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.

2. Check the rules again

You’ve already read the funding rules, right? If not, go and read them now – I’ll wait right here until you get back.

Once you’ve listed everything you want to do, go back and read the specific rules for budgets again. What is and isn’t allowed? The funding scheme won’t pay for equipment – you’ll need to fund your Thingatron from somewhere else. Cross it off.

Some schemes won’t fund people. Others won’t fund travel. It is important to know what you need for your project. It is just as important to know what you can include in the application that you are writing right now.

Most funding schemes won’t fund infrastructure (like building costs) and other things that aren’t directly related to the project. Some will, though. If they do, you should include overheads (i.e. the general costs that your organisation needs to keep running). This includes the cost of basics like power and lighting; desks and chairs; and cleaners and security staff. It also includes service areas like the university library. Ask your finance officer for help with this. Often, it is a percentage of the overall cost of the project.

If you are hiring people, don’t forget to use the right salary rate and include salary on-costs. These are the extra costs that an organisation has to pay for an employee, but that doesn’t appear in their pay check. This might include things like superannuation, leave loading, insurance, and payroll tax. Once again, your finance officer can help with this.

Your budget list might now look like this:

  • 10 interviews in Kuala Lumpur; 10 interviews in Singapore; 10 interviews in Jakarta by me.
  • Teaching release for three months for fieldwork.
  • Flights to KL, Singapore, Jakarta and back to Melbourne.
  • Accommodation for a month in each place, plus per diem, plus travel insurance (rule 3F).
  • Transcription of 30 interviews, by the transcription service.
  • Analysis of transcribed results, by me. No teaching release required.
  • Purchase and install Thingatron X32C, by Thing Inc. Not allowed by rule 3C. Organise access to Thingatron via partner organistion – this is an in-kind contribution to the project.
  • Three trials a month with Thingatron, by research assistant.
  • Statistical analysis of Thingatron results, by research assistant.
  • Research assistant: 1 day per week for a year at Level B1, plus 25.91% salary on-costs.
  • Overheads at 125% of total cash request, as per rule 3H.

3. Cost each item

For each item on your list, find a reasonable cost for it. Are you going to interview the fifty people and do the statistical analysis yourself? If so, do you need time release from teaching? How much time? What is your salary for that period of time, or how much will it cost to hire a replacement? Don’t forget any hidden costs, like salary on-costs.

If you aren’t going to do the work yourself, work out how long you need a research assistant for. Be realistic. Work out what level you want to employ them at, and find out how much that costs.

How much is your Thingatron going to cost? Sometimes, you can just look that stuff up on the web. Other times, you’ll need to ring a supplier, particularly if there are delivery and installation costs.

Jump on a travel website and find reasonable costs for travel to Kuala Lumpur and the other places. Find accommodation costs for the period that you are planning to stay, and work out living expenses. Your university, or your government, may have per diem rates for travel like this.

Make a note of where you got each of your estimates from. This will be handy later, when you write the budget justification.

  • 10 interviews in Kuala Lumpur; 10 interviews in Singapore; 10 interviews in Jakarta by me (see below for travel costs).
  • Teaching release for three months for fieldwork = $25,342 – advice from finance officer.
  • Flights to KL ($775), Singapore ($564), Jakarta ($726), Melbourne ($535) – Blue Sky airlines, return economy.
  • Accommodation for a month in each place (KL: $3,500; Sing: $4,245; Jak: $2,750 – long stay, three star accommodation as per TripAdviser).
  • Per diem for three months (60 days x $125 per day – University travel rules).
  • Travel insurance (rule 3F): $145 – University travel insurance calculator.
  • Transcription of 30 interviews, by the transcription service: 30 interviews x 60 minutes per interview x $2.75 per minute – Quote from transcription service, accented voices rate.
  • Analysis of transcribed results, by me. No teaching release required. (In-kind contribution of university worth $2,112 for one week of my time – advice from finance officer).
  • Purchase and install Thingatron X32C, by Thing Inc. Not allowed by rule 3C. Organise access to Thingatron via partner organistion – this is an in-kind contribution to the project. ($2,435 in-kind – quote from partner organisation, at ‘favoured client’ rate.)
  • Three trials a month with Thingatron, by research assistant.
  • Statistical analysis of Thingatron results, by research assistant.
  • Research assistant: 1 day per week for a year at Level B1, plus 25.91% salary on-costs. $12,456 – advice from finance officer.
  • Overheads at 125% of total cash request, as per rule 3H.

