It is a major goal of my blogging efforts to get postdocs, and to a lesser extent graduate students, focused on the career demands that will hit them upon making the transition to independent research positions. I try to encourage people to learn about grant mechanisms, grant writing and grant review issues even before they are permitted to submit grant applications. One reason is that it is a big topic and the sooner you start chewing it over, the better. A second reason is that these understandings can help to shape your plans for the future, which may make some changes in how you behave now.
In a recent post, Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde has brought up an obvious issue that I can't recall having blogged about before.
Although Dr Hyde and I have both had fairly forthcoming advisors on topics large and small, the one topic that we find we know nothing about is:
How much money do our advisors receive each year in the form of grants or other funds, and how is it budgeted?
She then goes on to ask:
So this is an etiquette question. Is it ok to approach my advisor and say, "I'd like to learn a lot more about lab budgeting and management so that I'm better prepared for an academic future--can you give me the approximate annual budget for this lab and tell me what percent of it is spent on various costs?" Is this rude, like asking about his salary? Is it just awkward, like asking about his dental work?
Great questions and I hope many postdocs are thinking along exactly the same lines.
It is absolutely imperative that you know how much your research costs. From outlining your research plan (the proposal as well as your true heart's desire) to deciding what startup package to request / accept to deciding which grant mechanisms you need to concentrate on the costs are important. Sure, perhaps you know how much your most common supplies and reagents cost but have you really ever sat down and tried to sketch out full costs for a set of experiments? Including salaries, benefits, equipment costs, shared service (core) charges, niggling administrative digs for phone and internet*... From this it follows that
Budgeting and grant management are essential parts of postdoctoral training.
So to answer DrJ&MrsH in a manner similar to many of her commenters, heck yes it is appropriate to ask. I'll acknowledge though that the answer to her other questions is likewise affirmative. Some PIs are going to find it rude to be asked about their finances (especially if they are struggling). It will very likely be awkward for both of you, at least at first. And yes, people are touchy about their salaries and grant dollars even when these are public information. So don't be surprised if you get a skeevy reaction to bald questions. I do recommend the approach suggested by DrJ&MrsH, "I'd like to learn a lot more about lab budgeting and management so that I'm better prepared for an academic future...".
NIH grant award dollars are public information. I have been lamenting the demise of CRISP-ER which was a fledgling project linking up normal CRISP data with the dollar figures (which are published by NIH elsewhere**). A comment from Anonymous put us on the track of ResearchCrossroads which facilitates searching out the funding for your favorite investigators. It just gives NIH grant award totals (including overhead and across the years-to-date of projects) so it isn't perfect but at least it is a start.[Edited to Add, 2016: The replacement of CRISP with RePORTER obviates this complaint, the direct and indirect costs are now available for each grant.] Of course your favorite investigator may have many other non-NIH or non-federal sources that are not linked by this tool. But at least you can get a feeling for the NIH dollars that have been poured into a program with which you are familiar.
What about budget/expenditure nitty-gritty? DrJ&MrsH further specified in a comment that she's after more than just the big picture totals. Absolutely. Many Institutions' Grants & Contracts office will have some essential info up on their website with respect to their overhead rate (useful for parsing grant totals from your University) and probably the benefit rate tacked on to salaries as well (for reference, about 20-25% at the places I've been). Public Universities may have published salary ranges and schedules up on the HR website. You already have some idea what you make as a postdoc and it is probably least intimidating to ask the PI "So how much does an entry-level tech get paid around here, anyway?".
All in all, it takes just a little bit of effort to generate a general picture of what it will take to do the kind of research you plan on doing as an independent scientist. It may require a slightly awkward conversation with your PI but this is an essential part of career training. Your PI should be happy to bring you up to speed in this critical area.
*yes, some places manage to ding the PI one way or another for everything.
**I can never remember where.