Mentoring 101: Let's talk about the money

Jan 28 2009 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, NIH, Tribe of Science

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.

91 responses so far

  • TreeFish says:

    Amen, DM.
    I approached my PI as a post doc, and asked him/her about costs and expenditures. He was very flustered, but we sat down and got down...and now I am running all of the lab's books. That, perhaps, is the risk you take in getting the answers you want.
    We budget experiments on the basis of the costs of using core facilities, reagents, and the dollar cost per week per person. We add about 10% to these costs, to allow us to have some fun with cool experiments. Importantly, a lot of these cool experiments work out (or don't work out and we still learn from them), so we can add them into our noncompetitive renewal reports.
    Because I have written grants for the lab, I know what the PIs are making, so I adopted a don't ask/don't tell/don't talk about it policy that obviates the uncomfortable, "You make what?!?!?!"
    My guess, though, is that PIs will only unveil these secret mechanistic diagrams of running a lab to a post doc they can trust (e.g., someone who's been around for a few years). So, don't ask the PI the first day in lab. Get a publication, write a NRSA proposal, and use the NRSA as your foot-in-the-door to ask.

  • Dude, that research crossroads thingamashitter doesn't seem to be working. It times out for me if I try to search for a PI name.

  • Dave says:

    My postdoctoral advisor gave a 'State of the Lab' address every year where he explained the source of every dollar that came into the lab, and explained where every dollar went (stopping short of giving actual salaries for individuals, which is always a touchy subject).
    Everyone found this extremely informative, and I do the same now with my own lab. I introduce everyone to eRA commons and the NSF databases, and show them my data for everything applied for. I detail the budget of every grant and explain how the money is used. It's perfectly transparent. I also explain financial strategies, and am very blunt about where cost-cutting measures will occur under certain circumstances. I am explicit about my over-riding philosophy, which is: grant money is for buying data, and I will use it like I would my own money to buy anything else. It's not always happy-talk, but everyone responds very well. We are a team. I should note that one doesn't have to be a member of the lab 'inner circle' either. These State of the Lab talks are given to rotation students, visiting postdocs -- anyone thinking of boarding the Good Ship DaveLab. Why not? People can be very helpful, and trying to hide stuff just breeds distrust and short circuits great training opportunities.
    Things that always surprise people, and which do wonders for PI appreciation: 1) My salary costs the grants less than anyone else's 2) That salaries usually use up >90% of any grant. 3) That I have to write so many freaking proposals to keep them paid (this astounds students who crab about writing 2 pages of anything). 4) That even if all funding ends and I have to fire them all, I'd still love my job.

  • qaz says:

    DM - I think this is great and I've always tried to help my grad students and post-docs know at least in general how funding goes, how funding is done, lab supply costs, etc.
    But I have balked at letting students know salaries. For grad students, I don't get a choice about what I pay them, but different departments pay them different amounts, so neuroscience and psychology students get different salaries, even if they're doing the exact same work. And for techs, it's all up to me. I try to simply pay post-docs on the NIH scale, but exceptions come up and, again, technically, it's all up to me. I try to be fair, but sometimes it just doesn't work that way. So how can I open this up to a post-doc or grad student who asks without creating negative morale in the lab?

  • TreeFish says:

    Go to
    http://report.nih.gov/award/award.cfm
    You can search by Institution, etc. You can then download an excel spreadsheet of the grants at each place, listed by PI, and ctrl-F for the PI you want. It lists total costs (direct + indirect).
    It's not as convenient as research crossroads, since you can't just type in the PIs name, but it does the job...

  • drdrA says:

    Drugmonkey- Thanks for expanding on this topic beyond Dr.J. and Mrs. H's post and comment thread. I had no idea of how \( flowed as I was in two very wealthy labs as a student and postdoc, and \) were never discussed (kind of like my extended family where talking about money is just not done in polite society)...It would have helped me tremendously to have a better idea where it all goes, how to write a budget for an NIH grant- and so on and so forth.
    But I also think that if postdocs think about this just a little - they can figure a few things out on their own as well. from how many postdocs there are in their lab, and approximately what they are paid (dept. administrative staff could give you a ballpark figure for the fringe), by asking someone (gasp!) what grad student stipends are (this is often information you can get from grad recruiting people) x how many grad students, watching the ordering of reagents in a particular week (or just being aware of the cost when they order XYZ reagent). One can get an idea of how/where the $$ are flowing.
    Questions that can not be answered from this include- when you are writing a budget for a grant application, how do you decide the breakdown.... ie. How much personnel (which for me along with exp. models) is the biggest cost? vs. everything else?

  • Klem says:

    Graduate students should absolutely be applying for research grants! I would not even recommend anyone start graduate studies without their own independent fellowship (from NSF etc).
    Salaries for entry-level US scientists (grad students, post-docs) are exploitative. The salary guidelines from the NSF/NIH should be doubled immediately.
    This books looks interesting, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low Wage Nation. Marc Bosquet. NYU Press. Lot's of info on the author's blog:
    http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/
    Almost all US scientists and academics are vulnerable and insecure. FDA scientists have been raising serious complaints to the new Obama administration. Why do they want to be anonymous? Why are US federally-employed scientists afraid to resign or go public with concerns?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/us/28fda.html
    http://www.blacklistednews.com/news-2388-0-23-23--.html

  • Thanks DM! I think what I find strangest is that more labs *don't* do what Dave's does: break down the annual costs into major budgetary components for everyone to be aware how they cost/contribute. I've just never heard it talked about much (maybe I'm in WASPy labs??) and so I'm scared to be the first person to ask and maybe be considered pushy. Not that that ever stops me in the rest of my life, so not sure why I should be nervous now....
    I don't care about individual salaries--but I care very much what the total "salary and benefits" line is for x number of people in the lab. I have no idea what fraction of total income that is. And knowing grad student stipends or the NIH pay scale doesn't help me that much--aren't there also grad student tuition costs, and health care costs for each person? Or is that built into the operating costs somewhere else? I have zero idea.

  • neurolover says:

    I can search for names at the research crossroads site, but the info doesn't seem accurate. Is there a link saying what the numbers are supposed to mean?

  • neurolover says:

    This is a good thread about budgets. One thing that might help is to post some ball park figures about budgets based on our own experiences.
    One thing that's true is that the budgeting will be different in different institutions and departments (and so, your budgets at your post-doc institution won be the same as budgets at your independent position).
    Here are some numbers from my experience. 40K/graduate student (including tuition & benefits). 50K/post-doc (including benefits). 40K/junior technician. PI's, 50-70K (this depends on salary, and also other things, so is quite variable). These numbers are from an institution that does not support grad students off as TAs, pays NIH scale for post-docs, and requires that grad students in particular programs all be paid the same amount of money (though a lab could have grad students from different programs).
    I know of a relatively "expensive" research program, but nevertheless, people are by and far the biggest budget cost. This was a surprise to me when I first discovered it, when I saw a mock NIH budget.
    Hughes labs I know of, incidentally, have average budgets of about 1 million/year, I think in addition to the PI salary, so probably closer to 1.2 million.

