How to make a simple research budget

A napkin diagram of the basic concepts in a project: interviews in South East Asia and trails with a Thingatron

This might work! (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell on flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jod999)

Every research project needs a budget*.

If you are applying for funding, you must say what you are planning to spend that funding on. More than that, you need to show how spending that money will help you to answer your research question.

So, developing the budget is the perfect time to plan your project clearly. A good budget shows the assessors that you have thought about your research in detail and, if it is done well, it can serve as a great, convincing overview of the project.

Here are five steps to create a simple budget for your research project.

1. List your activities

Make a list of everything that you plan to do in the project, and who is going to do it.

Take your methodology and turn it into a step-by-step plan. Have you said that you will interview 50 people? Write it on your list.

Are you performing statistical analysis on your sample?  Write it down.

Think through the implications of what you are going to do. Do you need to use a Thingatron? Note down that you will need to buy it, install it, and commission it.

What about travel? Write down each trip separately. Be specific. 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.

Your budget list might look like this:

  • I’m going to do 10 interviews in Kuala Lumpur; 10 interviews in Singapore; 10 interviews in Jakarta by me.
  • I’ll need teaching release for three months for fieldwork.
  • I’ll need Flights to KL, Singapore, Jakarta and back to Melbourne.
  • I’ll need Accommodation for a month in each place, plus per diem.
  • The transcription service will transcribe the 30 interviews.
  • I’ll analysis the transcribed results. (No teaching release required – I’ll do it in my meagre research time allowance.)
  • I’ll need a Thingatron X32C to do the trials.
  • Thing Inc will need to install the Thingatron. (I wonder how long that will take.)
  • The research assistant will do three trials a month with the Thingatron.
  • I’ll need to hire a research assistant (1 day per week for a year at Level B1.)
  • The research assistant will do the statistical analysis of the Thingatron results.
  • I’ll do the writing up in my research allowance time.

By the end, you should feel like you have thought through the entire project in detail. You should be able to walk someone else through the project, so grab a critical friend and read the list to them. If they ask questions, write down the answers.

This will help you to get to the level of specificity you need for the next step.

Read more of this post

Who will win?

Four colourful dragon boats on a lake in Nanjing.

Dragon boats, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

In the last week, academics around Australia have been receiving referee reports from the Australian Research Council.

Yesterday, I read just over 50 of these reports.

Today I spoke to my boss about them. I said that, in general, I was happy with them. We talked about some specific applications and some specific comments in the assessments.

Then, right at the end of the call, he asked me the question that I’d been dreading.

So, who do you think will win? What do you think our chances are?

Don’t ask me that. Please, don’t ask me that.

In the same way that I can’t tell an academic if they’ll get the grant or not, I can’t tell my boss, out of all our applications, who will win.

I can tell who got positive comments and who didn’t, which might allow you to make your own educated guess. I can tell you who, in my opinion, deserves to win.

But I don’t pick winners. Here’s five good reasons why. Read more of this post

Five reasons to ignore the big schemes

Jo + Kerryn, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Pop quiz, peeps. Name a funding agency.

Quick, what’s the first one you thought of?

If you are from the US, you probably said ‘National Science Foundation’. If you are from Europe, you probably said ‘FP7′. In the UK, Canada, or Australia, you probably named one of the national Research Councils.

In each country, there are a handful of funding agencies that tower over the research imagination. Applicants mythologise them. Recipients revere them. Universities lionise them. They dominate the academic funding conversation to such an extent that the names of all other funding sources are drowned out.

In Australia (where I come from), we only talk about two: the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). You might hear some highfalutin’ talk about the Australian Competitive Grants Register (ACGR), and ‘Category 1′ funding, but it’s just code for those two funding agencies.

Don’t believe me? There are almost seventy ‘Category 1′ funding bodies on the Australian Competitive Grants Register. I’ll bet most Australian researchers can’t name another three with any certainty.

The problem with this is that researchers, particularly new researchers, only ever hear about those funding agencies. They never hear about the smaller, more targeted government schemes, funding from state and local government agencies, local or international philanthropic funding agencies, or new possibilities like crowd funding. That’s just crazy! Read more of this post

Five types of funding

An intricate page of Chinese printing, overlaid with many chops and seals

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Some people seem to think about research funding in the same way that I think about the doctor – only when it is an emergency.

