Conquer the budget, conquer the project

It pleases me no end to begin with this tweet:

“Budget is a proxy for project planning” says Aidan Byrne: inaccurate budgets indicate project not well thought through
— Dr Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer)

Aidan Byrne is the Australian Research Council’s CEO, and @thesiswhisperer livetweeted his presentation from the ANU Acton campus. The talk brimmed with tasty morsels for the Research Whisperers to chew on and, having half-written this entry already, it seemed an opportune time to get it out there!

What spurred me to write this post?

Not the bottom line (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Not the bottom line (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

The fact that just about everyone leaves the grant budget till last.

No matter how many times I bring it up with researchers and their teams, and encourage early tackling of the budget, the poor thing ends up being rushed through, thrown together, or created from the ether.

This isn’t good for it. It can get resentful and make your entire application ineligible if you don’t pay enough attention.

This year’s ARC DECRA (ECR award), for example, has a ceiling of $131,740 per year in funding – over $90K of which goes towards the awardee’s salary. This leaves up to $40K as project costs. That’s it. You can’t argue for more; that’s just what the scheme is. If your project doesn’t fit into this budget, then this scheme may not be for you, or you would need to scaffold the project funding with commitment from other sources.

Many view the budget as a poor cousin to the regal elements of ‘track-record’ and ‘project description’, but they do it a disservice. The humble budget, properly conceived and executed, can be the foundation and catalyst for project efficiency and team bonding.

Finding that hard to believe?

Read on, because here are five ways that conquering your budget can help you conquer the project (or your grant application, at least):

1. You get to fast-track your insight into team dynamics

Putting together a grant application will give you an excellent insight into the collaborative practices of your colleagues: Are they keeping everyone in the loop? Is the leader leading, or are they phoning it in? How is your input received, and who gets listened to?

When you talk about money, that’s when you get to know your leaders and co-investigators (and their level of expertise) very well.

Working out the budget requires the team to have a very clear idea of the project and its direction. Nutting out the on-the-ground processes for how to carry out the work can be an organic process shared by a team, or a top-down affair.

Different ways can work – just make sure you’re happy with how it takes place.

2. You know where to go.

When the budget has been roughly blocked out in terms of what money is needed, you need to start fleshing it out. For example, you can’t just go to ‘South East Asia’ to do fieldwork. You need to go to Kuala Lumpur to interview X number of  people over Y weeks, then the same again for Singapore and Jakarta.

This level of planning has consequences for your foundational preparation for the project: if you’re going to be in Singapore for two weeks, who do you need to line up in that time, when will the interviews be, how are you meeting up?

Similarly, you can fudge a ‘visit archives’ item, but – as an assessor – I won’t be convinced about your level of knowledge about those archives unless you demonstrate to me (via project description and budget) that you know what you’ll be doing there. Is it a specific archive? How big is it? What are the processes for accessing the material (i.e. does it cost money per request, do you have to wait overnight for off-site stuff)?

You should feel like you have already walked through the entire project.

3. You work out who’s doing what.

This element may be obvious. The quantitative person is the one who is responsible for the quant surveys, and supervises the RA doing the subsequent quant analysis. Similarly, it makes sense for the prof with all the connections with the partner institution to liaise with the academics there (in the first instance, at least).

This is all fine and dandy as long as everyone is clear on project roles and opportunities. Research projects often entail fun stuff, like international conference-ing and snazzy fieldwork, or industry gas-bagging and sector reporting. But you don’t want to find out too late that you’re not going anywhere except to the library to get those Inter-Library Loans for the lead investigator. Or that you aren’t attending any conferences because Chief Investigators 1 and 3 are going, and not CI 2 (i.e. you).

As well as demotivating emerging researchers, having professors skim all the plum activities of the project doesn’t look good (because, y’know, it looks as if the professors have skimmed all the plum activities of the project…).

A part of any research project that features a mix of researchers and levels of experience should entail mentorship or ‘training’ aspects. An ECR should participate in a granted project and come away from it with more / better / deeper skills than before. And that should show up in the budget.

3a. Make sure your project cake has cash sprinkles on top.

If you are on a research team that includes multiple institutions, and you’re not the lead, work the project out so that – if the grant gets up – you have cash coming your way from the project. In Australia at least, this fulfils two functions:

a) it makes your institution very happy – having a researcher land a grant that brings no cash in for the university doesn’t get you many points in the competitive external funding basket, which can be important for promotion criteria. It’s also sometimes taken as a sign that you’re not very savvy about the whole funding game if you don’t manage to get a slice of research grant pie for yourself; and

b) it means that your work on the project, which should include having some support for research assistants, conferences or fieldwork, will be more easily reimbursed by your own institution than having to navigate the admin systems of another university to get your money back (or justify your spending).

4. You build your knowledge about research possibilities.

Working through a budget gives you valuable clarity about your project and its scope. It also trains you in the skill of knowing what’s possible (and useful) for your kind of research and its demands. A single-year project that has a ceiling of $10K on spending may not work for you at all – or would only allow you  to do a portion of collaborative brainstorming (which means a continued hunt for more $ to actually carry out the project work). This ability to judge rapidly whether a particular funding scheme is what you’re after can save you a LOT of time.

Incremental grants can be very useful, but remember that whole-of-project funding is what will get you to the next intellectual or career level.

5. You learn enough to delegate the task of putting together the budget next time!

In saying this, I don’t mean that you off-load the budget onto some poor unsuspecting research developer such as myself. It means that you have mostly worked out what you want, and can convey this to someone constructively. This post should be read alongside Jonathan’s earlier one about “Constructing your budget“. Then, you’ll be well and truly ready to conquer the project!

It seems appropriate to give the last word to our friends from the opening quote:

Don’t pad your grants! Says Aidan Byrne – evidence shows that panels judge you very harshly and will reject the application

— Dr Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) March 18, 2013

The issue of “padding the budget” came up in an associated Twitter conversation and will be the subject of my next post! Anecdotes about ‘padding’ advice are welcome (feel free to DM me @tseenster, or comment here).

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

4 Responses to Conquer the budget, conquer the project

  1. Owen says:

    This blog is an amazing resource for an aspiring research developer, thank you.

  2. George Intzesiloglou says:

    I totally agree with your opinion. According to my experience when you want to see what a project intends to do (and by whom) it’s more efficient to check its budget (especially for collaboration projects) rather than its scope. At the end of the day everything goes down to the budget. However I also belong to those people that leave the budget at the end. The only reason for that is that I prefer drafting project budgets according to a, as much as possible, final scopes and not on a ‘project_scope-draft-ver.2′. Nevertheless many things depend on if I am drafting the scope or not. Thanks again for the post

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, George! And I totally agree that trying to do a full budget when the project components aren’t developed enough would be a waste of time.

      That said, I find that – even early on – it is fairly clear generally what and where the major spending will be (e.g. fieldtrips, transcription, salaries), and it’s the details and proportions that get consolidated with further development.

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