Sunday, 30 October 2011

x% of Infinite

Those of us who got some "stimulus" funding (ARRA) in the form of a research grant a few years ago have to do quarterly reporting on the progress of this research, as opposed to annual reporting for a regular grant; in my case, the grant was from NSF. This quarterly reporting is not arduous; it just takes a few minutes of checking the info generated automatically (e.g., number of persons employed by the grant) and updating some text about research activities.

I have no idea who, if anyone, reads these quarterly reports. Unlike annual reports, which have to be approved by a program officer (at least at NSF, I don't know about other funding agencies), once these quarterly reports are done, they seem to be done.

The one part of the reporting that always makes me have to think a bit is the part where I have to report the % of the research that is completed. In some senses, of course, a research project is never really done. You can always do more, and then some more. Particular research questions lead to more research questions which lead to .. etc. That's one thing that is so great about research.

Realistically, though, a grant has a finite time span, so things do come to an end (financially). Therefore, I could answer the question in terms of "How much money is left in the grant?". That is a number that, in theory, can be determined well enough for reporting requirements, although never exactly at any given moment, given the complexity and vagaries of my university's accounting system.

Another way to phrase the question is:"What % of what you said you would do in the grant proposal is done at this time?" That's a tricky question for research projects that veer -- for scientifically valid reasons -- from what was proposed in the proposal. I have written about this before: my research group's grant proposals are our best guess for what we will do to solve the questions and problems posed, but, once the research starts and we get some results, we may find a different/better way to approach these problems, at least in some ways.

In that sense, the % completed of what we proposed to do may be a very different number from the % of the project that will be "completed" by the time the funding runs out.

I have been thinking about this over the last few years as I do my quarterly reports and have to select an answer from a pull-down menu with possible responses to the % completed question. For a long time, I was answering with low numbers because we were in the data-gathering stage (for well over half the duration of the grant), but once we were >>50% in terms of time and money left on the grant, I realized that the % completed should probably kick up a bit, even if we still have a lot more to do.

I suppose at some point I will have to say that the project is 100% completed; that is, when the money runs out, even if the research is not really completed. For accounting purposes, this is probably fine, but it will not be entirely true.

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