Things are getting messy, but the next step will tidy it up.

4. Put it in a spreadsheet

Some people work naturally in spreadsheets (like Excel). Others don’t. If you don’t like Excel, tough. You are going to be doing research budgets for the rest of your research life.

When you are working with budgets, a spreadsheet is the right tool for the job, so learn to use it! Learn enough to construct a simple budget – adding things up and multiplying things together will get you through most of it. Go and do a course if you have to.

For a start, your spreadsheet will multiply things like 7 days in Kuala Lumpur at $89.52 per day, and it will also add up all of your sub-totals for you.

If your budget doesn’t add up properly (because, for example, you constructed it as a table in Word), two things will happen. First, you will look foolish. Secondly, and more importantly, people will lose confidence in all your other numbers, too. If your total is wrong, they will start to question the validity of the rest of your budget. You don’t want that.

If you are shy of maths, then Excel is your friend. It will do most of the heavy lifting for you.

For this exercise, the trick is to put each number on a new line. Here is how it might look.

Simple research budget
Budget items Number of items Cost per item Total cash cost In-kind cost Notes
Melbourne – Kuala Lumpur economy airfare 1 $775.00 $775.00 Blue Sky Airlines
1 month accommodation 1 $3,500.00 $3,500.00 1 month x long stay via TripAdvisor
30 days per diem 30 $125.00 $3,750.00 University travel rules
Kuala Lumpur – Singapore economy airfare 1 $564.00 $564.00 Blue Sky Airlines
1 month accommodation 1 $4,245.00 $4,245.00 1 month x long stay via TripAdvisor
30 days per diem 30 $125.00 $3,750.00 University travel rules
Singapore – Jakarta economy airfare 1 $726.00 $726.00 Blue Sky Airlines
1 month accommodation 1 $2,750.00 $2,750.00 1 month x long stay via TripAdvisor
30 days per diem 30 $125.00 $3,750.00 University travel rules
Jakarta – Melbourne economy airfare 1 $535.00 $535.00 Blue Sky Airlines
Travel insurance: 90 days, South East Asia 90 $1.61 $145.00 University travel rules
Transcription: 30 interviews with foreign accents 1800 $2.75 $4,950.00 Quote from transcription service
Access to Thingatron $2,435.00 Favoured client rate, Thing Inc.
Chief Investigator: 0.2 of Academic D.2 $36,457.00 Includes 25.91% salary on-costs
Teaching relief: 90 days of Academic D.2 $25,342.00 Includes 25.91% salary on-costs
Research Assistant: 0.1 of Academic B.1 $12,456.00 Includes 25.91% salary on-costs
Sub-total $67,238.00 $38,892.00
Overheads $84,047.50 University overheads at 125%
Total $151,285.50 $38,892.00

5. Justify it

Accompanying every budget is a budget justification. For each item in your budget, you need to answer two questions:

  • Why do you need this money?
  • Where did you get your figures from?

The budget justification links your budget to your project plan and back again. Everything item in your budget should be listed in your budget justification, so take the list from your budget and paste it into your budget justification.

For each item, give a short paragraph that says why you need it. Refer back to the project plan and expand on what is there. For example, if you have listed a research assistant in your application, this is a perfect opportunity to say what the research assistant will be doing.