  • Dave says:

    qaz,
    I don't tell lab members how much anyone else is being paid. I tell them that they should ask the person whose salary they are curious about. Except me, of course. I tell them how much my grants pay me. As I said above, they are always surprised that I am the cheapest thing on a grant (part of this was my decision to NOT take job offers at fancy pantsy soft money or medical schools a few years ago, or move to one since -- decisions I have never regretted and increasingly appreciate). I *do* tell them what NIH scale is and how much grad students cost the grant. I do not quite pay NIH scale, by the way; I tell them I do this both to save money and as an incentive for them to get their own fellowship. I also explain that graduate research assistantships cost almost as much as a postdoc, and thus grad students are always teetering on the edge of being wise investments as far as I am concerned. In short, I pull no punches.
    The key is that you, as PI, are on their side. Their success is your success. You WANT them to be successful. If grad student salaries in different departments are unfairly different, then sympathize and help change it. Or if you agree with the inequity, explain why.
    DJ&MH,
    Ask your PI. Tell him/her you're curious how all this works and thinking about writing your own grants soon or someday. Ask to see their grants*, so you can better understand the 'big picture' sort of stuff and get ideas about how to write your own. Most PIs like and reward curiosity. The most frustrating thing about being a PI is lack of curiosity on other people's part. If your PI doesn't want to Your accounting office should be able to give you these sorts of numbers.
    *I distribute the PDF of submitted grants to lab members when the grants are submitted. I also share my summary statements with the lab. Sometimes this is painful, but I think it helps all of us learn.

  • Dave says:

    Neurolover, in post #9, has it about the same as where I am. Except I am in a state university with more hard money support. Grad students on RAs are $37k/year (this includes benefits, tuition remission, etc), but on TAs they cost me nothing. Postdocs are $50K-$70K (this includes benefits), depending on experience. $40K/year (includes benefits) is about right for a junior tech, and about as much as you should be willing to pay unless they are magical. Like I said, I am in a state institution, and though I earn good money most of it is paid by the generous taxpayers of my state, so I only cost my grants about $28K/year.
    To emphasize: Salaries are BY FAR the largest cost to grants. Usually >90%. Your lab is just like a car factory; if you can replace someone with a robot, do so. But rarely can you replace someone with a robot. If you can, you are not really doing good science, IMHO. Hughes labs do indeed get about a million/year lately. But most of that still goes to salaries after the initial crazy new HHMI PI purchases of ultra nanoscopic super collider robotic PCRoscopy machines everyone always dreams of having, but which ultimately most turn out to be useless.
    Another general thing: Spend grant money to do experiments. As I said above, you are BUYING DATA. Don't budget to 'build a lab' or weird nonsense crap like that. Buy stuff if only you need it, as you need it.

  • Becca says:

    "I also explain that graduate research assistantships cost almost as much as a postdoc, and thus grad students are always teetering on the edge of being wise investments as far as I am concerned. In short, I pull no punches.
    The key is that you, as PI, are on their side."

    Has it ever occured to you that grad students will see such an attitude as schizoid?
    "You're not worth as much as a postdoc even though you cost me nearly the same [nb: because postdocs get rudely violated]. So you'd better work your buns off, or I'll kick you out when a postdoc comes along. Oh, but I'm a good person and on your side"

  • Tiffanie says:

    I'm more than half way done with my PhD and just finished participating in writing my first grant. Our labs PI has been around for a while and makes it clear that our success is his success. He sent each of the grad students involved in the grant a copy of the completed pdf. After reading this post from DM and went back and took a look at the figures. I was really surprised at how much I cost the lab. I am very curious to know how the money is distributed as I only see a fraction of that as my stipend. Part of this interest comes from a campus movement by the Graduate Student Senate to increase our salary/benefits package. Maybe if we all understood the total cost (as seen via the grant proposals) we could better understand why the university has been reluctant to yield to our requests. Thanks for the thought provoking post and all the PIs who posted some "real" numbers.

  • drdrA says:

    Dr. J&Mrs. H. #7
    At my institution fringe includes health ins., the institutions portion of the retirement, soc. sec., workers comp., and probably a couple of other things- but here the institutions part of an employee's health ins. is part of the fringe not a separate ##.
    Also w/ respect to neurolovers comment #9- this is very much in line with my experience although the student # is adjusted down a little bit- this is pretty dependent on where you are exactly. But the ballpark calculation is dead on. Whether the PI derives any salary from a grant budget (and how much) depends on the institutional salary structure- highly variable from place to place, also depends on the PI's total salary. But neurolover is right- employees are the biggest cost for me too- although there are some expensive 'reagents' like experimental animals and the per diems associated with this... that can be very expensive.

  • neurolover says:

    "I am very curious to know how the money is distributed as I only see a fraction of that as my stipend."
    Yes, this was a surprise to me, as well, when I first found out what a grad student. Two big parts that you don't see are tuition (which, remember, goes to the university) and benefits (which you see, but might no what it costs).
    Another thing to remember is that this info is often public, in some form (like the NIH grant award amounts) if you look for it. In many states, public employees' salaries are public, so you can look them up in a spreadsheet somewhere. The info won't be perfectly accurate (Hughes investigators are free, for example, to the public, but they do get paid).
    Re the negotiation of graduate students with their employers -- yes, universities are reluctant, and one of the things they are most reluctant about is mandatory cost of living increases. As folks have pointed out, grant budgets don't get cost of living increases, and in fact, get cuts. So, if a student/employees salary goes up automatically, the only way to balance the budget is to decrease the number of students/employees. The same is true for many other budgets.

  • Dave says:

    becca, regarding comment #12:
    As PI, I obligated to use my grant money as efficiently as possible to achieve my research goals. You should applaud this -- remember, this is your tax money!
    Hiring overpaid undertrained employees* is not always consistent with that obligation.
    Sorry, but that's the way it is.
    [*At this point I know you are screaming: "Overpaid! Overpaid! Dave thinks grad students are overpaid!?" Unfortunately, relative to postdocs**, you may be. Remember the grant has to pay your tuition and benefits too, so as neurolover said, you unappreciative whiners are getting close to forty grand worth of stuff. For what? grad school should be fun but getting a publishable figure out of some students can be like pulling teeth. If you think all of this is unfair, go whine to someone in the English department who is taking out loans to go to grad school, or someone in medicine or law or other professional school who will likely be fifty grand or more in debt when they finish. Or go see if your local Walmart employee who is paid less feels bad that you have the freedom to walk out of your job that pays more than they get in the middle of the day or go to fancy meetings in California. I -AM- on your side, becca. Part of being on your side is helping you face reality. ]
    [**Some postdocs can be even worse, but at least they are easier to fire. Once grad students get past their prelims, it's really tough to get rid of them.]

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Another general thing: Spend grant money to do experiments. As I said above, you are BUYING DATA. Don't budget to 'build a lab' or weird nonsense crap like that. Buy stuff if only you need it, as you need it.
    This is a tricky area but I think Dave's point is short sighted. Obviously you don't want to spend all your time and \( "building a programme" in your first five years while never publishing any data. But if you do not take a longer view than is provided by the 5yr NIH grant cycle you are going to be screwed in the long term. There are many things in my line of work that you are not going to be able to jump to all at once. yet over time you can build a lab capacity that lets you generate way more than the sum of parts.
    sometimes you are going to have to take judicious risks. by spending \)
    today on stuff that may not really pay off until you manage to acquire the second round of grants. by preserving a resource (like your turbotech) now at the expense of a few more experiments because if you land the next grant (which you better or you are out of biz anyway) you are going to really need this tech.

  • Dave says:

    DM (re #17): I didn't say one shouldn't buy stuff when one has a chance. If you have extra money in the budget, by all means buy some fancy device that will increase productivity or enable acquisition of new types of data. Then use it to get preliminary data and publish.
    DONT blow all your startup and first year grant budget buying a centrifuge for each bench, and a microscope for this sort of thing, and a microscope for this sort of thing, and 3 PCR machines, and 400 glass beakers, and 24 gel boxes, and 10 sets of pipettors because you'd like to have 10 people in the lab, and a desktop computer for each room and...
    Running a lab is not interior decorating; it's getting things figured out. Buying stuff does not figure anything out. If you need to buy something to figure something out, then buy it. But don't buy something because you have empty bench space.
    I say this because I have seen people make this mistake, and it's disastrous.

