayer money. I feel like the more I know, the more I can ethically, effectively, and responsibly use this resource.

In summary, where can I learn about the details of "earmarks" on grants and what's already been spent? In the rare instances that I have my advisor's attention and during group lab meetings, I'd like to have some numbers to quote. I know it'll be a process, but I want to jumpstart it.

Most basic question: Is there anything out there like CRISP that gives much more detail than just one paragraph? Or, where are grants broken down in detail so people can decide what to apply for?
posted by anonymous to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I respect that you want to use the money effectively, but in my experience, your PI and the business/grants/admin folks won't look at it in the same way.

The business office will keep track of what buckets (travel, supplies, capital equipment, tuition and salary are the major ones) the grant money is in and how much of it has been spent. They probably send monthly reports to your PI. Things like student stipends can be moved around from grant to grant pretty easily, although if you are on a training grant, you probably won't be moved around.

At any rate, don't expect to have much say at all in how the money gets spent until you apply for and secure your own fellowship. And even then you may only have a few hundred dollars to spend on a laptop or something similar. It's just not the place of a grad student to have to worry about the internals of funding sources. As long as you can tell your advisor you need equipment X or antibody Y, and it shows up, you are in a good place.

Regarding the money set aside for travel and supplies - if your PI has 3 or 4 R01's, you probably have a senior tech or lab manager that handles a lot of the administrative stuff for the lab. I'd start there. If you don't have such a person, ask your PI or whoever wrote the training grant. And then perhaps a brief, politely worded email to the business office, cc'ing your advisor.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 7:33 AM on April 20, 2009

Um, I think it's kind of weird that a first year graduate student is SO interested in getting his "fair share" of the money, and honestly I don't know any students like that. Anyway, I know you must be busy, but talking with the administrators is the best option. Often PIs and post docs don't have nearly as good of a handle on the actual details of the breakdown of money (above just how much money is there) as the administrators who crunch the numbers.

I would be a little less aggressive in your attitude, though.
posted by sickinthehead at 7:34 AM on April 20, 2009

Become friends with the office staff. They know everything. Even then, they may not know/be able to disclose the details you're looking for.

In the lab where I'm currently a Ph.D student, financial details live Under The Cloak of Secrecy. Sudents can only look at grant applications in the office with the direct authorization of the PI, and are not allowed to make copies. I have not seen the original text of any of the grants funding me, and I know what I know about the funds earmarked for equipment/supplies only via word-of-mouth from my advisor and other faculty. I'm not sure if this is a legal requirement, or the way this lab chooses to do business, though.
posted by Alterscape at 7:47 AM on April 20, 2009

Can you just ask to see a copy of the T90 and/or R01 grant proposals (the ones that you are part of)? That gives you the opportunity to obfuscate the fact that you're interested in the money aspects only as research grants are also descriptions of the research! But it is possible that the copy of the grant you get may have the budget redacted- that's a chance you'd have to take.
posted by picklebird at 7:53 AM on April 20, 2009

Believe it or not, you are going to have to use some of your research time dealing with this throughout your career. Finding, tracking, and reporting the money is part of the game; in fact you are way out ahead if you have a team of administrators doing this for you. You need to get past that "my time is too precious doing REAL work to bother with these little administrative things."

We recently had a set designer send us a charming little note telling us that she knows we have money in various pots and as long as we're not using it for anything else, since she knows she's going to go over budget, just let her know how much of that she can use.

We had a good laugh, told her to stick to her budget, and put her on the "think twice before hiring this person again" list.
posted by nax at 7:58 AM on April 20, 2009

You know how they say that knowledge is power? Well, there's a reason you don't have this knowledge and why the PI probably doesn't want you to have it. If they can keep the knowledge secret, they keep all the power (and flexibility to use the funds as they see fit). Continue down this path and you are not going to be liked by your PI and colleagues, but I'll answer your questions anyway.

I don't think there is an electronic service similar to CRISP that you have access to that would provide you with more information. You can issue a Freedom of Information Act request to the NIH for the grant documents. If you work for a public institution, you might be able to issue a similar request to the institution. If you do either of these things, the PI will find out and they will hate you.
posted by grouse at 8:04 AM on April 20, 2009

In general, I don't think any federal grant database type thing, which is what I think you're asking about, exists. The funding agency doesn't keep track of how much money is spent monthly for each grant--they're just not interested, and it would serve no purpose for them. Plus, can you imagine the amount of paperwork. It would really be pretty wasteful of taxpayers money for them to do this.

