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I applied for funding of my project and it was approved.

When it came to spending money, this funding agency put constraints on some sorts of purchases (e.g. by putting unrealistically small limits for computer buys). This was not stated in the call for proposals.

The research along the proposed lines was done, with some degree of external support. How should one acknowledge the original funding agency provided that a significant degree of funds were not spent due to those suddenly introduced constraints and limits?

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"This work was supported by (all relevant agencies and associated grant/project numbers)". Done. – Scott Seidman Feb 5 at 16:05
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I take issue with your premise. The funding agency fulfilled its obligations completely. The obligations are those that were set up in whatever contract you signed with them. The fact that those obligations were less than you were expecting is immaterial. All of those obligations were made clear before you accepted the funding, albeit only after you applied. – David Richerby Feb 5 at 17:04
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@DavidRicherby, we don't actually know that. The question says nothing about contracts, so we can't assume anything about their content. – Reid Feb 5 at 17:37
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Please clarify the situation. All the question says is that there were restrictions on the grant that were not mentioned in the call for proposals. That in no way constitutes the funding body not meeting their obligations. – David Richerby Feb 5 at 17:59
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This kind of nitpicking has no place in publications. You thank the funding. If you want, you find the proper place (the funding agency probably has someone in charge of just that) and register a formal complain. – Fábio Dias Feb 5 at 19:03

Since you did get support from your funding body, you will need to list it in the funding acknowledgements. This doesn't change with the fact that you have also gotten support from elsewhere. As profmartinez wrote, the proper term is to state that they provided partial support. Some researchers write "partly" exclusively in their funding acknowledgements, as their home institutions provide some level of support as well (offices, ...), which are not normally acknowledged.

The fact that your funding source provided less support than expected should not be written into the funding acknowledgements. Mentioning this somewhere would in the best case have no effect. In the worst case, it makes a bad impression both on you and the funding body. You have no ethical obligation to mention the quirks of their funding scheme, and under the "choose your battles wisely" premise, not mentioning the problem is the way to go.

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+1 for "it makes a bad impression both on you and the funding body" – Captain Emacs Feb 5 at 15:41
    
While using "partly" is generally okay, your example of providing office space is generally incorrect as that should be covered by the overhead from the grant. – StrongBad Feb 5 at 18:31
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@StrongBad Depends on the grant and the university. Overheads can be as little as 20% on top of the direct costs, which hardly covers all the secondary cost of employing a researcher -- and even then, part of the overhead may be used by the PI for other purposes (e.g., buying a computer). In such a case it is fair to say that the department also provided support. – DCTLib Feb 5 at 18:47
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@CaptainEmacs, mostly on "you". – vonbrand Feb 6 at 1:03
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Regarding "partly", it's worth mentioning that grants usually give specific language that they would like the author to use in their acknowledgements. E.g., for NSF grants, it would be something like "This work is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DMS-xxxxxx." An author who takes his/her obligations seriously will not add the words "in part" or "partly" unless that was specifically allowed. Note that "supported by" does not imply "in full", so in any case "in part" is redundant, but, regardless, if you promise to write something then I think you should stick to that. – Dan Romik Feb 6 at 14:05

The best academic acknowledgements ever: Glen Wright rounds up the best amusing, passive-aggressive and romantic acknowledgements in the scholarly world.

This work is ostensibly supported by the Italian Ministry of University and Research…The Ministry however has not paid its dues and it is not known whether it will ever do.

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The "word" "unacknowledgement" reminded me of this unacknowledgment by Roger Godement in Notes on Jacquet-Langlands' theory: It is for us a great pleasure to express here our deep gratitude not only for the conveniences we were provided with, but also for the fact that we were spared the duty to thank the U.S. Air Force for its main contribution to Culture and Civilization, namely, the highly palatable Napalm-And-Mathematics cocktail that is the mark of the times in the most advanced country of the world. – Kimball Feb 5 at 19:20
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"Research supported in part by the Federal Prison System. Opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and are not necessarily those of the Bureau of Prisons." -- +1 for funny. Amazing link. :-) – BrainSlugs83 Feb 6 at 0:57
    
I disagree that this applies to the question. A move like this only applies at all if the funding body is completely in breach of a contract they've signed, which is not the case for the OP. This is pretty much as close to a nuclear option as you can get, really. – E.P. Feb 7 at 0:57

I think it is important to stress the fact that the funding agency, as irksome and bureaucratic as it may be,

>>> gave you free money. <<<

(edit: see explanation below of what I mean by this)

Let me say it again: an organization gave you money that was theirs and that they didn't have to give you. Maybe they were annoying. Maybe they didn't give you as much money as you hoped they would. Maybe they imposed rules and restrictions that you disagreed with or that seemed unreasonable to you. The fact remains, they willingly and voluntarily parted with their money and let you spend some of it. All they are asking for in return is that you give them an acknowledgement. Is that really so hard? Just write the acknowledgement they are asking for, in the precise language they specified, not a word less or more. Honestly, writing anything else sounds extremely childish and unprofessional to me


Edit: some people seem to be reacting negatively to my use of the term "free money", so let me clarify what I meant. The point is that this money that was given to OP by a funding agency comes with much fewer strings attached than money typically exchanged between two parties as part of a normal economic transaction. With grants, there are usually no specific deliverables, nor a strict schedule for the creation of a specific product or output of the research. There are some well-defined restrictions on what the money can be used for, and an expectation of an annual report and of a minimal amount of recognition on the part of the recipient in the form of an acknowledgement, and that's basically it.

We in academia are used to these sorts of arrangements and don't think there's anything unusual about them, but it's important to remember that to people outside academia, who can only dream of being given any amount of money (let alone many thousands of dollars) by anyone under such loose terms, this can appear downright amazing, and is perceived, to a very good degree of approximation, as "free money".