  • Dave says:

    "by preserving a resource (like your turbotech) now at the expense of a few more experiments because if you land the next grant (which you better or you are out of biz anyway) you are going to really need this tech."
    Well, yea, obviously. If the cost of rehiring & retraining outweighs the cost of keeping someone on, definitely keep that someone on! I have bent over backwards to do this. There are people who are so important to my career that I spend bunches out of my own pocket to keep them happy.

  • 400 glass beakers

    Anybody wanna buy some beakers? They're mint!

  • Becca says:

    Dave, as a taxpayer, I personally want my money to go to creating good jobs more than I want it to go to making any particular lab successful.
    I don't think many science jobs are as good as they should be (and that includes people on pretty much all rungs of the academic ladder).
    But if you think all science jobs are the cat's pajamas, and your PIship is presumably the creme da le creme... then I guess you work for $20k/year for your bank account... right? Aren't you happy to be here, Dave? Don't you love science enough to do it for free? Aren't you interested in being a good steward of taxpayer dollars?
    "Once grad students get past their prelims, it's really tough to get rid of them."
    You and I live in very different worlds. (You see, I've been "gotten rid of" twice; both times since candidacy, which I think is equivalent to your prelims)
    *pure snark*
    Not to mention, I'm convinced that you (of all people) are good enough at being a bully that you can easily get grad students to quit in order to be rid of them. Why, I'd bet if you put half the amount of effort into it that you put into commenting, you could get grad students to commit suicide! You have a gift, Dave.
    */snark*

  • Dave says:

    No sweat, becca. You're welcome. My advice is free.
    As for working for $20k/year income, that's about what grad students do, right? I assume it's a great deal, because there are certainly quite a few of students I know who seem bent on making it a long-term career. I am too cruel to let my own students linger in such a cushy position, though. I'd rather they go on quickly to poorly paid and even less secure postdoc positions. That's why I try to teach them everything I know, do better research than I ever did, help them publish prolifically, and write awesome letters of recommendation. I am such a sadist! Stupid swine that they are, they seem to LIKE it!

  • MedChemDoc says:

    While I think that Dave's comments were a little harsh, the reality is that NIH is not in the business of funding graduate education. They are in the business of funding research. Thus, it can sometimes be questionable whether graduate students offer the best value for conducting research, especially when they cost almost as much as a postdoc and require a longer term commitment. I personally think that this is one area where Universities have shifted some of their responsibilities onto the NIH (we will get indirect costs AND tuition). If Universities want a vibrant graduate program, then they should either pay for it or keep the cost of tuition down to a reasonable level.

  • While I think that Dave's comments were a little harsh, the reality is that NIH is not in the business of funding graduate education.

    What the fuck are you talking about!? They award plenty of individual and institutional graduate fellowships, and they allow graduate tuition to be charged to research grants. They spend a fuckton of money on graduate education.

  • Ewan says:

    I have a different approach to salaries than e.g. Dave: my postdocs right now get $42K (which actually came from a blog discussion at YFS, of all places, I believe); the University grad student stipend is (i) not guaranteed and (ii) pitiful*, so I supplement to $16K (because that's the highest anyone at the University gets from their dept) and encourage writing of grants to raise higher. (If anyone thinks this sounds like a good deal, I'm recruiting right now..)
    [*As in, when I interviewed last year it was $9 to 11K. Apparently laughing out loud when the Dean told me that was an OK thing to do, as the interview brought a promise to raise it to $14K. Now, that's still abysmal - I made $18K when I started grad school back in '94 - but it might actually be livable, just. Which $9K is not, even in Albany. And I'm boggled that students are coming into the dept - at an R1 - without guaranteed funding and in some cases without *any* funding. Yes, this is a big priority for me, although the recent NY state funding numbers will make any progress tricky..]
    Back on topic: I like the idea of a 'State of the Lab' talk and am going to steal that; mostly I echo my comment on the original post that I can see no downside, either as the lab member or as the PI, to having numbers openly discussed. I'd like to hear any ideas of a downside, if anyone has them?
    My experimental costs are pretty high, so grants tend to be about 50-50 materials vs salaries: animal purchase, per diem, expensive consumables and analysis costs. A recent grant subcontract to one of my grants was far higher on materials: gene chip and microarray costs were far higher than the postdoc salary accompanying them. I suspect there's an obvious bimodality between hard- and soft-money PI salary places, and even as a postdoc it got tricky sometimes to have any, and certainly sufficient, money left over after paying my soft-money salary. [It surprises me that more is not made of this at study sections, for example: shouldn't there be a bias towards funding work of hard-money folks, as being better value? :-))]

  • BikeMonkey says:

    It surprises me that more is not made of this at study sections, for example: shouldn't there be a bias towards funding work of hard-money folks, as being better value?
    You would get stomped on if you brought this up this directly, but let's be real. Of course it factors in.
    The most obvious way it factors in is a mindset that "they have too much money already". This sort of thing actually gets stated explicitly on occasion but you hear it leaking out in various ways all the time. It can spread over onto whole departments or focused groups as well. The perception that the BigCheez has a ton of grants bleeds over onto JrMint in his department.
    I figure that for everyone who is dumb enough to actually say this sort of thing out loud there are a dozen who are of similar mind but not stupid enough to actually say it.

  • leigh says:

    the reality is that NIH is not in the business of funding graduate education.
    uh, really?
    three words: institutional training grant.
    three more: predoc kirschstein nrsa.
    you get the idea.

  • New Asst. Prof. says:

    Learning the ins and outs of budgeting, salary ranges, and cost-benefit analyses (i.e. is it better to write in a position for a student vs. a postdoc vs. a technician for a particular project) should happen early and often. Insights into these areas are what good mentors are for, and if yours won't share this find an ad-hoc support system who will. I am very grateful for those who have been honest with me about these issues, as well as my husband's MBA curriculum (entrepreneurial leadership and H.R. were useful texts to skim)...but I digress. You want to develop an understanding of this while the proposals you write are relatively simple, not when you're freshly out on your own and should be immersed in the science.

  • Already I'm a little shocked to hear that salaries account, per commenters here, for anywhere from 50-90%. I get that different labs operate with different reagents etc, but where I work I know for a fact that animal costs alone must be about 10% of our budget so I suspect our salaries aren't near 90%. Still, was fascinated to hear that *any* lab's budget was 90% salaries and benefits (aside from the computational folks, that is--their only other cost is coffee.)

  • Curt Fischer says:

    Re: grad students bill for a lot on grant applications but don't take home as much pay.
    Tuition for Ph.D. students past their first year or two is a farce, at least at some private universities I have heard about. You're a 4th year Ph.D. student, all you do is research. Sure, they have a lab and an office provided by the university. There's all that nice lab equipment, and as a bonus the electricity usually works. Nice buildings, conference rooms, and all the rest, but isn't that what grant *overhead* is supposed to pay for? But, no, grad students get billed "tuition", usually at rates equal to or exceeding those for undergrads. But there are no classes, no lectures, no homework, and no grading. How on Earth does it make sense to charge so much for tuition?
    Graduate tuition seems like a back-door route for universities to divert federal "research" money to whatever it is they want to spend money on, whether it has anything to do with research or not. Maybe those things are good, maybe not, but why pretend it costs as much to "educate" a 4th year Ph.D. student as it does an undergrad?
    I wonder what would happen if the NIH and other federal agencies stipulated that no more than say 0~5% of any grant could go towards *tuition* for anyone? Would there be fewer, better paid graduate students? Or would everyone just have to TA all the time?

