What makes a winning budget?

How do you build a winning budget? Rule number one: listen to Aiden Byrne. He runs the Australian Research Council (ARC). He knows what he is talking about. He says,

He knows (way better than I do) what makes a winning budget. After all, he is the one that gives out the money.

Tseen has already written a brilliant post on the benefits of early budget planning. I thought that I would talk about how I, as a research whisperer, can help you when you are building your application. Like Tseen, I want to help you when you are planning your project. The budget is a big part of that.

So, what do I look for?

Abacus (Photo by Jenny Downing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics)

Abacus (Photo by Jenny Downing: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics)

Well, first and most obviously, do you have a budget yet? This may seem obvious, given the aim of the exercise is to ask for money, but it isn’t obvious to everybody.

I’ve had someone send me a draft application called something like “research-plan-v15.doc”. They had done 15 versions of their project plan, and zero versions of their budget. That doesn’t work.

Your budget is where the rubber hits the road in your application. Without a budget, you can waffle on forever about how brilliant your project will be. Within your budget, you need to decide how many interviews you are going to do, how many days you are going to spend in the field, how many participants you expect to attend your workshops. You need to put dollars against activities, which means you need to be specific.

Your budget is a proxy for project planning. Read more of this post

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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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):

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Research on a shoe-string

Dr Emily KotheDr Emily Kothe is a lecturer in psychology at Deakin University.

Emily conducted her PhD at the University of Sydney on promoting fruit and vegetable consumption to Australian young adults. She graduated in 2012.

Her honours, masters and PhD projects had a combined budget of less than $400.

Emily is in the process of writing her first set of internal grant applications as an academic staff member, and is interested in the process of developing projects in the context of conducting research on a shoe-string.


I’ve been going through my paperwork from my student days recently. In the process, I found my funding requests for my PhD research. Not including conference travel, my research expenses for my PhD were $375.95.

That included a 1-month subscription to Thinkstock to allow me to buy high quality images for use in an online intervention to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, and the purchase of the domain name that I used for the intervention website. My Honours and Masters projects, and the research I’ve been running for the year since completing my PhD, have all been conducted at zero cost (except for my time).

Save money - by shopping (Photo by Toban Black - http://www.flickr.com/photos/tobanblack)

Save money – by shopping (Photo by Toban Black – http://www.flickr.com/photos/tobanblack)

This means that in the last 6 years I’ve spent an average of $62.60 a year on research costs.

At research institutions, developing, submitting, and ultimately receiving, competitive grants is a key indicator of productivity and performance for academic staff. This means that obtaining a Category 1 grant (e.g. ARC Discovery or NHMRC Project Grant) is central to my career development.

Assuming that I want to progress in my career (spoiler alert: I do!) then I would be expected to apply for a faculty-level internal grant ($$), a university-level seed grant ($$$), then a Category 1 Grant ($$$$$$).

As a freshly minted academic staff member, I’m starting small with the preparation of a faculty-level grant (the maximum budget is $18,000, with all funds to be spent in a year). In the process of preparing this grant, I’ve had to think about spending about 47 times more on research than I have ever before. Obviously, I don’t need to ask for the whole amount, but spending months putting together a request for $62.60 in funding would be colossal waste of time for everyone involved!

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Get me a project manager, stat!

Underside of a Roman arch, showing the keystone in the centre

Keystone (Photo by Jonathan O’Donnell)

A while back, one of our Twitter followers asked whether The Research Whisperer had any posts about project management.

At the time, I could only think of @jod999’s megastar post about what a Gantt chart is, and mine on whether you can fix a broken Gantt chart.

While Jonathan’s post was about planning and putting in place a feasible and ideal timeline, mine talked about the common mistakes and remedies for timelines that don’t behave.

Research projects are very much about project management, and that tweet nudged me in the direction of this post.

Project management skills are elements that many sectors require, and this means that there is a weighty bunch of pixels already dedicated to the topic. For a great recent post on research project management, read @evalantsoght’s “Smart way to manage a large research project” at the Next Scientist blog.

Rather than rehearse what many others have already said (better than I could), I want to focus on someone  you should consider requesting as part of a major research grant:

Get yourself a project officer or a project manager. 

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For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow

A beautiful white teddy bear with a ballon tied to it by ribbon. The balloon has a butterfly drawn on it, and 'Arcadia' written on it.

Balloon and bear, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Recently, I received an application that was asking for a postdoctoral research assistant.

I thought, “That’s odd. Normally, we would talk about a ‘postdoc fellow’.”

Then I thought about all the requests that I’d fielded lately for funding research assistants.

My first question when working out the budget is: “Do you want someone who has a PhD already?”

If they have a PhD already, then doesn’t that, by definition, make them postdoctoral?

What exactly is the difference between:

  • Research assistance;
  • Research associate;
  • Research fellow;
  • Research assistant?

It is important to know, as they have very different budget implications.

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How I assess a funding application: Part 2 – Feasibility

Sea of Wisdom temple (Beijing) by Jonathan O’Donnell (on Flickr)

The previous post in this series addressed the issue of how I assess track-records on grant applications. It talked about a range of X-factors that I look for when assessing applications with (typically) excellent research CVs.

This post focuses on project feasibility and whether the project sounds like it’s going to work.

On one level, it’s a dead obvious question: Can the project be done?

It is, however, an aspect that depends entirely on the evidence presented in the application that:

  1. The team (or individual) is good and experienced;
  2. The budget’s credible and appropriately linked to a methodology that has integrity; and
  3. The project itself has significant intellectual rigour and vigour.

One of the trickiest balancing acts that I find with grant applications is demonstrating innovation and creativity in your research without sacrificing feasibility.

This can sometimes boil down to a question of ‘do you have a Plan A and Plan B?’. If we’re talking about the honest face of research, we’d have to admit that things don’t always work. The project direction that’s so assiduously planned may go awry in the first six months when the research team implodes or the data doesn’t do what you’d like it to. Research is often exploratory, which introduces doubt about what its real final outcomes might be.

If you were being completely honest, you’d have to say that the project may not work.

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