Our department has a person who keeps track of grants--actually there are 2, one for federal grants and one for other sources. If your department has a person like this, they might be willing to talk to you about the grants or possibly even share the monthly summary with you. But, as others have said, the policy on sharing this varies widely.

If you were directly involved in writing the grant, you have more of a leg to stand on in getting more info, but I'm assuming as a new grad student you are more of a beggar than an active grant writer, and thus you'll come across as grasping for money rather than interested in learning more about how this works.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:10 AM on April 20, 2009

I am seconding a lot of the responses here - I can't imagine it would be a good idea for a 1st year grad student to pursue this type of information.

There is a reason that generally the PI and more advanced graduate students tend to be rushed, terse, and cryptic its because they don't want you nosing around in grants / funding sources that you probably did not originate; presumably you have some sort of leadership structure and an advisor of some sort that will generally let you know what and how you can spend monies.
posted by RajahKing at 8:17 AM on April 20, 2009

This really isn't your business. Your PI decides how the money should be spent. To suggest you have say in it is quite naive.

In a nutshell, all the grants and funding a lab receives will often go into a central fund. The costings and relative apportions for different experiments is the responsibility of the PI. Naturally if one project attracts 25% of the funding, you can expect 25% of the lab's cost to go to it.

But in my experience, it is rarely so strictly defined. When applications for funding are made, the PI will usually submit a budget for costings. Just because there is a little bit left over under funds earmarked for 'equipment' does NOT mean you are entitled to anything. The reason your superiors are being 'cryptic and evasive' is because they are being polite. If I asked such questions during my PhD I would be told in no uncertain terms to mind my own business and get back to the lab bench.

Also, not all funding is taxpayer funded.. The Wellcome Trust, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and many many NGOs commit billions of funds to research every year- so climb down off that shelf.

Its good you want to be active in managing your research. But heavens, pick your battles. This one has the potential to really REALLY backfire on you.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 8:20 AM on April 20, 2009

In most institutions that I've been at, the PI has significant flexibility in shuffling funds around, regardless of their nominal designations. Even if you could get budget information from the administrators or the funding agency, it would be pretty meaningless, having little relationship to how the money is actually spent. Only the PI can answer your questions satisfactorily.

I would avoid approaching your PI for budget information with the tone that you have taken in this post. You need to be much more circumspect and deferential; else you'll risk coming off as a troublemaker.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:41 AM on April 20, 2009

I will agree with the others here that while it is reasonable to want to know more about how money is allocated in the grants that fund you, the specific reasons you give for wanting to know this information are concerning. Despite the fact that money in the T or R grants may be spent on you, none of it could conceivably be said to be yours— there is no such thing as your "fair share". Your funding comes from the program in which you are enrolled and your advisor; for your purposes, the sacks that the money comes out of are irrelevant, with the exception of any requirements that the T grant lays down for you as a student.

Even in situations where there is money to be spent for travel costs and so on, as in your T90, it is at the discretion of the grant administrators as to whom that money goes, and no implicit expectation of proportionality. It would behoove you to avoid framing potential projects in terms of the money in the budget, and instead in terms of their scientific or educational worth. If concerns of cost do come up, it may be appropriate to frame your argument in terms of a cost/benefit analysis, but it would still be extremely presumptuous to base your argument on how much of the program funds are available or left.

That said, it's important to know how grants work, as one day you will hopefully be in the position to be applying for and managing grants of your own. Preparing a fellowship application, like an F31, might be a good exercise, as could requesting and reviewing your advisor's R01 applications. It's likely that your educational program will have a shortish unit at some point during your first or second year courses that will include an overview of how grants are evaluated, allocated, and funded, covering things like direct/indirect costs and so on. I found my equivalent to raise more questions than it answered, but it gave me enough of a grasp of the terminology to google or ask questions directly when it came up. So my advice is to wait a little while and see if your coursework fills up some of these gaps in your knowledge.
posted by monocyte at 9:58 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm finishing up my second post-doc in neuroscience, and I've never had that level of access to the financial information of my lab. I ask for money if I need it and am either given it or not.
posted by gaspode at 10:13 AM on April 20, 2009