  • TreeFish says:

    I agree that charging tuition for a post-comps grad student is lame, but it has several advantages for the students: (1) it allows said student to continue to defer interest on their student loans, if their loan is a subsidized federal loan; and (2) it keeps their health insurance costs down, since they are technically still a student. If the PI is paying the tuition anyway, the student wins.
    I have heard of some really cool PIs that supplement their students' stipends with unrestricted funds*. This is common in big cities, where grad students often share a blanket with rats. Other PIs, however, use the unrestricted funds as a cushion in case their grant dollars tighten up.
    *unrestricted funds are often a 'kick back' of sorts to the PI. Say a PI has $200k direct costs per year, at a F&A of 50%, the university gets $100k. A lot of this goes to rent, etc. But the home Department of the PI often gets some cash for hosting the PI with a grant. Cool Department Heads then give a portion of that to the PI, as unrestricted funds that they can use however they want (e.g., supplement stipends, pay for alcohol at SFN, lab parties, etc.). I think my postdoc U gives the PI 8% of indirect into unrestricted funds. If your Dept Head doesn't do this, tell the TreeFish disapproves.

  • Anonymous In Case Tenured Assholes Read This Comment says:

    If your Dept Head doesn't do this, tell the TreeFish disapproves.

    I'm sure my department head would be doing this if he didn't have to spend $500,000 per year on the salaries of deadwood tenured assholes who haven't brought in a single fucking grant, and thus haven't supported a single fucking penny of their salaries, for years.

  • Dave says:

    Re#33: At my place (and I think many), the department doesn't cover faculty salaries. Therefore it's not faculty deadwood that are the problem. Rather, most of the ICR is sucked up at the university-wide and college level, and thus goes to subsidize humanities departments and pastries at administrative meetings. Two decades ago, Stanford was famously castigated when it was discovered that ICR partly funded a presidential yacht, a jacuzzi, parties, etc. ICR returned to the investigator is, in my opinion, a similar misuse of federal funds. If your institution does this (and many do), let's hope some congressperson doesn't read this, because NIH will suffer even more (and rightly so). If the ICR is not needed to directly support research, it is supposed to be returned to the funding agency. A lot of private agencies cap ICR at 10%. Do you ever see places turn down private money because 10% isn't enough for administrating the grant to be cost-effective? No.
    Honestly, I think a lot of the ills biomedical science suffers as a profession would be resolved if NIH ICR were capped at half (or less) what it is now.

  • becca says:

    "If the PI is paying the tuition anyway, the student wins." ... until the PI gets fed up and kicks them out in favor of a postdoc.
    Also Treefish, as far as I can tell the university can call anyone it wants a fulltime student. I don't think it even interferes with accredidation or anything. They certainly don't have to charge tuition to call you a fulltime student.
    My problem isn't that they charge tuition- my problem is that they charge so much (although my university just sent my tax documents in and it is amazing how much less I cost now that I'm totally post-comps. Lowering the rate for advanced students is definitely a good thing).
    "Still, was fascinated to hear that *any* lab's budget was 90% salaries and benefits (aside from the computational folks, that is--their only other cost is coffee.)"
    Coffee should be considered a benefit. Possibly under healthcare.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Dave, actually I have some colleagues who rant up a storm because their Institutional policies prevent most of the investigators from taking grants that won't pay their astronomical overhead rare.

  • Dave says:

    Re #36: Wow. When embezzlement and graft becomes that entrenched, something is really seriously wrong.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And I'm sure you have a reason for calling a federally negotiated overhead rate "graft"? We may not like it but it is a touch difficult to assume this is embezzlement aided and abetted by the gov

  • Clone_U says:

    Great string of comments. I agree and disagree with some of Dave's comments and Becca's comments but by and large, the truth is that when you are a PI, the reality is a large horse pill to swallow and there is no room for sugar-coating. There is still room however for being "sensitive." The hardest task is finding the "right" postdoc and student to join the lab since so much more beyond money goes in to the relations, for example, HOPE and TRUST. In the end you have to take a pragmatic approach, which means you are transparent and honest about expectations and budgets. (By the way, I like the "STATE OF THE LAB" idea... and will adopt it, if you don't mind, Dave).
    For those of you who are interested, I'm in a fancy-shmancy U where we PIs are expected to pay ~55% (or more) of our own salaries. Note that some of the Ivy's require as much as 65% (so we're much better off). While the cost of faculty benefits here are astronimical (>35%) it also has its pros (a nice silver parachute, really). So PI's in my institution take up quite a bit of the salary costs in a grant, which is why submitting a strong grant in every cycle is expected. Multiple grants are required so that you can limit your own percent effort to 10%-15% (if not less) in each grant allowing for funds to be used to pay your postdocs and students. I make it a point to pay postdocs the NIH scale, since I believe in investing in my peeps. A happy worker is a productive worker. I also factor in the yearly increases and cover extra health insurance if the postdoc has a family. I budget about $12-15K/yr/postdoc (depending on experience) and ask that the postdoc learn to design their experiments within that budget. Also included in their budget is travel to a conference or methods development course. If they need to use the budget for reagents then they lose their chance to go to a national conference. I encourage learning new skills so if the postdoc runs into budgetary trouble but it is evident that the augmentation of the overall lab skill set is necessary then $$ is put into allowing the postdoc to attend an important course. Invest in your peeps more than investing in kits and high-end gizmos, is what I say. Of course, I also have high-end gizmos but they produce loads of data! So in some cases I continue to "build a lab" looking forward with vision but I also use as much of the existing instrumentation of the department/university to our advantage. Not every lab needs their own dedicated ultracentrifuge or laser microdissection scope. As you can tell, I'm postdoc heavy as opposed to student-heavy. That's not to say that I don't want students, but I think that there are many students in our U who do not find so much responsibility (e.g., budgeting, thinking ahead, etc.) very appealing. Every now and then I find a gem in the rough.
    Honestly, I cannot and do not complain about covering all of these expenses since it comes with the territory I have chosen to conduct solid research. If you are considering entering the "Way of the PI", in this funding climate, go STATE for sure!

  • Dave says:

    DM, Re #38:
    Graft (per Dictionary.net):
    "1. Acquisition of money, position, etc., by dishonest or unjust means, as by actual theft or by taking advantage of a public office or any position of trust or employment to obtain fees, perquisites, profits on contracts, legislation, pay for work not done or service not performed, etc.; illegal or unfair practice for profit or personal advantage; also, anything thus gained. [Colloq.]"
    How is taking money designated explicitly as research support (physical, administrative, etc), and using it for anything other than that NOT graft? You know damn well that some ICR is spent at the laboratory and administrative in ways that are nowhere near kosher. Or are you really that naive? Someone right in this very thread said how great it was when ICR return to labs could be used as a slush fund for drinking at meetings. You can actually spend NIH money on booze, but not via ICR:
    http://www1.od.nih.gov/oma/manualchapters/management/1160-1/

  • neurolover says:

    "You can actually spend NIH money on booze, but not via ICR:"
    Oh Dave, you know that money is fungible, right? The U's don't spend ICR on alcohol. Because the ICR pays, as promised, for part of the facilities cost associated with the research, university budgets are freed up to pay for alcohol. So, ICR -> lab, and the unrestricted donation (that might have had to pay for it otherwise) pays for alcohol.
    This logic only fails if the University was supported 100% by ICR & direct costs.

  • MedChemDoc says:

    You are correct in that NIH has some specific programs for graduate education. These have been mentioned. However, graduate education is not part of the R01 mechanism. It is not reviewed in the context of the value of the grant, which is different than say NSF where there are questions about the educational mission of the PI. NIH doesn't care whether you have a single graduate student on a grant or not; they care about the work that is going to be done. Hence my statement about NIH and graduate education. If the NIH really cared about graduate education, then they would include it as part of the grant review process.

