Pi in the Sky—Research Spending Empowerment

Image of a three dimensional Greek letter pi against a sky background.

Pi in the sky

It would be pi-in-the-sky for a researcher to expect that they could spend research money as through it were their own. Regulation and accountability are necessary and there must be a full audit trail for all research expenditure. As research, in a sense, is about daring to make mistakes and learning from them, mistakes can and will be made with expenditure too. Research money can easily be spent too hastily or without sufficient consideration. This is why a researcher must be entrusted with spending decisions and must be fully answerable for all decisions made. The track record of a research leader should testify to their batting average in the use of precious research funds. Those who fund research do not seek perfection in expenditure decisions any more than in other aspects of research. Research funders are seeking value for their research investment.

It is important that those who fund research and those who accredit or validate research establishments or universities measure the degree to which researchers are empowered to make effective use of research funds. As an example, suppose there is an automatic delay of two days whenever a researcher has to requisition a cheque to pay for travel or to pay a supplier that will not accept an official order, to reimburse a research assistant for expenditure or to obtain an advance so that a research assistant can make a cash payment for research purposes. This two-day procedural delay may well constitute a two-day delay in the research if it prevents a certain task from being completed for that amount of time. In exactly the same way, any procedural requirement for a delay in the issuing of an official order for purchases can hold up research. In some cases it may be appropriate for the researcher to have authority (to a specified limit) to issue purchase orders directly, thereby gaining valuable time.

It would be pi-in-the-sky entirely for researchers to dream that financial transactions for research could be completed almost in real time: that could be considered rather too futuristic. Some researchers are over-idealistic—perhaps that goes with being what they are, but they need to be realistic too. Sometimes they might need to be reminded that it would be greatly appreciated if any misapprehensions on their part with regard to unrealistic expectations could be rectified.

In these matters, external monitoring by the funders of research is highly desirable. It is their money and they must ensure that the right balance is struck between empowerment and proper procedures.

Where establishments are engaged in low-level research there can be, of course, much more emphasis on lengthy financial or transactional procedures. Funders of low-level research are mainly interested in the pure fact that research is occurring on a continuing basis. They realise that such ongoing research takes plenty of time anyway and so are not unduly concerned if they find the procedural aspects too are rather ongoing at any particular moment.