That’s not the best way to approach it. You need  a plan and you need to know what funds are coming up when.

To plan for the long term and shape your searches, you need to have a picture of what is actually possible. Different types of grants fit different situations. Here is the way that I think about funding.

READ MORE

How NOT to pad your budget

U.S. Marine Corps, bedding down a big barrage balloon, Parris Island, S.C. - May 1942 (Library of Congress)

U.S. Marine Corps, bedding down a big barrage balloon, Parris Island, S.C. – May 1942 (Library of Congress)

Just before I had completed my previous budget post – “Conquer the budget, conquer the project” – Twitter threw an associated topic my way: padding your budget.

It grew (again) out of the livetweeted session of Aidan Byrne’s talk at ANU that @thesiswhisperer attended. @bronwynhinz responded to Inger’s tweet on Byrne’s admonishment for padding budgets with:

“How is ‘padding’ defined? Waffling instead of being succinct? Unnecessary/tangential material in significance sections?”

At the time, I said I’d write about it and – months later – here it is! Without realising it, the forerunner to this post is actually Emily Kothe’s (@emilyandthelime’s) tongue-in-cheek piece about “Research on a shoe-string“.

In it, Emily talked about some of the ways budgets can be inflated with unnecessary costs to justify the amount you’d ask for from the funding body.

Basically, ‘padding the budget’ means putting unnecessary expenses into your project costings. A good budget is logical, lean and costed with integrity.

Often, a chat with your organisation’s research office people (RO Peeps) can save you a world of pain. I’ve heard that, sometimes, there are RO Peeps who actually do your budget for you. Of course, when I say “do your budget for you”, I mean that you have already thought it through (or talked it through) with stunning clarity and have listed the precise items you want to make your project happen.

No-one can (or should) actually do your budget for your project. Your budget is inextricable from the methods, aims, and personnel of your project – it cannot be done in isolation, and I’ve banged on about this before.

Back to the topic of the post!

Here are my top five ways NOT to pad your grant application budget:

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Five superpowers I wish I had

Silver statue of a man, standing dramically posed with rope around his waist.

My next superhero, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Let me tell you a little secret.

I’m not Superman. I’m not Spiderman (sometimes, I feel like poor, put-upon Peter Parker, though). I’m not Iron Man and I’m definitely not Wolverine (although you might think I have adamantine claws once I’ve torn through your latest draft application).

Actually, I’m not a superhero at all. At best, I’m a “highly trained normal”, in the parlance of the comic book world (and some would question the ‘highly trained’ bit).

Which is funny, because a lot of you seem to think that I do have superpowers. I don’t, I assure you.

If I did, I’d be out saving the world, rather than trying to save your grant application. Despite this, you maintain an unshakable faith that I can do the impossible.

To prove my point, here are five superpowers that I don’t have (although I wish I did):

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Easing the load

The Fairy Horde and the Hedgehog Host, an artwork featuring a hedgehog that has been colonised by fairies

When fairies attack, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

People seem to be talking about how the peer review funding system is in crisis – more applications, less funding, not enough reviewers, etc. Always eager to help, here’s this Research Whisperer’s Top Five ideas on how funding organizations can reduce their workloads.

My examples are based upon the Australian Research Council (ARC), as this is the system I know best. However, these ideas can adopted by any funding agency. After all, I pinched three of them from existing funding schemes.

1.  Review a set number of applications

One of the fears seems to be that a rising number of applications is forcing the quality of peer review down. The thinking goes like this: more applications means more reviews required. More reviews means more applications per reviewer (on average). Reviewers, therefore, may be spending less time on each review, or even be refusing to review applications. Without suitable reviews, the system of peer review falls over, catastrophically.

If this fear is justified, one response could be to cap the number of applications accepted. This process is known as ‘demand management’ in the UK context. The ARC knows how many admin people it has, how many people it has on the College of Experts, how many assessors it sends applications to, how many reply, how long the average application is for each scheme. These figures could be munged together to provide an upper limit of applications that the ARC would accept for each funding scheme that it runs.

If they know their capacity, the question then becomes how to make sure that only that number of applications are presented each round.

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