  • Cashmoney says:

    What neurolover said. Money is fungible and we are not just talking alcohol purchases. The indirect cost kickbacks that go into unrestricted spending accounts for individual PIs are not supposed to be directly coming from NIH indirects. But this is a trivial accounting issue for Universities, assuming they have other cashflows (and they do).
    This holds for the supposedly legitimate accounting that feeds into the indirect/overhead negotiation that takes place as well. How do you determine what percentage of campus security can be charged to the federal overhead? How do you tell what square footage to base the NIH overhead rate on when considering the thirty buildings on campus populated with research funded by a huge array of sources?
    I have little doubt that there is padding going on that Dave would call "embezzlement". It is for damn sure above the paygrade of individual PIs to make a charge on the basis of good info though.

  • Dave says:

    Re #41 and #42. Yea, that's how Stanford got the case against them dismissed. And basically what organized crime lords and money launderers all over the world use as their excuse too.
    Enronish tricks don't make it right. If institutions don't really need all that ICR money to directly support the research -- and clearly they don't -- then they shouldn't be getting it.
    Even becca will be on my side if I tell her that every grad student salary in the country could probably be doubled, with no additional cash outlay by NSF or NIH (e.g. no tax increase or funding rate penalty), if only ICR were capped at the same level as many private or state grants, or even at the rate of some federal grants (i.e. USDA).

  • Dave says:

    Whoops. I meant "Re #41 and #43."

  • pinus says:

    Anybody know the range of indirects that the NIH pays? (I am trying to understand the context of this discussion a little bit)

  • Anybody know the range of indirects that the NIH pays?

    It ranges from 0-100%, depending on the institution. My guess is that the distribution peaks between 40-50%.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    What PP said. On study section I see something right around 55% on a huge bulk of proposals from traditional research Universities. I can't remember seeing anything under about 35-40% (not that I check exhaustively) and north of 80% is seen but not super common.
    For those of you gnashing your teeth, I'll also note that SBIR apps from for-profit companies also come with a "profit" line in addition to the overhead rate. 🙂

  • DrugMonkey says:

    If institutions don't really need all that ICR money to directly support the research -- and clearly they don't
    I've seen a couple of mini institutes emerge where a couple-three investigators decide to take their grants and overhead and start up shop in some random biotech space. Even with the presence of some pretty turn-key resources they never seem to make much of a go of it.
    Much as with my points about postdocs figuring out what it really takes to run a lab, have you disgruntled PIs thought comprehensively about what it costs in infrastructure to support your research?
    I have exactly the same frustrations as anyone else seeing all this overhead "disappearing" into a University which seemingly gives none of it back in services, nicks the grants for every recharge possible, has ever-expanding upper administration, don't appreciate that the collective work of the investigative staff build the reputation which elicits the philanthropic dollars, etc. But at least I try to think about what the real hidden support costs for my research are before I go spouting about embezzlement...

  • Dave says:

    Why should we PIs have to competitively beg for and account for every penny we spend in direct costs, while our institutions don't? I feel quite comfortable spouting 'embezzlement'. Let the institutions defend themselves.
    A few years ago, my institution shifted 50% of the ICR allocation from the university to the college level, with no change in service responsibilities. If the money were really required for servicing and supporting research of those projects, this would have been impossible.
    If ICR were all necessary for administrative and other support services, there would be no ICR money to 'give back' to well-funded investigators. Yet many places do this.
    A modular R01 generates about $125,000 per year in ICR. Are you serious telling me it costs that much to administrate and support that work? And even if it does, why does it cost that much to support an NIH study versus a USDA study versus an MDA study... ?
    I think YOU, DM, need to do some thinking. Or are you married to the chancellor?

  • Why should we PIs have to competitively beg for and account for every penny we spend in direct costs, while our institutions don't? I feel quite comfortable spouting 'embezzlement'. Let the institutions defend themselves.

    How fucking clueless are you? They do this every time the negotiate their indirect cost rate with DHHS.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Are you really this dense Dave?
    Go back and read the comment about money being fungible. Read the comment about some institutions refusing to take all but fully overheaded grants.
    Read my comment about feeling all the traditional frustrations. I've done some thinking about the real costs, yes. Not some pie in the sky that assumes the existing infrastructure is cost-free but one that assumes you'd have to duplicate the infrastructure out of overhead alone. It only takes a little imagination to see where typical overhead rates can be sucked up.
    The argument over whether certain costs should be charged to the federal dime is another argument altogether. The fact is that someone is paying them in one way or another. The fact that state taxpayers or a generous endowment income or generous capital-drive alumni pay the bills doesn't mean that there are not real costs that have been payed to support your research.

  • qaz says:

    "Do you ever see places turn down private money because 10% isn't enough for administrating the grant to be cost-effective? No." Uh... Yeah. Lots of institutions. Even at my institution (research-oriented state-U), we have had to get special permission to get private money without ICR.
    There seems to be a strange misunderstanding in these comments about what ICR really is. ICR pays for administrator salaries and secretarial support and accountants for the department and all the various support services that make the place you work at a university and not just a bunch of people who hang out together. Now, if you like, you can rant about whether the university is doing a good job with that ICR, but that's a different question.
    And in terms of NIH's support of graduate education. True, graduate education is not reviewed as part of the R01 mechanism, but that's not the point of the R01 grant. An R01 is supposed to buy scientific results (or at least a good shot at them). There are other mechanisms specifically designed for graduate and post-graduate education. As a member of an F3x NRSA study section, I can tell you that training potential is the primary question addressed in the NRSA review. Similar statements go for T-type training grants.

  • Becca says:

    "I've seen a couple of mini institutes emerge where a couple-three investigators decide to take their grants and overhead and start up shop in some random biotech space. Even with the presence of some pretty turn-key resources they never seem to make much of a go of it. "
    It's a critical mass issue, as much as anything else. Economy of scale dicates that a couple-three investigators sharing a secretary and scrounging to hope the accounting happens isn't going to be as efficient as a department sharing a secretary and a college sharing accountants.
    What I want to know is how hardassed the DHHS negotiators are. If you, as R1 ivy come to DHHS and say "our ICR should be 80%, because OtherIvy is at 85%" and DHHS says "ok, sounds good!" something is off. I realize money is fungible and where the money actually goes can be disgusied by all manner of accounting (for good or for ill)... but it'd still be nice if universities did have to report where the money goes. How public money is spent should always be public information, without an incredibly compelling and unusual justification for the alternative. If MajorResearchU is spending more on toilet seats than the millitary, shouldn't taxpayers have a right to know? I actually believe that we ('we', in this context, being educational 501c(3)s) would compare extrodinarily favorably to many branches of governmental funded enterprises.
    On the other hand, maybe it would just reveal what disgruntled PIs have suspected all along- the lion's share of that ICR is being scandalously squandered on administrator salaries rather than going to libraries and core lab facilities where it belongs!
    @Clone_U- actually, knowing precisely how much money is available sounds perfectly lovely to me.
    I was considering making a slightly snarky comment about how NIH minimum don't always seem so incredibly generous I'd count it as "taking care of my peeps". But truthfully, it's a pretty wide scale depending on experience, and if you make allowances for healthcare/family costs it rapidly becomes much more humane.

  • Dave says:

    DM, qaz, CPP,
    Doooodz, you guys are drinking the bureaucratic kool-aid. Forget you are professional grantees for a second and look at this from the taxpayer perspective. WTF are you giving the world for the millions of frickin dollars you and your institution have taken to support your lab? Do you even ask yourselves this? Do you even care?
    And don't give me any crap about how the money could have been spent worse. I know that.
    Science isn't about who can spend the most money, despite what your perverted money-grubbing dean tells you. Grow an ideal. Solve a mystery. Change the world.

