Lab Notebook

One of my least favorite things about my job (or rather one of my least favorite things in general) is dealing with bureaucracy. One of the worst bureaucracies at my university is the grants management office. In theory, they are the folks who are supposed to facilitate submission and management of grant proposals, by helping you navigate through the government and funding agency bureaucracies. However to do this they created their own bureaucracy, and since they are not always so knowledgeable about how many granting agencies work, you basically end up having to navigate two bureaucracies, the one from the funding agency and the one from the university grants office.

One of their supposed duties is to help manage your award once you get it, by setting up accounts, keeping track of funds, filing annual budget reports, etc. Once I got a call form a perplexed person from our grants office, asking me to justify why journal publication charges were being charged to the grant since they were not part of the proposed activities. I told him that I was sure that the granting agency was not expecting me to do the experiments, send them the results and call it a day. But he was still confused. “But why do you have to publish them, that’s not a scientific activity?” He then asked me to call the program officer to see if this was an allowable charge. I told him that, no, that HE could call the program officer if he had a problem. So, he did, and of course it was fine to charge it to the grant. This just simply shows that many university grant administrators have no fucking clue about what we do and what they are supposedly administering.

I think the kicker was when the same guy called me another time asking the difference between lab notebooks and “regular” notebooks, and to justify why a purchase of lab notebooks and a stapler was being charged under lab supplies, since he thought these were office supplies and those were not allowable grant charges. I told them that they were lab supplies because they were being used in the lab. “So they are a special kind of notebook?” No, I said, they are regular notebooks in which we record our fucking science. He was still confused and wanted a written justification about the charges. So this is what I emailed him:

Lab notebooks are different from regular notebooks. They are characterized by having a protective hard cover to protect them from chemical spills, they also tend to have numbered pages and most importantly pages are bound to prevent loss of data in case a page gets ripped out. Keeping adequate documentation of experimental data and procedures is an essential part of the scientific process, and to call lab notebooks “general office supplies” reveals a deep-seated ignorance of the day-to-day process of doing science. If you had familiarity with what actually happens in the lab you might not be asking me these questions and making me waste my time rather than doing the job which I am paid for and which my funding pays for, which is actually doing science. As far as the stapler, much of our data generated is on the computer and often it is printed out and incorporated into the lab notebooks. Stapling is a good way to secure this data to the proper page. Alternative methods are taping and paperclipping, both of which are vastly inferior. Tape is non archival and might unstick over time and paper clips are unstable. Staples are a far more permanent method of doing this. Since there is no such thing as a “scientific grade” stapler, we are forced to buy this in a general office supply store. We would be very interested if you are able to find us a source of “scientific data staplers” which we can then use in the future in case our current one malfunctions.

He still wanted to see a lab notebook. So I asked one of my lab members to run across the street to the grants office and show him their notebook, complete with data and stapled bits. His response was “but it says in the cover that its a ‘Composition Book’ and not a ‘Lab Notebook’. ”  So I told him that I was not changing the grant allocation for those charges and that if he wanted to pay out of his own pocket for them the was welcome to do so. He hasn’t bothered me since.

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11 Responses to Lab Notebook

  1. I so want to move to ELN’s (electronic lab notebooks). They’re slightly more expensive than regular notebooks, but might be easier to justify 😉

  2. Jac says:

    There is so much I would like to say, but having dealt with triple bureaucracy, I am choked by the horror of memory. Superhero comics have the enemy all wrong.

  3. GMP says:

    Ah, you gotta love bureaucracy… And I absolutely have to acquire one of those “scientific data staplers!” :))

  4. Arlenna says:

    Wow… just, wow. And so obtuse to keep pressing the issue after a takedown. Luckily, our grants people (at least the ones I interact with) are pretty much all awesome.

  5. truthspew says:

    It isn’t any better in the private sector. Our expense reports for my place of employment are a thing to behold. It takes a good two hours to fill one out.

    Then of course there is our intranet site, with things like hire anniversaries, birthdays, etc. All hand coded. I put a suggestion in that they export the employee data to a separate table and then use a PHP script to pull the data down. Supposedly it is going to happen this month. We’ll see.

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  7. Dr. O says:

    We’ve had this same conversation with our department admin people…it never fails to shock me how ridiculously stupid these types of conversations get.

  8. David/Abel says:

    Ah yes, I know these conversations well. The cause seems to be a diametric hypervigilance after years of not caring about exact expenditures and institutional abuse.

    The most productive relationship I had with a grants administrator was one with a former bench chemist – when scientists occupy these positions, things seem to go much, much smoother.

  9. bsci says:

    Save the hassle. Make sure future lab notebooks day “Laboratory Notebook”

    Also, if you do an amazon search for “scientific stapler” you get:
    I think that would be a welcome addition to any lab.

  10. LOL @bsci, that stapler is absolutely hilarious.

  11. Pingback: Atypical suppliers of valuable research equipment – or, the purchases that drive your department accountants crazy | Dynamic Ecology

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