Toward a Philosophy of Resource Management

In a competitive research environment, the usual virtues–bold ideas, solid research qualifications, a passion for discovery–can’t guarantee a satisfying and lasting career. Even in an academic setting, serious researchers need financial knowledge and a businesslike attitude.

Michael McClure, former chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Reproductive Sciences Branch, compares the modern research environment to a shopping mall in which the landlord–the university–leases space to new businesses–junior faculty members–and provides start-up assistance. The proprietor expects those fledgling operations to become self-sufficient quickly and provide a reliable source of revenue for the university. “You need to understand the principles of business and develop skills to market your business,” McClure says. “In the harsh environment today, there’s very little forgiveness in the system.”

A programmatic vision

Like any successful businessperson, your most important requirement is a clear plan. “It’s not all about money,” says Joan Lakoski, associate dean for postdoctoral education and associate vice chancellor for academic career development at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. “It’s about defining what your research goals are and then using the fiscal tools to be able to accomplish the work.” “Grant reviewers will be looking for a long-term plan,” agrees Maryrose Franko, senior program officer for graduate science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “Money follows the vision.”

So how do you develop a vision and a long-term plan? Your adviser probably doesn’t expect you to think hard about the direction her lab ought to go in or see to day-to-day details such as preparing budgets, tracking expenses, building financially sensible collaborations, or juggling multiple funding sources, but she probably will be willing to help you learn if you express an interest.

Once your vision is in place, draw up a detailed chart of the equipment and supplies you’ll need to do the work you intend to do once you’re independent. Figure out where to buy it, how much it costs, and what equipment you might be able to share with other scientists.

Funding your venture

Many new faculty members are afraid to ask for too much, so instead they ask for too little, endangering their success during the critical first years of their research careers. Take the guesswork out by knowing what you need. Because you made a list, you know how much your lab will cost to start up and operate until research grants start flowing–and you can spell it out in detail for your future landlord. “You shouldn’t shoot for the moon, but it does the university no good to nickel and dime you,” Franko says.

When grant-writing time comes, many researchers target only funding powerhouses like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. But it’s also worthwhile to explore other possibilities including specialized federal programs, state agencies, private foundations, industry partnerships, and community grants. Even small supplemental grants stabilize a laboratory’s cash flow and support auxiliary materials, activities, or personnel that a primary grant might not. Small grants can also fund exploratory work that can lead to more significant funding later on.

Every business needs a steady and diversified supply of revenue, and a lab is no exception, so take a holistic view of your funding portfolio. One big grant is nice, but a financially healthy lab has a variety of grants, large and small, that come due at different times.

Spend wisely

Knowing how to spend your laboratory’s money is as important as knowing how to get it. A growing number of institutions provide formal financial-management training for scientists. Career-development workshops at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, help postdocs and junior faculty members prioritize research goals, develop financially manageable research programs, improve grant-writing skills, write budget justifications, and navigate fiscal policies. The Laboratory Management Institute at the University of California, Davis, offers a yearlong course for postdocs that teaches skills including writing grant proposals and protecting intellectual property.

Husbanding your resources is key. Burn through cash too quickly and you’ll have to cut back on research or let people go. Play it too conservatively and you’ll end up with an admirable surplus that you may not be able to roll over into the next year–along with a less-than-stellar CV.

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