  • TreeFish says:

    My Department has 8 full-time employees to run the place. An accounting staff that handles orders and bills, a research administration staff that handles grant submission, a vice-Chair that runs the books, and a go-to-guy who knows everything about equipment and computers. The Department would come to a screeching halt without these individuals. The Chair him/herself has a secretary and an assistant Chair. As far as I can estimate, these 10 people together probably make over $700k per year (salary + fringe).
    Then, we pay about $40 a square foot, which probably comes to $1.2 million...so we're talking about $2 million dollars a year just to pay rent and staff. Add in the price of having the tradespeeps fix stuff, and we're talking real money. Indirects for this alone are approaching $3 million, meaning that the 20-or-so members of the Department have to have $9 million in grants per year...oh, and the Department has to pay the faculty that don't have grants...say, $100k per year per person (hey, I'm at a med school)...and then there are the 3 full-time employees in our Department's core facility. Somehow, the faculty have to average one $450k grant per year to make things run smoothly.
    My Department's 'kickbacks' to funded PIs is not as common and widespread as I would like. For example, the place where I am starting a lab doesn't do it...
    Together, these examples make me think that the ICR is a fair estimate of what it will cost to provide an environment in which a PI can 'reach escape velocity' as quickly as possible, and maintain his/her speed for the foreseeable future.
    So, Dave, I think your indignance at ICRs for R1 institutions is misplaced and unwarranted.

  • qaz says:

    Dave #55 - I don't know about "beaurocratic kool-aid", but the fact is that I am a part of the university and in order for NIH to fund my research, they have to fund part of my university.
    And in terms of the amazingly insulting statement asking what I've given the world for the millions of dollars spent on me --- if what I've done is right, I could make a difference to the many millions of drug addicts out there. If we could cure 10% more of the drug addicts in the world, all the money spent on my lab would be money very well spent. And that's just one small piece of my contributions.
    Science ALWAYS pays off in the long run. It can take many years to do, and you almost never know what the impact will be. Who would have guessed that quantum mechanics would lead to the transistor and every computer built which is currently driving our entire economy. Heck, lasers come from quantum too. I'll bet most of our economy derives from quantum mechanics at some point. But quantum mechanics was just pure basic science done for the love of it with no immediate applications at the time.
    I have always said that grants are not the goal. The science is the goal. Grants are a means to an end. Whether the university does a good job with ICR is a debate to have. It's one that my university is having and has been having since the day I showed up at my university a decade ago. But to say that ICR is theft, graft, or a waste of taxpayer dollars shows real ignorance of the realities of the current system we have to do science.

  • Dave says:

    There is no question that ICR gets spent, TreeFish. I am simply wondering whether it is warranted. I have no doubt the people you describe are valuable. But if ICR pays them all, what does the students med school tuition get used for? Do all those people honestly do nothing but process research stuff?
    The fact is, NIH-funded biomedical science is big business. Should it be? That's the question.
    qaz: You betcha science is awesome. But administrative overhead (which is what we're talking about here) is not science. Under the great DavePlan, all ICR would be explicitly justified as direct costs, hopefully freeing up more money overall for your awesome science.

  • Dave the crazy freaked up ICR dork says:

    OK, you cheese-puff defenders-of-the-status-quo:
    My assignment for you is to find out:
    1) The proportion of your institutional ICR that goes to your unit (dept, college, etc).
    2) The proportion of your unit's budget that comes from ICR returned to it by your institution.
    When you have those numbers (I already know them for my unit), we'll take a vote on who gets most hosed -- the individual PIs or the taxpayer.

  • But administrative overhead (which is what we're talking about here) is not science. Under the great DavePlan, all ICR would be explicitly justified as direct costs, hopefully freeing up more money overall for your awesome science.

    Dude, do you have any idea how much administrative expense it would add to the grant application, award, and post-award administration process to include all of the stuff that is currently addressed en masse via institutional IDC negotiation every couple of years as explicitly budgeted direct costs? I know you are just trying to be "provocative", but could you at least make a decent attempt at not being such a dumbfuck about it?
    Your ridiculous plan would suck huge amounts of money from the NIH budget away from science and into your hated administrative overhead. Why the fuck do you think NIH instituted modular budgets for the vast majority of R01s?

  • all ICR would be explicitly justified as direct costs, hopefully freeing up more money overall for your awesome science.

    Seriously, Dave? Dude, seriously?
    To have every individual investigator have to try to nickel and dime every university resource they use for research (including the infrastructure) and separate it from the resources that are used for teaching, etc and then justify it in a budget? There won't be any time for hot science because each PI will spend their entire life creating inane budgets.
    Your attempt at sparking conversation is adorable, but adorable in the same way Little Isis's fingerpaintings are. Both are cute, but terribly juvenile.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I agree with Dave. And justifying ICR should be the role of the university's administration, not the PI's. There is so much over-charging and waste where ICR is involved and preventing it would absolutely free more money for research.
    For instance, the ex-dean of our medical school received, as part of his contract, 3% of the ICR from every Federal grant funded for up to $450,000/year. My university charges 50% ICR, which means that 3% of $15,000,000 ICR charged on $30,000,000 funded grants went straight to the dean's bank account every year. if this is not waste, if this is not over-charging I don't know what waste and over-charging are! Actually I know what these are - they are corruption and fraud.

  • Holy moly, am I late to the party!
    To respond to DM's original point, I think it is important for the entire lab staff to know the general finances so they can begin to comprehend just how expensive it is to run a decent-sized group. I had no idea about fringe rates, for example, as a postdoc. I believe that I even used to give undergrads a general 5 min primer on lab grants since they'd see in the school paper that Dr Pharmboy got a $900,000 grant but ask why he was still driving a 10 year-old car. It is an eye-opener for many to see how relatively challenging it is to run a lab on $200-250K direct costs per year.
    Second, NIH deeply underwrites graduate and postgraduate training extensively. On R01 grants, the university gains far more ICR. One individual K or F awards, or institutional T awards, the ICR is only 8%. Nevertheless, most but not all places allow a certain number of sub-negotiated ICR grants to be awarded. Every place I've been has required pre- and post-docs to write an individual NRSA (Ruth Kirschstein) grant and then fall back on an institutional training grant or PI's R award otherwise.
    Which leads me to ICRs. I've been at places from 39% to 52.5% to over 100% for various reasons. Like any such controversy, the truth is likely to be in the middle. Remember that the ICRs are negotiated with DHHS at regular intervals. I had one auditor in my lab once look at the amperage of all my equipment and ask how many hours per day each thing operated. Depending where you are, these costs cover the amazingly talented people who keep your facilities running, from physical plant specialists (have you ever seen the stuff above and below your research building??) to compliance officers to accounting and purchasing to custodial staff to the pain-in-the-ass upper administrators. Some of these people are useless while some are absolutely invaluable, more so often than many researchers and trainees. Just as an auto garage charges a "shop fee" for incidentals that cannot be directly associated with a given repair, research universities are justified to charge NIH a reasonable ICR.
    What is reasonable is the gray area. Some U's abuse this by padding the ICRs mathematically to justify all kinds of bullcrap. While some discuss the ICRs that flow back to the dept, this is technically illegal - the U's have a fixed budget for facilities and administration costs (F&A) and depts are rewarded for covering a higher percentage of these fees with grant-derived ICRs, thereby releasing funds that are referred to as ICR returns but are not really - the return basis is the dept's share of costs for F&A.
    The bottom line is that I had no idea of the intricacies of university grants accounting until I was nearly a tenured associate professor. Some things remain a mystery to me. The earlier we educate our trainees, the better they understand the important parts while also remaining appropriately wary of being taken advantage of by administration.

  • Depending where you are, these costs cover the amazingly talented people who keep your facilities running, from physical plant specialists (have you ever seen the stuff above and below your research building??) to compliance officers to accounting and purchasing to custodial staff to the pain-in-the-ass upper administrators.

