Buying things with other people’s money

No, I’m not talking about stealing. I’m talking about work.

If you are or have ever been a scientific researcher of some kind, you have more than likely been funded by a grant. Now, most of you were probably not the PI (Primary Investigator or head person in charge) of the research and as such, probably didn’t have to worry about any of the budgeting or grant management.  The grant I’m currently on – THANK YOU, NASA and tax-paying citizens!!! –  is the first grant for which I have been the PI. And this whole budget thing is driving me batty.

Before I delve into the following “I have no idea what I’m doing and it’s taking forever and I’m confused” rant that is to follow, I must preface: everyone I’ve been working with to get everything purchased and get all my permissions has been the definition of wonderful. My grant manager in the physics department, Mark, is seriously spectacular. While neither of us can figure out some of the rules and regulations for what is and what is not permitted under the grant (see our confusion below), he’s super fast at responding to my confused and sometimes panicked emails. My frustration is that I’ve never been the PI on a grant before, so I have no idea what to expect and how to get things done and how long it will take to get things done.  Also: ridiculous red-tape and paperwork. I present to you the following timeline:

February 2: Started the ball rolling on booking my plane tickets and other accommodations for my field work in Peru. Was originally supposed to leave on May 10, return on or before June 22, since I am presenting at a conference in Boston on July 8 and need to incorporate a lot of the results from the field into that presentation.

While 10 days may not seem like a long time to get the ridiculous amounts of data I’ll be collecting fed into my models, you may not know my productivity patterns. I work well on a deadline. I wrote the painfully thorough 26-page grant application including a few hundred referenced articles (which, if you’d like to read, I’ll happily post since I am quite proud of the thing) in 10 days. I slept for about 45 minutes twice a day, usually on the conference table in my office. My grant explicitly talked about the field work in Peru, the fact that the field work was required to have publishable results from the study, and the budget for the trip was clearly laid out. The RFA (Request for Applications, which is the sciencey term for directions and rules for applying for the grant) had no mention about financial limitations or limitations of any kind for travel — this is important to know.

February 22: Sent an email requesting an accountable advance for my research, meaning they give me a certain amount of money before I go, I spend the money there and bring back receipts.  Typically, you are supposed travel and spend your own money, bring back receipts and they reimburse you. Being a broke graduate student, I don’t have the money to front, so an accountable advance is needed.

March 25: After a month of back and forth of getting international travel approved by the university, figuring out plane tickets, etc. I get the following message forwarded to me through five different offices: “NASA does not allow our grant to be used for foreign travel.” Remember (1) I was supposed to be leaving on May 10, or about 5 weeks from receiving this message; (2) that my grant had explicitly and thoroughly discussed the planned field work in Peru; and (3) the RFA had mentioned nothing about forbidding international travel. So I was freaking out, naturally.

A re-enactment of my mental state, carefully depicted by Natalie Dee.

April 8: There is apparently some kind of meeting regarding my situation in Huntsville, in which they figure out some way around the federal rule that the grant cannot be spent on international travel. I immediately regret all my complaining about loopholes in federal laws.  Since it’s already April 8, and I can’t get moving THAT fast to get tickets, and get all my meetings in Peru set up in time, (3 work weeks plus 1 vacation week) so I push my departure date back to May 24 instead of May 10.

May 2: Send reminder to university travel office (through my awesome grant manager) that I need to book my plane tickets ASAP, seeing as I needed to be leaving in 22 days and ticket prices will be skyrocketing. I requested flying Continental/United Airlines, as I have elite status with them and occasionally get first class upgrades for free. Also, they treat me well. Also, I like air miles and I plan on blowing every single mile I’ve collected in the past few years (round trip flights from Newark to Mumbai get you lots of air miles) on a trip to Ireland, Scotland and Wales for my sister and I once I graduate. Weirdly enough, Europe is the only inhabited continent I haven’t been to.

May 5: Still have not received word that my plane tickets are confirmed (I confirmed the itinerary on Tuesday morning). Also received word that ordering some supplies from Amazon.com isn’t allowed because apparently the dot-coms have “terms and conditions that don’t comply with state law”. I’m guessing that this is the fact that they don’t collect sales taxes, but buying the items (waterproof digital camera with HD video capabilities, extra battery and memory card for the camera, AA batteries for my GPS unit, etc) through Amazon.com will save me something like $250 or so. I’ve asked my amazing advisor what to do about this, but shes insanely busy right now (stay tuned to the Discovery channel, and probably other news outlets in September-ish to see why) and haven’t heard back from her. Also have received word that an accountable advance might not be possible, and am awaiting instruction from the amazing advisor on that too.

Public Health Humor, brought to you by Natalie Dee.

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