Tuesday 19 March 2013

Money laundering 101 for core facility managers

It's that time of year again. The end of the financial year (for many of us) when most core facility managers get frantic calls asking if work can be billed now but done later. Lets face it this is simply a money laundering exercise but two things irk me when it comes round to this time of year.

Firstly why can't grant agencies simply be more flexible with how money is spent on a grant. If the time lines change and money is left over in one year there should be a reasonable degree of flexibility in moving it to another financial year.

Secondly, why can't PI's keep better track of their money. In some institutions budgets can run into many $100,000s or even $millions. Finding out in the middle of February that you have nearly $100,000 left that needs to be "spent" by March 31st does not give you much time to spend it wisely.

My two most frequently requested money laundering methods are:
  1. Buying reagent kits for use later in the year: a simple one to do as most companies will happily expedite reagents to get a large order. But please don't expect your core manager to spend a week negotiating over price, and do remember reagents have a shelf-life!
  2. Buying services ahead of time: again a simple one to do and remember that the service you asked for can also go out of date. What happens if the service provider stops running your favourite array? What happens if a technology changes and you're committed to what now looks like an exorbitant price?
What damage does the system do to science? From my perspective the biggest problem with the sometimes "use it or lose it" accounting is that we can make rushed, and at worst bad decisions. There is nothing like a tight deadline to force people into taking shortcuts. Perhaps only getting one quote instead of three, or not considering the cost of future commitments.

I was never trained as an accountant but for the past fifteen years I have been responsible for pretty large budgets. Most core managers and group leaders that I know are spending considerable sums of often public money and this last minute pressure is one I am sure we could all do without. A bit of extra financial training wouldn't go amiss for most of us either.

If you are laundering money for someone, or requesting monies to be spent at short notice do think about the impact. I have known one group that were faced with buying a new set of reagents because their early purchase went out of date. The samples were irreplaceable and my recommendation was to buy new kits. It was a painful decision and one we would not have needed to take had we been able to reserve the money for closer to when the samples were actually ready!


  1. James,

    Is there a market for a used Illumina GAIIx Genome Analyzer from 2009 that is in excellent consdition? Do you think anyone would want it at a great price?

  2. Nope. Put it in the skip, or trade it in for a MiSeq (or Proton ;-) !)


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