The other peculiar effects of grant funding at universities

July 31, 2010

A long time ago, I wrote about the power that grant funding gives people at universities. But there's a flip side to grant funding, and it is that people with grant funding often don't really have money as the business world thinks of it.

From the outside, it looks like people with grant funding are rolling in cash; they get hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even million dollar grants. From the inside, though, that money is almost entirely tied down for very specific things. Professors do not get to go to grant agencies, tell them 'I would like to do this promising research; it will take about $200K', and walk away with $200K in their research account that they can spend on anything that's necessary to do the research. Instead, both the grant requests and the grant approvals allocate all of that money to quite specific things; so much for buying servers, so much for storage, so much for network switches, so much to pay two people for a year, and so on.

So far, this may sound just like the budgeting process for a department in a company. But here's the kicker for grant funding: you are legally required to only spend the money on what it was approved for. Does it turn out that two people for a year isn't what you actually needed, or you need more servers and less storage than you thought? Do you have a sudden emergency need for money in some other area of the project? Tough. You're pretty much stuck. There is no spending the money on what you need now and justifying it later, or even going to your boss and saying that you'd like to shift the specific allocations around and here's why.

(Naturally there is an entire cottage industry of figuring out how to slide what you really need into the grant's funding categories in a way that will pass auditing, if you ever get audited. For example, just how much disk space does a server have to have before you can say with a straight face that you bought it for storage, not as a compute server?)

One thing that combines somewhat unhappily with this is that grant agencies generally have restrictions on what sort of things they will fund. There is of course an art to describing what you really need in a way that the grant agency will approve funding for and that you can spend the resulting money on with a straight face.

(Sometimes they also effectively have restrictions on who you can buy from, where in theory you can buy from any vendor that is willing to go to the effort but in practice only a few vendors are interested enough to brave the bureaucracy.)

There are sources of relatively unconstrained grant funding, but they are generally not very large when compared to the constrained sort. Generally all of the big ticket grants that sound so impressive are going to come with lots of restrictions on what that money can actually be used for.

(Ie, it is not so much money as somewhat fuzzy things that haven't shown up on the loading dock yet.)

Written on 31 July 2010.
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Last modified: Sat Jul 31 22:53:39 2010
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