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Bringing home the bacon: how to budget a grant application

Rather than attempt a single blog covering all aspects of grant-writing, the wonderfully talented 

Sue Fletcher-Watson and I are continuing our blog series of advice to newly-fledged researchers by focusing on the challenges of costing a new grant.  Costing a grant means working out exactly where money will be spent, and being realistic about what it is going to cost. While it might seem like a tiresome administrative job, setting the budget has a big influence on your chances of success – both in terms of winning the funding and administering the project successfully.  It’s also an area where junior PIs are offered little or no guidance.

Let’s start with a few definitions.

Grant budgets are often divided into direct and indirect costs.  In a nutshell, direct costs are for things that just wouldn’t happen without the grant – wages for dedicated staff in new posts, paying participants for their time, the cost of any questionnaires or other materials you’re using. Indirect costs are contributions to things which would be paid anyway – like a portion of the time of an existing member of staff. You might cost for 5% of the salary of a technician, or senior advisor, which should equate to them spending a couple of hours per week on your project.

Another key phrase is Full Economic Costing, or FEC (don’t smirk). This is when a funder pays for various indirect costs and estates costs linked to your grant.  For example, a University provides buildings with heating and electricity, furniture and IT support, kitchens and meeting rooms. Staff on your grant will have access to a library and various support services.  All of these cost money and FEC is a way to assign some of that cost to incoming grants.  Not all funders cover FEC (e.g. charities tend not to, but UK research councils do make a contribution). Warning: FEC is always way more than you think. It can as much as double the cost of a single member of staff. So if there is an upper limit on what you can apply for, and FEC is included in this, you need to rein in your plans for what you’ll spend on equipment or post-doc salaries. Seek advice early on from a grants officer (more on this below).

Budgeting basics

You’re going to want to start with a nice Excel spreadsheet or similar – ask a colleague if they have an old one you can use as a template. It might be that your department has a financial administrator that can send you an up-to-date one – Universities have a habit of changing the details of how costs are calculated. Once you have your template, it can be easiest at the start to break down costs by activity – so you list all the participant payment, questionnaires, and travel costs associated with Study 1, Study 2 etc. However, when you submit your budget to the funder, you will want to group them by category.  All the travel costs will get summed together, and all the ‘consumables’ (anything that gets used once and can’t be used again – like postage or IQ-test forms – as distinct from “equipment” which can be re-used, like a laptop) will be in a different total. So make sure you label each cost according to type and then you can easily re-order your file and get the totals you need.

Each funder asks for costs organised in subtly different ways too.  They might want them broken down by year of the project, or use particular headings. EU funding want salary costs organised into “person-hours” which are utterly fiendish. Some funders might define “equipment” as only things that cost £2000 or more.  Others might pay for salaries but only allow them to be a certain proportion of the total budget. Check these constraints at the start and make sure you label and organise your budget accordingly.

Getting support and approval

Another key thing to check up front is the relevant permissions you need to go through, in your host institution. At the University of Cambridge (and probably others), certain forms may need submitting weeks in advance (sometimes months), and in many cases these will need some details from your budget. Check this out well in advance to avoid stress. Salaries in particular will need to be aligned with your institution’s pay-scales.  You should have a conversation with someone – probably a grants officer in your department – about the right pay grade to cost for a research assistant with a Masters degree, versus a lab technician, versus a post-doc. Don’t cost at the bottom point of the grade for a new post that you are going to advertise – costing at the middle or top of a grade range will give you freedom to negotiate with the applicant and offer an attractive salary. Normally the amount you should put in your budget for, say, a two-year full time post-doc, will be provided by the grants officer. You don’t just google it like Sue did with her first ever grant! Get the ballpark figures early on so you know what you’ve got to play with in the total budget. And always remember that your grants officer is being constantly bombarded with requests for costs, often at very short notice.  Contact them early on, keep them in the loop, and agree a rough timeline for preparing the application as partners.

Some funders only cover partial costs for large items of equipment.  Others won’t pay salary contributions for existing staff but will pay for teaching “buy out”.  This is when a grant will pay the salary of someone (normally at a mid-level pay grade) to replace the time that a senior lecturer or professor might otherwise have spent teaching.  This frees-up the Prof to help with your grant, while costing the original funder a lot less. If you have these sorts of constraints on the funding, make sure you understand them and, crucially, try to get something in writing from your department to guarantee that they will comply with the grant terms and provide any top-up funding you will need.

