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While reading the PUBLICATIONS PRODUCED AS A RESULT OF THIS RESEARCH section of some completed NSF award abstracts, I expected to find papers only within the limited scope of the goals of the proposal. To my surprise, I have found some papers in completely unrelated topics credited to the research grant that funded it. It doesn't even seem like a serendipitous finding or semi-related tangent either, but rather a complete deviation from the grant's intended purpose.

I'm sure that there are other justifications for attributing research grants for publications as stated in this post, but it made me wonder...

How can one justify using grant money to fund research outside of your intended purpose of the grant? Is this a common practice? Are there any negative consequences to using your grant to fund extracurricular research activities? Under what circumstances is it valid to do so and when is it inappropriate to do so?

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I've also been funded by NSF's Division of Mathematical Sciences, so I can respond personally. To first-order approximation, the only resources that research grants in mathematics (and similar fields, like theoretical computer science) provide is money to buy food to supply brain cells.

If my brain cells (or my students' brain cells) produce research results during the active period of a grant, I always acknowledge the grant in the resulting paper and I always list that publication in my reports to NSF. It doesn't matter whether the work is directly or even tangentially related to the research outlined in the proposal.

If that seems inappropriate, consider the alternatives: (1) Shut off any part of my brain that is not thinking specifically about the proposed work. (2) Allow myself to think about other stuff, but don't acknowledge the grant if I actually make progress. The first alternative requires irreversible surgery that I am unwilling to perform on myself, and the second is completely unethical.

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    Your argument is convincing in (pure) theoretical sciences. But what about experimental sciences, where there are certainly other costs besides food and one can definitely decide which costs are related to the grant proposal. – user4511 Mar 26 '13 at 6:09
  • replace "brain cells" by "CPU cycles". – Suresh Mar 26 '13 at 12:46
  • What's a "CPU cycle"? – JeffE Mar 26 '13 at 13:59
  • @VahidShirbisheh Are you aware of any examples of extraneous research outside the theoretical research areas? – Dale Jul 11 '13 at 23:13
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    The fact that other expenses are directly related to the proposal does not change the fact that the grant pays salaries, which pay for food. And no, you cannot determine which calories paid for which ideas. – JeffE Jul 11 '13 at 23:41
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A grant is not exactly the same as a contract. When you propose a set of research tasks, you're basically saying that you hope to make progress on a set of problems with plausible directions. Reviewers fund you AND the work. It's common to hear people say in a panel, "This seems like a hard problem, but good things will come out of funding researcher X".

So at least with the NSF (and I don't have experience with other agencies), there's an understanding that you'll work on topics related to the grant, and that you'll work on other things as well - maybe even to fuel the next grant !

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