Drying up the Well: Make the Most of Your Remaining 2012 Funding

The end of 2012 is rushing towards us, and with it the appreciation that any unused leftover funding might be wasted (depending on the agency's funding restrictions). Ideally, Principal Investigators should be able to plan their activities so that funds will be used to the last dime. In some cases, unpredicted events (such as receiving a special or personal grant) can deliver more funds than expected.

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While many will regard “what to spend leftover money on” as a much easier decision than the initial financial decisions when starting up a new lab, a PI must choose wisely how leftover money will be spent since future grant applications are never guaranteed. Such decisions should preferably be made well ahead of the end of the year. Likewise, financial planning and assessment should be done every several months, to keep on top of your expenses and the lab's monthly "burn rate".

Checking your balance

Grant funding ("budget justification") is sub-divided according to the resources required to conduct a research: Human resources, equipment purchase and maintenance, disposable materials and travel expenses. First of all, check and see how much money is left in each sub category.

  • Human resources – Usually these funds are exhausted by the end of the year, mostly through salaries for technicians. Even so, if you find you have some leftovers, it is a good time to give a moral-boosting "pat-on-the-back" to your lab members (or to certain exceptional students).
  • Equipment – It’s time to evaluate whether your hard-working equipment is well maintained. Does it need some replacement parts and a checkup by a technician? Or maybe it is worth it to order another model to relieve the bottle-neck around a commonly used machine? You might consider ordering new devices or services that will boost your research and will reduce your dependency on favors or departmental squeaky-half-working devices.
  • Services – How do you routinely manage lab logistics and research projects? Spreadsheets for specimens and molecular resources, binders of printed documents for protocols and plasmid maps and Dropbox for sharing data and images? If that’s your answer (or anywhere near it), you might consider spending your 2012 leftover money on some lab and research management software. The end of a year is actually a very good time for this purpose: It’s a period when many labs go over their storages, freezers, chemicals cupboards and refrigerators, to clean up and re-organize the lab, in order to have a fresh and spotless start in the New Year. Take, for example, the paid version of Labguru, BioData’s web-based research and lab management software, that can boost your lab's efficiency, and help you organize all aspects of running a lab, from logistics and inventory cataloging to actual experiment planning and project follow-up. It might be worthwhile for your research and your lab, especially if you take advantage of the Labguru New Year’s Sale. You’ll begin 2013 with a new resolution to increase research efficiency, output and organization, which will allow you to focus on your research, and do more science.
  • Disposables – Funds allocated to disposables are usually completely spent by the end of the year, so there’s no point in discussing it :-)
  • Travel – Surprisingly, in many cases this part of a lab’s budget is less used. Even if you can't find the time to attend conferences, you can finance or support your students’ travels to conferences or professional workshops. They will appreciate it, and you will have well-trained students who can teach and share experiences with the rest of the students.

Depending on your grant’s restrictions, you can also ask to transfer funds from one sub category to another in which the funds are most needed (for example, from travel to disposables).

As stated at the beginning of this post, good planning of budget usage at the start of the project will guarantee the best utilization of funds, and minimize money loss due to time limitations.

Happy New Year from the Labguru team, everybody!

Have any leftover grant money to spend on your lab? How do you plan to spend it? You’re invited to share!