Costing staff

Staff will normally be the biggest cost. If you’re applying for a Fellowship you’ll probably be requesting your full-time salary and maybe a %FTE (full-time equivalent: 20% FTE = one working day per week) for a senior colleague. A contribution to the time of a department administrator is also a great idea if there’s someone available, and you will have tasks for them – they could run expenses claims, book travel and monitor your budgets, saving you valuable time that you’d rather spend on science. Try not to ask for favours or trade authorship on articles for work – if you can, pay for things like specialist statistics and programming support, or for access to an assessment space. Otherwise, if the project gets funded, you are potentially beholden to others’ goodwill and availability to get things done.

You might also employ a research assistant or post-doc. Think carefully about the kind of skills you need, the level of independence you want from your staff, and the number of days per week you need them.  While it might seem like having someone more experienced is always a good thing, actually recruiting a research assistant with a good Masters degree is much better if you have a tightly-defined project and want someone to just get on with it. Post-docs, and PhD students, will have agendas that extend beyond the goals of your project.  While we don’t mean to suggest you shouldn’t also be offering an RA career-development opportunities and intellectual input to the work, their career stage means that just by recruiting participants, collecting and analysing data they are building and extending their skills. You need a good match between what you’re asking your employees to do, what they already know, and what they are ready to learn.

What else should I ask for?

Other big costs will be conferences, including travel, registration, accommodation – budget generously for these and try to specify the meetings so the reviewers can see you have considered carefully the appropriate place to share your findings.  Don’t just cost for you to attend – bring your team along too, or at least give each of them one chance to attend a scientific meeting. Another way to support your staff is to ensure you cost for some training expenses – obviously these need to be relevant to the project but it also means they will finish their time working with you with more skills than when they started.

You might want to cost for a study advisory board including community representatives – their travel to meetings, some good quality catering, maybe a stipend. If you think this is overkill or too expensive for your project, you can at least cost an “honorarium” (one-off payment) for one or two consultants to advise on your work. Sue pays autistic consultants on all new autism projects now, normally aiming for £500 per year for about ten “contact points”.  A contact point might be commenting on documents by email, attending a meeting to design the methods, or advising on recruitment pathways. Be generous in your funds for participant reimbursement too, normally estimated as an hourly rate with extra for their travel costs. For children, budget for a box of gifts that they can choose from at the end of an assessment session. If working with charities or schools you might want to include a one-off gift to the organisation. If doing an online survey you can offer a prize draw, which increases response rates without pushing your budget through the roof.

Don’t neglect the impact costs either.  Open access fees for journal articles are important – though some funders like the Wellcome Trust cover these for you under a separate budget. If you want to reach out to stakeholders with your results think about costing for a graphic designer, professional printing, or an animator to help you share your findings creatively. Budget generously for dissemination events – you don’t want your exciting ideas buried because of a lack of resources. Funders are becoming increasingly suspicious of researchers promising the world in terms of impact, but with no budget attached.

What about cost effectiveness?

A grant should be cost-effective.  Reviewers will be specifically asked whether they think your work represents good value for money. This doesn’t mean though that you should just cut cut cut. An under-funded project is a big risk and reviewers and funding committees will be reluctant to support something that doesn’t seem appropriately resourced. On the other hand, if you want multiple staff, or large items of new equipment you will need to properly justify these.  In the case of staff, you should be able to describe their responsibilities and these should clearly match to their proposed pay-grade and full or part-time hours. An easy way to save costs if you need to is to ask whether you need staff for the entire duration of the project – can you set it up yourself and just employ an RA when data collection begins?

In the case of equipment, if you are buying large and expensive items, reviewers might well ask themselves why your department doesn’t have these already, and whether you know how to use them properly. Tackle these concerns head on – maybe you have tons of EEG experience, but you need brand new kit because you’re going to be working with infants for the first time.

A successful grant application requires so much more than a good research idea. Your costs are a key way to show that you have thought about the practical aspects of your research.  You have a clear plan, appropriately resourced. By costing for community consultants, open access fees, or staff conference attendance, you show the reviewers your commitment to ethical science and good lab management. Budgeting your research should be an integral part of a funding application process so don’t leave it as a final afterthought.

Be thorough. Be practical. Be a good scientist.

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