OK so this one is going to be dull. There, I’ve said it. There will be no humour, no fun historical factoids and nothing exotic or interesting that you might use as pre-dinner conversation starters. But planning a budget for a grant is something that young researchers aren’t inherently prepared for, we often have no formal training and end up making it up as we go along. So in this blog I will give you some of my, albeit limited, experience in this area of academic life.
In order to make this easier we’ll split this into small grants, things that are less than 10k, medium grants of around 250k and large grants of more than 1 million. All of this is UK pounds by the way so if you’re listening in other countries the same rules apply just go in and change the numbers.
The reason for this split is the planning fallacy, something which was outlined by Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The planning fallacy basically says that people are inherently optimistic and will significantly underestimate the amount of time taken to complete any task.
But hold on, I hear you say, we’re not talking about time in this blog, we’re talking about money.
Agreed. But in science, time is money. Because of the limited contract you have and the limited budget there are only so many experiments you can do and only so many that can be successful, so you need to build risk into your budget and your plans. And you need to take the planning fallacy into account. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to assume that everything will take twice as long as you think it will and cost twice as much. Realistically it will probably take four times as long and be way over budget but if you start with that small assumption, you might have a better starting point for a credible budget.
The second way to have a credible budget is to talk to reps and talk to your finance department. Regularly and throughout your training. I had good relationships with many reps from early in my PhD. They can get you discounts, they can help you set up regular orders that are cheaper than one-off purchases, they can help you navigate your own institutions’ financial system. I also have a great relationship with our finance department who are incredibly patient with me when I’m trying to navigate a new grants system. By fostering these relationships and asking questions from the get-go, you get to know what things actually cost. There is often a ton of miscellaneous stuff that needs to go into larger grants and gets lumped under the term ‘general laboratory consumables’ and if you don’t know what general laboratory consumables cost you can massively under- or over-estimate this number.
But let’s start with small grants where those kinds of things don’t apply. These are potentially the easiest to budget for. Pump-priming funding is usually for one small set of experiments that will allow you to prove something. And they tend to be just about the money, not about the time. For example, I’ve had pump-priming grants of 10k that lasted 3 months and some with the same budget that lasted a year. It’s all about the experiments at this stage. Because the funding is usually for only 10-20k, your experimental plans and budget should be accurate and, to the best of your ability, relatively risk-free. Try and pick experiments you know will generate data, whether it’s positive or negative, and those experiments should already be optimised. You don’t want to write a pump-priming grant to find out the role of a particular receptor in vascular function only to then realise there are no really good antibodies to look at this receptor and actually half your budget is suddenly going on optimising a new protocol for Western blotting. So figure out what you need to know, whether there are feasible experiments to establish the answers and then find out how much they cost. Easy peasy.
Let’s move on to medium grants. This is where it begins to get challenging. And actually for me I think that medium sized grants are the hardest to budget for. At this stage you’ll have to factor in a whole bunch of other things like overheads and staff costs. Overheads vary from institute to institute and if the funding agency you’re applying to has a maximum budget these are the first costs you need to work out because it will give you an idea of how much money you have left for your actual science. You might also want to eat out some other basics from that chunk of money. Do you want to go to a conference? Where is that conference likely to be held? Are there a lot of miscellaneous admin fees associated with your work like licence costs or shipping costs to collaborators? Your finance department will have tons of experience with questions like these so ask them for help.
Do these sums first and then move onto your science.
You usually have around three years for a medium grant. Scientifically this is still not a lot of time, so you don’t want to be doing crazy risky experiments, but you also do want to be able to explore and to make mistakes. And mistakes are what you need to factor in at this stage. Another personal example, my own fellowship is three years and I know about the planning fallacy but I still wasn’t prepared for how many times my cells were going to randomly die for no reason, resulting in me having to buy different reagents to find out why. So, for a medium grant you want to have your experiments roughly planned out, you want to know what questions you’re going to answer and you want to know approximately how you’re going to answer them. But this ‘how’ should be flexible. If one set of experiments doesn’t work, what’s your back up plan? If I know that one experiment costs X and I want to run it for Y weeks with an n of 6 then how much will that cost? These questions should allow you to go out, chat with reps and colleagues and people in the know about how much everything is likely to cost. At this point your budget will be limited by all the above admin fees and staff costs but remember to be realistic. The granting agencies have set a limit but they don’t actually care whether you’re bang on, 5k under or 50k under. They care whether you have realistically budgeted for the science you want to do.
Now large grants are where it gets fun. You usually have over a million to play with and whilst now you’re going to have considerable staff costs and overheads to deal with you still have a lot of money left over for your science. And at this stage it’s a bit more blue-sky. I usually know what I’m going to be working on for the next couple of years but beyond that it will really depend on what I discover and so your budget for these should cover what you want to do but also what you might want to do. This one is genuinely a skill which you have to acquire over time. If you’ve practiced with the small grant and the medium grant then you can work your way up to this point and frankly it just becomes an exercise in scribbling math on pieces of paper. If you’re writing one of these for the first time chances are you will have written some smaller and medium grants so just apply the same principles but allow your ideas to be bigger.
I hope this helped for any of you venturing into the financial bits of grant writing for the first time. Remember, you’re also surrounded by people who do this all the time so ask for help. Your peers and senior researchers will have grants that they will let you to look at. Your finance department will be stuffed with overworked people who probably dislike you and your 2am emails but will be intensely helpful and friendly despite this. Everyone has to start somewhere and remember, the worst they can say is no.
Dr Yvonne Couch is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow at the University of Oxford. Yvonne studies the role of extracellular vesicles and their role in changing the function of the vasculature after stroke, aiming to discover why the prevalence of dementia after stroke is three times higher than the average. It is her passion for problem solving and love of science that drives her, in advancing our knowledge of disease. Yvonne has joined the team of staff bloggers at Dementia Researcher, and will be writing about her work and life as she takes a new road into independent research.