Also, for each item, show where you got your figures from. For a research assistant, this might mean talking about the level of responsibility required, so people can understand why you chose the salary level. For a flight, it might be as easy as saying: “Blue Sky airlines economy return flight.”

Here is an example for just one aspect of the budget:


Fieldwork: Kuala Lumpur

Past experience has shown that one month allows enough time to refine and localise interview questions with research partners at University of Malaya, test interview instrument, recruit participants, conduct ten x one-hour interviews with field notes. In addition, the novel methodology will be presented at CONF2015, to be held in Malaysia in February 2015.

Melbourne – Kuala Lumpur economy airfare is based on current Blue Sky Airlines rates. Note that airfares have been kept to a minimum by travelling from country to country, rather than returning to Australia.

1 month accommodation is based on three star, long stay accommodation rates provided by TripAdvisor.

30 days per diem rate is based on standard university rates for South-East Asia.


Pro tip: Use the same nomenclature everywhere. If you list a Thingatron X32C in your budget, then call it a Thingatron X32C in your budget justification and project plan. In an ideal world, someone should be able to flip from the project plan, to the budget and to the budget justification and back again and always know exactly where they are.

  • Project plan: “Doing fieldwork in Malaysia? Whereabouts?” Flips to budget.
  • Budget: “A month in Kuala Lumpur – OK. Why a month?” Flips to budget justification.
  • Budget justification: “Ah, the field work happens at the same time as the conference. Now I get it. So, what are they presenting at the conference?” Flips back to the project description…

So, there you have it: Make a list; check the rules; cost everything; spreadsheet it; and then justify it. Budget done. Good job, team!

This article builds on several previous articles. I have shamelessly stolen from them.

* Actually, there are some grant schemes that give you a fixed amount of money, which I think is a really great idea. However, you will still need to work out what you are going to spend the money on, so you will still need a budget at some stage, even if you don’t need it for the application.


Also in the ‘simple grant’ series:

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt. At the moment, he is spending a bunch of time looking at crowdfunding for research. In fact, he has enrolled in a Masters by Research to do just that. He'll let you know how it goes.

20 Responses to How to make a simple research budget

  1. This has saved my day!

    Like

  2. Pingback: How to start a research collaboration | — Blog

  3. Miriam Goodwin says:

    I’ve posted a link to this article of Jonathan’s in the Australasian Research Management Society LinkedIn group as well, as I’m sure lots of other people will want to share this.

    Like

  4. Jackie Stillisano says:

    This is great! Humorous way to talk explain a serious subject and could be helpful in designing budgets for outreach grants, as well. Thanks!

    Like

  5. Pingback: The Research Project Budget! | Funding your research

  6. Pingback: Application tips: how to write a simple, effective research methods section | Anglia Ruskin Research blog

  7. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    A friend of mine recently commented by e-mail:

    I was interested in your blog “How to make a simple research budget”, particularly the statement: “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.”

    From my limited experience so far, I’d think you could add:

    “Who else is nearby who might share the costs of the Thingatron? If it’s a big capital outlay, and you’re only going to use it to 34% of it’s capacity, sharing can make the new purchase much easier to justify. But how will this fit into your grant? And then it’s got to be maintained – the little old chap who used to just do all that odd mix of electrickery and persuasion to every machine in the lab got retrenched in the last round. You can run it into the ground. But that means you won’t have a reliable, stable Thingatron all ready to run when you apply for the follow-on grant in two years.”

    Like

  8. Pingback: How to start a research collaboration | Piirus Blog

  9. Pingback: Pitfall 2: Leaving the Budget till Last | jocand0

  10. Pingback: How to make a simple research budget | OARS Research News

  11. Pingback: “Research Whisperer” explains how to build a simple research budget | OARS Research News

  12. This is such a big help! Thank You!

    Like

  13. baonghiaftu2 says:

    Would you like to share the link of the article which was wrote about funding rules? I can’t find it. Many thanks!

    Like

  14. Pingback: Hard earned lessons of fieldwork planning - Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science

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