Every researcher knows that winning funding is crucial for a successful career. And of course scientists strive to submit innovative, compelling research proposals. But it is all too easy to overlook another aspect of grant applications that, while apparently mundane, can nonetheless make all the difference: adequately estimating how much the project will cost.
Putting a price tag to your research can be particularly difficult for scientists who are still learning the ropes. And given today’s stiff competition for funds, even more senior scientists might benefit from improving their budgeting skills. To help, Science Careers asked a range of experienced researchers to share their tips and insights about how to create a winning budget proposal. The responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How important is the budget in a research proposal? How precise and detailed should it be?
A precise estimate of the budget is really the best approach to win a grant. And importantly, once your proposal has been funded, you will find that having carefully estimated the different costs at the application stage will not only guarantee an optimal use of the funds, but also make the practical implementation of the research project smoother.
- Xavier Moya, research fellow in materials science at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom
The budget should be sufficiently detailed and accurate to reassure reviewers that the investigators have a realistic sense of what it will cost to complete the work proposed. Although overestimating expenses can be a red flag to reviewers who have expertise in your field, underestimating expenses and effort is ultimately more detrimental, as this is difficult to reverse and the project may end up underresourced.
- Dana Boatman-Reich, professor of neurology and otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland
Overestimating by a small percentage may be a good way to deal with budget variations during the project that are difficult to control—including currency fluctuations, inflation, and uncertainty. However, overestimating by too much reduces the value the reviewers will see in your project, which will play against you. Underestimating is dangerous as it may compromise your ability to deliver the research, and it will also be picked up by reviewers.
- Tiziana Rossetto, professor of earthquake engineering at University College London in the United Kingdom
There is no point in requesting your dream budget if you cannot adequately justify it, as this will ruin any chances of winning the grant. On the other hand, I would say that it is better to get a smaller grant than to not get anything. Sometimes, once you have won the grant and are negotiating your contract with the funding body, there still might be some room for a small budget adjustment if you can provide convincing arguments.
- Imre Miklós Szilágyi, professor of chemistry at Budapest University of Technology and Economics in Hungary
Putting together a budget that is quite detailed shows reviewers that you put time and effort into your proposal. It also needs to be in the right ballpark. The risk of overestimating is that you seem greedy. The risk of underestimating is that you don’t seem confident. I think there may be a gender component here, at least in light of the proposals I have reviewed. Readers can guess in which direction.
- Rima Wilkes, professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver
At what stage of preparing an application do you start thinking about the budget?
Once I have a general idea of the research questions that I am planning to pursue, I develop a mock budget to get a feel for feasibility. It’s all too easy to submit a proposal that goes over what budget would ever be funded, and so you need to pare down the scope of the project at an early stage in a way that keeps the research both interesting and competitive.
- Terry McGlynn, professor of biology at California State University in Dominguez Hills
It may depend on your discipline, but for me, in sociology, the budget comes last when writing a proposal. You cannot really know how much funding you will need until you really think through the full details of the project.
If you are taking the lead on a grant application in a highly collaborative field, I would recommend asking all the researchers involved what their planned budget is at the early stages of the proposal. This is the only way to make sure that everyone has a chance to get the funding they need to do their part of the work while also developing a good idea of the total number of participants and overall yearly budget for the project.
- Veronica Nieves, climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering
I usually start working on a rough estimate of how much the project will cost after I have developed a fairly definitive idea of the research work I would like to pursue. However, it is quite common for funding bodies to put a cap on the amount that can be requested, and in this case, you need to start thinking about the budget right at the beginning of the application process. You must identify what work will be key to meeting your research objectives, and anything that isn’t essential or doesn’t fit the allowed budget will have to be left for other projects.
How do you put the budget together?
Early on, it is important to meet with your university’s budget administration or grants management office to go over your initial budget “wish list” and make sure that you’ve covered all the bases. They will also be able to give you an estimated range for how much you can budget for salaries and items such as supplies and travel costs given other institutional expenses, such as indirect costs and fringe benefits. For the rest, it is relatively easy these days to get quotes and cost estimates online. I use Excel because that is what our budget administration uses, and because it is easy to make and track revisions and incorporate functions to compute things like indirect cost rates and fringe benefits.
The main items will be determined by what resources are needed to accomplish the work proposed, together with any requirements of the funding agency. So, for example, you may want to purchase a new piece of equipment, but major equipment purchases may be constrained or prohibited entirely by the funding program, so you may have to find alternative solutions such as leasing equipment. Similarly, some funding mechanisms limit the percentage of investigator effort that can be supported, so budgeting a large chunk of your salary may not be realistic.
A good place to start is to carefully read the grant call and the conditions to see what can be funded and what cannot so that you can tailor your budget accordingly. Then, at University College London (UCL) we use a costing tool called Worktribe that provides all the budget formats most commonly required by the funding bodies in the United Kingdom.
