Uncertainty and The Unknown are constant adversaries of Superhero PhD. Careful application of the scientific method keeps them at bay. It is a battle that never ends. However, other enemies can come from within the Ivory Tower- well-intentioned policies band together to create formidable bureaucracies that mire progress. At times, Dr. PhD, her crew and common sense run afoul of the system. This is one of those stories.
A good deed…
Graduate Assistant needed some spinach to prepare samples for her experiments, but her lack of transportation prevents her from going to the MegaLowMart to get what she needs in sync with her experimental schedule. Fortunately, Superhero PhD can easily stop by there at any time in her PhDMobile. The wall-o-produce at the MegaLowMart has what she is looking for- bagged spinach, not that baby stuff but mature leaves full of PSII. Mission accomplished. Dr. PhD thinks to herself, “What else was on the lab shopping list?” Ah yes, batteries. Tenured PI had used up the lab’s supply when changing out the batteries in the portable light meter last week. The battery kiosk is next to the checkout, and batteries are added to Dr. PhD’s cart. She pays with her institution-issued credit card aka TheCard, making sure to alert the cashier to the purchase’s tax-exempt status and keep the receipt to file the appropriate accounting paperwork. All this productivity and efficiency before 8 a.m. One would hardly think a rule had been broken.
Doesn’t go unpunished
The spinach is turned into samples for useful experiments in the lab by a grateful Graduate Assistant. The stash of batteries is full so the next time one of the small electronics in the laboratory dies, it can immediately be resurrected without inconveniencing any experiments. The original receipt, signed and labeled with the appropriate account number to be charged, is turned in to the accountant. Lab life goes on… Until… Superhero gets an e-mail from Departmental Accountant asking for clarification. Every transaction is audited to prevent fraudulent purchases and he needs to know what “the salad spinners and batteries” were used for. Superhero PhD, “Huh?” Oh, yes. The abbreviation on the receipt was ‘salad spin’ for salad spinach not spinner and it was turned into PSII. Batteries are used to power small electronics in the lab. (No, there isn’t a non-snarky way to describe what we use batteries for in the lab, especially not on a Friday afternoon.) Later, another e-mail; this one is a warning from Departmental Business Manager. Her superpower is generally keeping the system from negatively interfering with laboratory science. Sometimes even she can’t keep the system from impeding research. Departmental Business Manager informs Dr. PhD that batteries are available at a cheaper price with next day delivery from WorkplaceSupplySupreme via the Online Institutional Ordering System. “That’s great! Anything to keep me away from MegaLowMart.” thinks Dr. PhD. Well, there’s more to it than that explains Departmental Business Manager. Our institution is contractually obligated to buy them from WorkplaceSupplySupreme, and elders in the main institution accounting office may deny the transaction and send Dr. PhD a ‘Noncompliance’ form. Sigh. In the meantime, Dr. PhD will wear a scarlet ‘N’ on her lab coat and be prepared to personally pay for the illegal transaction. This will teach our hero to think of WorkplaceSupplySupreme the next time random consumables are needed for the lab.
Additional noncompliance and other rebellions
Apparently, Superhero PhD is the bad apple spoiling the whole bunch because the other individuals in the lab have also been fiscally rebellious. Research Technician bought spinach at a produce stand that did not provide a receipt with detailed item descriptions, such that there is no way for accountants to tell if he really purchased $6.00 worth of spinach for the lab or a few bananas for his own consumption. Laboratory Manager had to replace the lab’s blender, which is used to grind the spinach for PSII preparations. Scientific supply companies will sell versions of this appliance with features the lab doesn’t need for exorbitant fees, but a decent kitchen supply outlet will sell the basic model for less than half the price. Lab Manager had to spend a lot of time responding to e-mail correspondence from institution accountants as to why she purchased a food blender on her TheCard and federal grant funds. Sometimes there are unexpected difficulties when your model organism is also a common food. Tenured PI also decided to join in the fun of noncompliance by ordering a piece of lab equipment from e-bay using his TheCard. If it were new, it would cost $5000.00, but by shopping victoriously it was only $100.00. Tenured PI has not technically gotten a noncompliance notice, but his transaction makes too much financial good sense to be legitimate, and notification is likely to be imminent.
All of this fiscal (ir)responsibility is amplified by the fact that Tenured PI has not received notice on the funding status of his federal grant renewal submission. For months now, it has been in the pipeline being checked, reviewed, discussed and ranked. Federal Agency Officers can give no information on the status of submissions. Since they have significant power over amounts of funds and release dates, Tenured PI knows not to press the issue. The only response, “No new information will be provided until 2 weeks from this date.” Tenured PI’s grant exists only as Schrodinger’s grant. It is the superposition of both the funded and non-funded states. There is no way to really know at this time which state it really is, and thus it can exist as both states simultaneously. Ultimately, the e-mail from Federal Agency Officer is the black box that entangles both states. When this e-mail arrives in Tenured PI’s mailbox, he can click on it to collapse the superposition of dual states and make the observation to know for sure whether the grant is truly funded or not funded. Until then, the lab waits, conjuring ideas for alternative funding strategies and sources for lab consumables.
Slow River Honky Tonk Extravaganza
Our hero’s lab isn’t the only place feeling the squeeze of governmental budgets. It’s a state-wide problem, and Dr. PhD’s institution has discovered how profitable it is to rent out our MegaStadium for a weekend’s-worth of country music. No one knows for sure how the money is split, but with seating for just under 100,000 it can’t be a bad racket. Of course, an event of this size has logistical implications and repercussions for Superhero PhD and other institutional employees. Weeks in advance the police department sends out e-mails describing the parking situation. Even though Superhero PhD pays for a parking permit, the spaces will be sold or made available to concert goers. The specifics are unclear, but what would normally be restricted-access will be publicly available starting at 1pm. The concert doesn’t start until 530pm, but our state accounts for a requisite four-hour window for the public consumption of alcoholic beverages prior to large events such as this. Vehicular navigation on campus will be such a cluster&@#% that commercial delivery services will not run their normal routes. Outgoing packages will just have to wait until Tuesday. Superhero PhD arrives to a campus that appears business-as-usual in the morning and is not asked for additional payment for parking. However, by 330pm there is a steady influx of buzzed women in tank tops and cowboy boots- all Reba’s biggest fans, no doubt. Their escorts all have crisp new cowboy hats. Superhero PhD wraps up her experiments earlier than usual and the roads appear to be moving reasonably well. Just like that she disappears from the Ivory Tower and begins her escape from campus. Half of the intersection is blocked where she normally makes her left turn, but a car in the oncoming lane is disabled. There are no pedestrians to yield to for the left turn. Dr. PhD thinks, “Here’s your one chance PhDMobile, don’t let me down!” Fancy that, the rest of the commute to the PhD lair is smooth sailing.
Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of Superhero PhD and the rest of the lab. Will they all be relegated to noncompliance and have their purchasing privileges revoked? Will Tenured PI’s grant get renewed so there will even be money to spend? The answers to these burning questions will be in the next episode.
*I can’t take credit for this bit. It was all Tenured PI’s idea.
Also, for the record, better judgement and common sense has prevailed regarding noncompliance. While time was wasted by all in terms of e-mail correspondence, no lab members were held personally liable for the purchases described here.