    Absofuckinglutely! We have a bunch of equipment and experiments that are highly sensitive to ambient temperature, and the director of our HVAC Sensors and Control Systems Department has been invaluable in keeping our rooms at a very constant temperature. The dude even gave me his personal cell phone number and urged me to call him at any time if we have any trouble. He just gives a shit about getting things right.
    This idea that administrators are the enemy and a waste of resources is a fucking joke. Without administrators, institutions cannot function at all.

  • Dave says:

    "This idea that administrators are the enemy and a waste of resources is a fucking joke. Without administrators, institutions cannot function at all."
    I don't recall anyone here claiming that administrators and staff are the enemy. I definitely didn't say that, because I don't think that.
    All I said was that ICR should be justified and reckoned. As is, ICR income is directly proportional to funding, but real overhead costs -- which is what ICR is supposed to support -- are inversely proportional to funding, due to minimum required investments and savings of scale. In other words, well-funded institutions should logically have very low ICR, because the first few grants should be enough to pay the administrators and machine shop guys and heat the building, etc.
    The only sure fix for the waste is to reduce ICR at the source -- cut if off. But slashing ICR unfairly penalizes poorly-funded institutions, which might have only a few grants for research support. So that's no good. A reasonable alternative is for an institution to continuously justify & renegotiate ICR rates, which as pointed out here already, happens regularly. The problem with this is that the institution can throw all sorts of goofy stuff into their negotiations. It is not hard to justify just about anything as 'research support' at a major research university, and many do. In fact, I challenge anyone here to come up with something that cannot be twisted into a 'research-related expense'.
    Bottom line: I am fine with ICR. I am not fine with abuse of ICR. I think there's a lot of ICR abuse. Maybe you feel differently. But I bet you'll still learn something interesting if you complete my assignment, above.

  • All I said was that ICR should be justified and reckoned. As is, ICR income is directly proportional to funding, but real overhead costs -- which is what ICR is supposed to support -- are inversely proportional to funding, due to minimum required investments and savings of scale. In other words, well-funded institutions should logically have very low ICR, because the first few grants should be enough to pay the administrators and machine shop guys and heat the building, etc.

    This makes no sense to me.

  • Dave says:

    While Isis is catching up on her fourth grade math, everyone else can read the following, which I just came across:
    http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Bioethicsforum/Post.aspx?id=2474
    Same author, same theme. Less campaign-related: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/reforming-nih
    Not exactly on topic, but relevant enough I think.
    I especially like this in the last paragraph of the 2008 essay:
    "This would require some of those who benefit from the current inefficiency of the NIH to put the larger cause of medical research above their own budgets. Such selflessness is rare and difficult..."
    Vive le revolucion, folks.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Dave, as I said earlier, I fully agree with your comments, mathematics and references. What surprises me are those NIH funded PIs who, for one reason or another, are willing to close their eyes so they won't see or even admit that the present ICR system is wasteful if not corrupted. People tend to forget the abuse of that system uncovered at Stanford University and other big name institutions just several years ago. One only need to check how much administrators in one's university are paid to understand that there is an abuse. I believe that, in general, administrators, at all levels, are being paid higher salaries than academic personnel at all levels; offices of administrators, in general, are more plush than faculty members' officies and administrators are also the pricipal beneficieries of university's freebees. I know of many peers who have made the conscience decision to become administrators for those very reasons. Unfortunately, such a transition requires of these scientists-turned-administrators to abandon some ethical principles required of scientists; they have thus moved to the dark side.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The thing is, Sol, those of us who have moved beyond comforable absolutes so dear to the adolescent mind can distinguish between "wasteful" and "embezzlement".

  • Dave says:

    Call our thinking adolescent if you want, DM, but I make no apologies. It's too bad that your intellectual development* has stunted your ethical development.
    *And I am not so sure about that right now; your simple-minded defense of the status quo is hardly compelling. How about some numbers instead of administrative platitudes?

  • Pinus says:

    Dave and Sol,
    I think you two should team up to write a blog. The comments you post here show would serve a solid base. I am sure many would read it, including those that disagree with you. It would also be very helpful as you would have your own platform to shout from.

  • I think you two should team up to write a blog.

    What a fanfuckingtastic idea!!!!

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Dave, is it me or you, too, feel that some people prefer not to hear the truth?

  • Pinus says:

    I am not passing judgment on anything you are saying, I just think that a blog written by both of you would be a good idea.

  • Dave says:

    I write all the time, pinus. I don't blog, and am unlikely to start one, for several reasons.
    http://blogging.infogami.com/manifesto.html

  • Dave says:

    I am not passing judgement on this particular set of DrugMonkey webpages with that link, by the way. I have obviously found the content here interesting and get a weird kick out of participating in these comments. I'm just saying, in general, that I can usually think of things to use my time on that are more useful than blogging.
    Still, in general: http://blogging.infogami.com/manifesto.html
    But all this is beside the point. What about the fracking ICR?

  • newbie prof says:

    On a related issue.....What do funding agencies think of grants that do not budget for PI summer salary?
    I have just started my tenure-track position and can pay my summer salary from my rather generous startup.
    I would rather budget for capital equipment in my first grant (since the university does not charge overhead on capital equipment). Is it unwise not to ask for summer salary in a grant? Is asking for 2 months of summer salary typical?

  • qaz says:

    Newbie prof #78 -
    Why would you want to spend precious startup on summer salary? Spend your startup on things that you cannot spend grant money on (like capital equipment generally useful for your lab beyond the immediate grant). Because startup is unencumbered, it can be used for anything. This makes it incredibly precious. In fact, unless you think your university is evil enough to steal unused startup back, save any excess startup for when you get in trouble (because your grant didn't get funded when you thought it would) or when you get faced with things you can't use grant money on (like increasing the salary of a student funded on an NIH training grant) or when you suddenly decide to change direction midstream (say because you discover something really cool in a field not your own).
    Don't get suckered into Dave and Sol's ranting. There are much worse wastes in the NIH system than ICR. And there are much, MUCH worse wastes in our economy than anything scientists have done. (Think bankers paying themselves bonuses from TARP money.) You will have enough trouble running your lab on the total money you can pull in from startup, grants, loose change found in couch cushions, begging on the street, etc. to spend time worrying about whether you can save NIH a few grand in ICR that is going to help pay for your university's support system.
    PS. I know it looks good now, but trust me, startup is never as generous as you need. Spend it as you need to, but don't throw it away.

  • Dave says:

    I agree with qaz regarding startup. But this is totally retarded:
    "There are much worse wastes in the NIH system than ICR. And there are much, MUCH worse wastes in our economy than anything scientists have done."
    What kind of justification is that for anything? Squandering tax money or charity is OK because at least we're not killing people or something? And actually, I don't really see much difference between misuse of TARP money by businesses and misuse of ICR by research institutions.
    The fuzzy-headed rhetoric is getting pretty thick here, folks. How about those numbers I asked for?

  • qaz says:

    Dave #80 - It's all a question of effort. Yes, you could check every penny to make sure it's spent wisely, but at some point, the checking of it costs more than the savings. The question is where is that line. As pointed out by CPP #60, that's why NIH went to a modular budget. They discovered (correctly in my opinion) that the amount of effort spent making and grading budgets wasn't worth the effect of rounding off to $25k modules. I stand by my statement that the amount of poor use of ICR in the universities that I've seen is really not bad. And I stand by my statement that the amount of good that I do with that budget (including the costs of being part of a university, i.e. ICR) is much more than taxpayers are spending on me. And that if we are going to do some good cleaning budgetary waste ICR just isn't worth fighting over.