Following up on monocyte's comment, at this stage in your career you need to approach this as a question about resources available to you for some particular research purpose. E.g. FMRI (or other equipment) time, the money for an undergrad RA, money to go to X conference to give a poster on Y research, etc. For most of these things, the exact dollar value is irrelevant to you -- you need to come up with a good reason for using the resource, and ask your advisor. (For travel grants it matters a bit more as you will probably have to front your own money, but even here, you should be going to as many conferences as is necessary for your career, independent of how the travel money works.) They will make a call on whether this is reasonable or in line with their plans, and say yes or no. In terms of sitting at your desk, contemplating, and daydreaming about options, you need to be contemplating what research questions you want to ask with the possible resources you can get access to -- not how you might spend some amount of money.

Also, the earmarking is probably an estimate based on how much someone similar to you at your stage of research would typically spend. It isn't a promise, or part of a binding contract.
posted by advil at 10:22 AM on April 20, 2009

I came back and reread this question just because it annoyed me so much.

By the way, I like how you don't have 15-30 minutes to speak with an administrator about where your salary comes from, but do have the time to post this question on metafilter.
posted by sickinthehead at 10:24 AM on April 20, 2009

What other people have said is right: grants usually don't have 'earmarks', there isn't a 'fair share' that you get. If you want to spend money, ask your PI.

In academic culture the details of how money is spent aren't usually discussed in detail between PIs and junior researchers. There are advantages and disadvantages of this, but this is how the culture works. If you try to find out precisely how much grant money your PI has and how it is being spent, you are the bad guy. You will be perceived as snooping and going behind your PI's back to try to get access to information you're not supposed to get. As you can tell by people's reaction to your question, the thought of this is fairly shocking because it's so inappropriate to the cultural context. It could get you fired.
posted by betterton at 12:34 PM on April 20, 2009

You really, really need to make friends with the administrators (your lab manager, and also department administrators). In this specific circumstances, they may very well have access to some of this information, and will likely not be as squirrely about it as the PIs and senior grad students. They may be able to give you at least some ballpark idea of the kind of numbers you're talking about. Your PI probably will not tell you, for many of the reasons floated above, but also because your PI probably doesn't know. Chances are pretty decent, if your department is anything like the psych departments I've worked in, that your PI outsources a lot of the budget-tracking detail to someone else and has only the vaguest, and inaccurate, idea of what money is actually going where.

Also, more generally, your lab manager is probably an excellent source of information, and can be a really good ally for you in a lot of situations. You do not want to blow off the administrators with the attitude that working with them is somehow a lesser use of your time. You always, always want your lab manager on your side.
posted by Stacey at 2:43 PM on April 20, 2009

In terms of sitting at your desk, contemplating, and daydreaming about options, you need to be contemplating what research questions you want to ask with the possible resources you can get access to -- not how you might spend some amount of money.

Exactly. For an example of how the process should work I'm currently writing a short proposal for my supervisor for the final year's work in my PhD. There are three sections:
A) work that must be funded to reach the objectives of the overall research group
B) work that should be funded to reach my thesis objectives
C) work that I'd like to be funded to reach my personal objectives (early results for a conference publication)

These objectives have already been discussed and agreed to in principal, the science of what I'm doing is sound. A is being funded, B will probably be funded because I made a good case for it's necessity but it might be pushed into the next financial year, and I've got my eye on external funding for C (excess from a travel grant). Having my supervisors buy into the reasons for my doing this work was key, they know the experiments are necessary, well thought out and that the money won't be wasted. From my side I have an idea of the ballpark of my overall budget plus an idea of how much I've spent in previous years (and you definitely should be asking your PI about ball park figures to make sure your plans are reasonable) but that's it. Details beyond that aren't my problem, it's up to my supervisors to juggle money around as they need.

Previous experience working in a few different organisations has shown that arguments about spare money in budgets or using what's allocated to me would be ignored, they really do move money around as that see fit. The reason they move it my way and I'm able to spend what I need is because I can justify needing it. So this is where you should focus your energy.
posted by shelleycat at 4:45 PM on April 20, 2009

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