Staff costs are often the most expensive part of a research project, so first I identify how much staff time is required to achieve the research objectives. This involves considering what skills are needed and whether those skills are embodied in one researcher or more, whether the project should be given to Ph.D. students or more experienced—and therefore more costly—researchers, and how much time they will need to dedicate to ensure the research objectives are met. Then I assess other essential costs, which in my case often include buying lab equipment, computer software, and research consumables; gaining access to specialized research facilities; and traveling for fieldwork, collaborations, or conferences. Importantly, you must also factor in how you will disseminate your findings during the project, knowing that organizing workshops or conferences, for example, tends to be costly. Finally, make sure that you do not forget to include all applicable taxes and spend a bit of time at the end checking that all the resources you need have been costed for.
The budget justification—which typically includes facilities and equipment, salaries and benefits, travel, and administrative costs—is based on each collaborating institution’s published rates and historical cost data. Usually, each institution also has its own budget and cost analysis tools and a team of grant administrators taking care of all details, so make sure you check the resources provided by your university.
I normally use an Excel spreadsheet, as it allows me to update my estimate of the budget easily while I work on the scientific part of the grant proposal. Specific information about the costs associated with personnel and the use of onsite research facilities is normally provided by the university. Finding out about laboratory equipment and consumables requires more work, as it may involve approaching a large number of suppliers offering slightly different products and deciding which of these would work best for the project while sticking to the overall budget.
Once you’ve gotten the funding, how do you keep track of your spending? What happens if you go over or under budget?
I carry out a monthly review of my research grants using an online research accounts system provided by UCL to make sure spending is on track. You absolutely want to avoid overspending, because as researchers we have a responsibility to spend taxpayers’ money sparingly.
Sometimes, however, unforeseen circumstances can arise, such as the resignation of a research staff member, resulting in delays in the project. In such cases, it is possible to request a no-cost time extension from your funding body so that you can still meet your research objectives and spend your full budget, rather than having to return the unused funds once the original project completion date has gone by.
Most academic institutions provide investigators with monthly or quarterly budget reports. These are useful for tracking spending on a grant and for identifying potential budgeting errors that can sometimes occur. If you end up significantly underspending, some funding agencies now require that residual funds be returned.
Our administration staff keeps a record of all the accounting details. Still, I always bear in mind a rough estimate of the actual status of my budget, keeping my own spreadsheet if necessary. You should definitely spend all the money you’ve won. But do pay a lot of attention to not run out of money, as running into serious problems would negatively affect the evaluation of your final report by your funding body, which could then reduce your chances of getting a grant next time around.
Agencies will not provide more money than they funded to start with, so if a principal investigator (PI) spends more than is provided in a grant, then they will literally be in debt to their institution. If you don't have the funds to do what the project takes—because the initial budget was wrong, or because expenses have changed, or the nature of the project has evolved—then you need to contact the program director about changing the scope of the project.
Do you have any further advice for scientists who are new to budgeting?
Funders like to see value for money, so if you are using as-yet-unexploited results from previous research projects or have funding from other sources that you can draw upon, for example industry, it is important to signal this in your application. You also want to highlight in-kind support such as data, equipment, or time on advising panels that industry may be able to give you for the project.
Then, it is important for all young scientists to develop a feel for what resources are needed for their research. This will help them learn early on how to not only cost them out but also to monitor expenditure throughout the project life. Even if today their PI is ultimately responsible for that, the experience will prove invaluable once they reach the career stage of having to get and oversee their own grants.
Being direct and straightforward about expenses is important. Also bear in mind that a common mistake is to miss a detail by not paying close enough attention to the program requirements. To assist you in this stage, it is important that you find a trusted mentor who has experience with funded projects. At the very least, they will be able to give you a copy of their funded proposals, including the budget and its justification, so that you may see how it’s done. Reviewers have a lot of expectations that are not usually formally stated—these are just tacitly agreed-upon norms that you need to discover, ideally before writing the grant. For example, while the National Science Foundation (NSF) allows PIs to budget salary for tenure-track faculty, in some divisions it's understood that this shouldn't exceed summer salary. Another unwritten rule in my division of NSF is that standard grants are 3 years in duration. The calls don't specify that proposals should be 3 years long, but a 2-year project is considered to be very brief and a 4-year or 5-year project would have to have a massive scope to seem justified. Another unwritten rule in my field is that no-cost extensions to extend the project for an additional year are very common and are often granted automatically.
Many universities offer dedicated courses about writing research proposals, so take advantage of them. Also, make sure that you start preparing your proposal well before the deadline, as it can often be a time-consuming exercise. Another common mistake is to solely focus on the writing of the scientific proposal initially and leave all the budgeting to a late stage.
I would look at budget proposals for similar projects that were funded, which will also give you a general idea of the kind of budget that committees and reviewers find reasonable. Furthermore, make sure that there is significant difference in the topics of the newly proposed versus the previously funded research so that it doesn’t raise any red flags to reviewers about you trying to get more funds for the same project.
Young scientists should submit as many fellowship and grant proposals as their career level allows, even if the chances seem low. More than anything, the aim here is to get familiar with grant writing—and start learning the art of preparing a budget that not only wins you the grant, but also allows you to perform the work you promised without major obstacles.