  • Thanks for the math lesson, Dave. I've always assumed math was beyond me and gave up on it years ago. Now I just, you know, eyeball my data and hopes it all washes out in the end.
    The point of comment #66, Dave, is that you seem to make an assumption that it takes the same funds and resources to run a university, regardless of its size or the amount of research being conducted. If that were true then you would be right. If MRUs cost the same to run as SLACs then it would make sense for them to have low ICR, wouldn't it? But that really is 4th grade math, where we all assume that things are linear (dare I say, "proportional" as you point out). But perhaps 4th grade is where you stopped, explaining why you are so familiar with this simplistic way of thinking.
    Comment #65 is nonsense.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM, embezzlement also leads to waste, although I did not indicate embezzlement in any of my comments here. When a contractor charges the government $150 for a hammer it is not embezzlement, it is overcharging, just as many universities do with ICR.
    qaz, you are clearly unfamiliar with the ways universities work their deals with the NIH where ICR is concerned. NIH is not different from other governmental departments that outsource contracts to contractors. In such arrangements there is always abuse and most universities abuse the ICR system. One of the way universities get away with it is by creating there own foundations. The accounting in those foundations is not given to overseeing and review by auditors as do the rest of the university financial activities. Actually, university foundations are created specifically to hinder such reviews by local, state and federal authorities. Donations, endowments and grant monies are all managed by the foundation, which is not required to make its records open.
    So maybe for you, the comments by Dave and me are ranting, but as long as you make uneducated assumptions regarding ICR, you could be blamed of ranting, too.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    but as long as you make uneducated assumptions regarding ICR, you could be blamed of ranting, too.
    It was Dave who was on about graft and embezzlement...but he sustained it long enough to conclude that he was not merely trying to provoke but actually believes it.
    However, to assume that those of us who appreciate where our overhead dollars are sent are "uneducated" and to issue silly homework challenges is less than well-considered.
    I think that just about every PI with a couple of years under her belt has thought at least once about "Where's my damn overhead going and why am I paying these recharges and AAAAGGGIIIEE!" I get a "Hey, what are you paying for X, my University just raised our prices dammit" email once a quarter or so.
    Some of us have actually run some numbers based on obtaining services on the open market. I have and this exercise is an excellent one for disgruntled PIs. Just because I have no desire to get into identifying specifics on blog doesn't mean I am under informed.

  • Dave says:

    "It was Dave who was on about graft and embezzlement...but he sustained it long enough to conclude that he was not merely trying to provoke but actually believes it."
    It's kind of stupid that a potentially informative and detail-oriented discussion is turning into speculation regarding my psyche. It shouldn't. I recognize that my labels for ICR abuse might be a bit strong. Intentionally so. It is easy to overlook waste when it's accepted as conventional procedure, or even admired. Remember when everyone thought Enron had the most clever accountants and business plan?
    So let me be clear: As a PI, I would love to see me and my university make out like bandits. And yea, of course I think the worst use of money at NIH is probably better than blowing people up somewhere far away.
    Why do I think we should all care about ICR? I think we should all take a careful look at ICR because presumably everyone participating here would like to see more money for biomedical research. But increased money for biomedical research in this country is most likely to come from redistribution of NIH funds rather than a significant increase in NIH funds. Think about it. For NIH funding success rates to get back up to where they were in the late 1990s so struggling PIs can be happy and all you postdocs and nontenured readers can have jobs, the NIH budget would have to double again -- to about 60 billion dollars. Where is that money going to come from? Take a look at the overall U.S. Budget: http://www.wallstats.com/deathandtaxes/
    News flash: The government is out of money and there are powerful lobbies pushing for other spending. Plus, the recent NIH budget doubling is widely seen (rightly so) as a boondoggle. The NSF budget has a chance of increasing substantially (and there is already momentum for this), but it just ain't gonna happen at NIH. So how can NIH award more R01s? First, it could cut intramural spending. Everyone has called for that already, and intramural spending has been reduced lately, but you know, let's be realistic. Second, it could reduce the average award size. How does it do that? As already explained here, most grant money goes to salaries, so reducing awards (direct costs) puts grad students and postdocs out of work, or forces pay scales down. But remember that only about two-thirds of an award goes to the PI. There's an extra $125k per module going somewhere. I suggest we scrutinize where that money goes.
    Of total ICR generated by my department, 20% eventually comes to my department. About one-third of my department's budget comes from ICR. My department is forced by the college to use 90% of it's ICR for startup costs. About half of this is spent on renovation. Of total ICR generated by my department, 30% goes to my college. The other 50% of the ICR is under control of the provost. All of the research support I receive comes from the department or university-wide facilities and services (technical and administrative). I cannot think of a single thing that my college does to earn the ICR it gets. I am currently working with my department head and dean to redirect at least some of the (in my opinion) 'misused' ICR now going to the college. 5% of my college's budget comes from ICR.
    My figures, incidentally, are from my own queries* and the fact that my dept head likes the 'State of the...' idea so much he started doing it for his lab AND the whole department.
    [*I am pretty chummy with my dean and several associate deans; so much so that other faculty joke with me about this. I am chummy because I appreciate what they do and work hard to make my university better rather than stick my head in a cave of ignorance and selfishly look out for my own interests all the time -- like tragically too many people do.]

  • Dave says:

    Whoops. I meant an extra $125k per modular grant.
    That Freudian slip is consistent, however, with the sad (for taxpayers and unfunded PIs) fact that a modular grant has really become the new de facto minimum module.

  • qaz says:

    First, I'd like to second what our host DrugMonkey said in #84. To say that I am unwilling to go into details about my department or medical school's budget on a public blog should not be taken to imply that I am uninformed about said numbers. Believe me when I say that the more-than-annual faculty meeting where our chair goes through the departmental numbers (and its relation to other departments and other, larger units) is not missed by any faculty.
    Second, Dave #85 - Let's separate three issues.
    1. How can we, as scientists increase the money available to real research?
    2. How can NIH do a better job of funding scientists?
    3. Is ICR theft/embezzelment/graft?
    These three are separate issues.
    While it is true that my university overspends on certain things and underspends on others, the fact is that it does a pretty good job overall. It is also true that every other faculty member I know (including administrators [Chairs, Deans, VPs]) are working their tails off to make sure that ICR is used to its best advantage and that the university survives the current economic crisis.

  • Dave says:

    1. How can we, as scientists increase the money available to real research?
    2. How can NIH do a better job of funding scientists?
    3. Is ICR theft/embezzelment/graft?

    ----------
    My answers:
    1) Two possibilities that I see:
    a) Lobby for more money, or
    b) Ensure that already-allocated money is spent on 'real research'. Thus this thread.
    2) Not fund things that are not funding scientists. Thus this thread.
    3) Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe some. Thus this thread.

  • Dave says:

    You guys who are so proud of the way ICR is spent by your institution, please tell the rest of us how your institution determines ICR rate and how it allocates ICR. Because then the rest of us can work toward that ideal. Please give specifics. We're all anonymous here. If you don't tell us anything except that your institution is full of hard-working people and the situation there is great, then how can we in less-perfect places learn anything?
    Seriously: If you have details, cough them up. Or if you are spouting career-insurance platitudes from your ass, then at least admit it.

  • jc says:

    My jaw just hit the floor. http://www.oig.hhs.gov/oas/reports/region4/40501014.pdf
    The gist is that Duke U pay $1.6 mil back to the govt for unallowable costs and admin salaries. YIKES!!!!
    Is this common or becoming more common?
    h/t writedit
    http://writedit.wordpress.com/2009/02/03/circular-a-21-strikes-again-hits-duke/

  • Dave says:

    Good find, jc. I think enforcing this stuff will become more common as pressure on NIH to get more projects funded increases. And obviously that's fine with me.
    I assume DM is not at Duke?

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