Finally, I googled to see if there's a technical definition of the term "free money". There doesn't seem to be a completely standard definition, but at least Businessdictionary.com defines it as

Drawbacks, grants, subsidies, tax-breaks, and other such means employed to keep some firms afloat in order to (1) save jobs in depressed areas, (2) protect certain industries such as agriculture or defense, and/or (3) promote research and development.

so I think my usage is within the accepted meaning number (3), if one makes allowance for the academic context of the current discussion.

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It's not "free money" in the sense that you're implying. It's part of a a social mechnism for distributing material resource. Remember, after all, that most money is technically just an accounting fiction listed against outstanding debt to a commercial bank. It is certainly not formed by virtue of someone's hard work. So you could well say that money is "free" anyway. – einpoklum Feb 6 at 10:09
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I am not convinced that the right mind set to think about a typical NSF-style funding agency is that they are handing out "their free money". Firstly, it's really not "their" money in any way, shape, or form. Secondly, their entire raison d'etre is to distribute this money following some defined policy, so we should expect them to do so properly. Thirdly, it's not really free either, as there usually are contractual obligations of what to produce with the money. Granted, those obligations may be things you wanted to do produce anyway (e.g., papers or dissertations), but still ... – xLeitix Feb 6 at 10:19
    
(but you are of course correct that writing the "unacknowledgement" the OP is looking for is a terrifyingly bad and unprofessional idea) – xLeitix Feb 6 at 10:20
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@einpoklum "most money is technically just an accounting fiction" Your beliefs about the nature of money are irrelevant to this question. – David Richerby Feb 6 at 15:04
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@einpoklum Your statement that money is a "fiction" is your belief. If you wish to test that belief, I suggest that you take some things from a shop and try to explain to the store security, then the police, then the courts, that the money you failed to pay is a fiction. – David Richerby Feb 6 at 17:04

"This work was funded in part by..."

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"This work was underfunded by"... :-) – einpoklum Feb 5 at 23:08
    
The words "in part" could be problematic, see my comment to @DCTLib's answer. – Dan Romik Feb 6 at 14:06
    
Absolutely not a problem, and in fact closer to the truth in most cases. NSF doesn't pay for my (academic-year) salary, for example. I can only imagine two cases where the project could be (fully) supported by a grant, and that would be (1) a non-tenure-track researcher who derives 100% support from that grant, or (2) a tenure-track professor who charges 100% of his/her academic-year salary to the grant. – profmartinez Feb 6 at 20:32
    
@profmartinez I wasn't saying that it's not the truth, only that NSF asks to be acknowledged using specific language, and technically that does not include the words "in part". Maybe it's nitpicking, but I prefer following the requirements as they are stated without adding my own layers of interpretation. – Dan Romik Feb 7 at 4:34

I was having a somewhat similar issue with the acknowledgements section of my Ph.D. thesis. "Fortunately" for me, my issue was with my university itself so I could get easily get away with just skipping the customary acknowledgement. This is what got me thinking about the subject, anyway.

Ok, so here's the thing: You have conflicting goals:

  1. You want to meet the formal requirements of the funding agency w.r.t. acknowledgements in published work. (*)
  2. You want to make "them" at the funding agency feel uncomfortable/uneasy about their practices / inappropriate conduct.
  3. You want other researchers to be aware of the funding agency's practices.
  4. You might want to not "rock the boat" / ruin your relationships / be perceived as a troublemaker vis-a-vis sources of funding.

The answer really depends on how much each of these is important to you (and on who is going to be the audience of the research paper/report/thesis you're working on.)

Some - not necessarily compatible - elements of an approach could include:

  • Swallowing your pride and giving them a heartfelt acknowledgement, praising their generosity.
  • Taking the above to the extreme, giving them an excessively stellar acknowledgement, explaining how they were extremely generous with the computer purchases, how forethcoming they were with their requirements and restrictions, explaining how you have never known such a distilled expression of pure generosity etc.
  • Contrasting the acknowledgement you give them with the acknowledgement of other funders or other such rhetorical mechanism.
  • Making a "typing error", acknowledging their "onerous financial support" instead of their "generous financial support", or "this work was underfunded by" or something more literarily ingenious than that.
  • Writing a small section, different than the introduction, detailing some of the logistical/organizational experience of conducting the research, where you could go into the details of the agency's conduct.
  • Publishing an open letter to your colleagues about what had happened.
  • Suing the funding agency if you believe they broke their contract with you, or if you can show you were discriminated somehow.
  • Proposing to your faculty council to write a letter of protest to the agency.
  • (*) If acknowledgement is not formally a requirement, you could also consider simply not acknowledging them. and so on.

But again, the most important thing is evaluating the relative importance of each potential motivations/objectives and how the different courses of action satisfy or frustrate them.

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+1 Examining the conflicting goals is a useful thought practice, IMO. – BrainSlugs83 Feb 6 at 1:01

When you're university's Sponsored Research Projects office signs a contract with the NSF or other funding agencies, then these are typically dozens of pages long and reference rules and regulations that together are likely hundreds or thousands of pages. I would venture the (educated) guess that less than 1% of grant recipients have ever read even a small fraction of those.

Whether the problems you encountered were due to some of these is of course unclear from the question. But let me assume that they were, then this is no different to you breaking a law you didn't know of, and going to jail -- annoying, but ultimately your fault.

In the current case, my take is that you did get money. You can be passive aggressive about it and make a fuss in public, at the cost of likely not getting any future funding. Or you can acknowledge the fact that they did fund your work, and publicly state so in your paper. The latter seems to me to be the more productive approach.

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