Starve and feast

We have an internal grant of $40,000 near the end of its one-year extension and we hadn’t yet spent any of it. That was because the same proposal had been submitted to external funding and both the external and the internal were awarded. (This was all before I came here.) That situation led me to an important conclusion: Be wary of submitting the same proposal to multiple funding agencies. I’ve been told that funding agencies LOVE to fund work together because then they get $2 results for every $1 they give you. I’m not so sure that is true. Perhaps it depends on the funding agency.

In this case, the result was that we haven’t spent any of the internal grant and it is nearly at the end of its funding period (and beyond).

Requesting a no-cost extension is common. In fact I have to wonder if it is more frequently done than not. A no-cost extension is simply saying “We haven’t spent all the money in the year we said we would. Can we keep the money for a little bit longer?” Typically investigators are extremely frugal during the granting period. They request the no-cost extension. Typically only one additional year is allowed. Then the granting period is really and truly up, and if you haven’t spent all the funds, you better do it in a hurry. That means at the end of the granting period, there is a spending frenzy as the investigator tries to spend all the money. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like this practice–it seems dishonest. Both the scared frugality and the spending spree are wasteful.

We explained that we hadn’t spent much of the grant at all, because the project had been funded externally, and that I had some ideas of what we could spend the money on, but it wasn’t related to the project we had proposed.

“Spend it on your other projects,” the program officer told me. “I can’t give another extension, and don’t advertise that I’m letting you do this.”

Thus we entered into our own spending frenzy. It was a little better because we had his blessing (however covertly given), but I don’t like it. We’re guessing at what we might need and how much. We’re stocking up on stuff we might not use. For example, I ordered 10,000 wound clips but didn’t think to order an additional wound clipper. 10,000 wound clips will last us a long, long time. But if the existing wound clipper fails us before we run out, we won’t be able to use them all. On the other hand if I had ordered a backup wound clipper, and the existing wound clipper lasts forever, we’ve wasted our resources on the backup wound clipper that we didn’t need.

It is very frustrating that I can’t stock up on some of the things I really need. Cell culture media doesn’t last. It expires. So do drugs. And reagents. I’d much rather have a little pot of money that I can spend as I need it, and have the freedom to make it last as long as I like.

A recent article in Scientific American, “Dr. No Money“, recommends a looking-backwards approach to funding scientists. Instead of giving funds to conduct a certain set of experiments, give funds to someone to do whatever they like. Howard Hughes and Wellcome Trust have used successfully used this approach. Every five years, the scientist’s work is reviewed, and if they are satisfied with it, the funding is renewed for another five. In the current system, it is just a polite fiction that funds are given to conduct a proposed set of experiments.

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