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Ask Dr. Editor

Your grant budget is a mess!

How to demonstrate feasibility in your proposal’s budget and justifying some of those out of the norm expenses.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | MAR 12 2020

Question:

I understand that you specialize in grant applications, so this isn’t really an editing question, but, how much should I budget for a part-time research coordinator? This is the first time I’ve had the chance to hire one. (Sociology)

 

Answer:

I’ve seen the pay for a research coordinator ranging from around $25/hour ($45,000/year for a 35-hour work week) to over $40/hour ($75,000/year), depending on the coordinator’s qualifications and responsibilities. On top of that, you’ll need to budget for an additional 20 percent or so for employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan, Workers’ Compensation, and any benefits your institution might offer. For a more accurate estimate of benefit costs, check to see if your institution has a tool similar to UBC’s Benefit Cost Calculator.

But what I think is an acceptable pay range for a research coordinator doesn’t matter nearly as much as what research coordinators in your field usually make.

When you’re writing a grant proposal, your reviewers will expect your budget to be roughly in line with most budgets they see. Budget too little for your staff, and you’ll risk looking like you don’t know what it takes to run a successful research project; budget too much, and it will seem like your budget is artificially — suspiciously — high.

“Reviewers spend a significant amount of time ensuring that budget items are directly and appropriately connected to and necessary for the success of the project,” says Sabre Cherkowski, associate professor of education at UBC Okanagan and former education peer selection committee chair for SSHRC’s Insight Development Grant competition. “Avoid inflating your budget to hope you get what you need in case of reviewer cuts, or under-estimating costs to make it seem that your budget is reasonable,” says Dr. Cherkowski.


Read also: Three ways to use colour effectively in grant applications


Having a reasonable, appropriate budget is one way to demonstrate the feasibility of your proposed research. In SSHRC Insight competitions, “feasibility” is one of three evaluation criteria, and is worth 20 percent of your overall score — and 20 percent can be make-or-break when competitions are tight.

Like a real estate agent, you’ll need to check out comparables to find out what the salary norms are in your discipline. Look at your colleagues’ successful grant proposals or ask on social media for others to share their work. Your reviewers are going to notice if this line item in your budget is substantially different from the rest of the budgets in their application pile.

What else are reviewers paying attention to when they read the budget in your grant proposal?

1. Bad surprises

Bad surprises are anything in your budget that isn’t a part of your proposal narrative. Does a postdoc appear as a budget line item, but go unmentioned in your proposal? That counts as a bad surprise.

Other bad surprises: math errors, which are surprisingly common in the budgets I review. Because grant applications — especially large ones — often pass through multiple sets of hands, it’s good policy to designate an experienced team member who can triple-check the math in every cell. This checking stage will be straightforward if your budget justification includes a breakdown of how each figure was calculated (for salary: $X/hr x Y hrs/week x Z weeks = $Q + N% for benefits = $Total). Such detailed budget justifications also serve to clarify your budget request and demonstrate your credibility.


Read also: Being understood outside your discipline


A final bad surprise: the inclusion of an ineligible expense. Does your proposed laptop count as “equipment” or “materials and supplies”? Are you allowed to pay that graduate student hourly, or do you need to give them an honorarium? Only through a detailed read of the call for proposals will you know for sure. If you’re working on a complex funding application, or if you’re applying for the first time to a particular competition, it’s a good idea to consult the research support unit on your campus, or to hire an editor familiar with the funder to which you’re applying. These experts often have a deep understanding of the nitty-gritty of the call for proposals.

2. Misalignment

Make sure that your budget aligns with the rest of your research project. By “alignment,” of course I mean the obvious things — get the number of years of funding right, for instance — but I also refer to the scope of both your budget and your project narrative. If your $100,000 budget includes a request for $50,000 for filming and video editing, then the narrative of your research project needs to have a significant emphasis on the importance of making a film for your proposed work.

To put it another way: every staff member you hire, every expense you want to pay — all of your budget should serve the purpose of meeting your project’s objectives and its overarching goal.

The budget will make most sense if you can also align it with your timeline. If your budget covers five years but your timeline is divided into three stages, add the years in parentheses in your timeline, and specify both years and stages in your budget justification.


Read also: Jargon can make for good academic writing


3. Omissions

Omitting an expense that is necessary for your project is a sure way to look like you don’t know what you’re doing. If knowledge mobilization, translation, or dissemination are part of your proposal — and usually they are — you’ll need to budget for those costs.

Don’t forget to include a line for Open Access publication when you’re submitting a tri-agency proposal, to align with their OA policy. OA publishing is a good idea even when you aren’t applying to a national funder, as there’s evidence that OA publications receive more citations than non-OA pubs: “Papers hidden behind a paywall were cited 10 percent below world average […], while those that are freely available obtain, on average, 18 percent more citations than what is expected.” (Piwowar et al, 2018).

Make sure that you appropriately compensate your collaborators, especially for projects that couldn’t be completed without their involvement. Hannah McGregor, assistant professor of publishing at SFU and former selection committee member for SSHRC’s Connection Grant competition, says that, when “collaborating with publishers, students, artists, writers, activists,” it’s “vital to […] prioritize reasonable compensation” for their contributions.

“That gets tricky in situations like figuring out how to list certain collaborators — should that vital student collaborator be listed as a co-applicant and thus given credit as a researcher, or left off the grant so they can be paid as a research assistant? I’d love to see SSHRC recognize that not all collaborators are equally positioned, and that sometimes co-applicants still need to be paid for their work — that’s my pet peeve — but in the meantime the onus is on the grant writer to consider the needs of their collaborators,” says Dr. McGregor.


Read also: Decolonizing your grant application


Finally, if you’re providing honorariums, ensure that you cover more than just transportation, parking, and childcare: compensate appropriately, as well, for your collaborators’ expertise. If you’re consulting with Indigenous Elders or Knowledge-Keepers, pay them a lawyer’s wages. If you’re paying Elders less per hour than your research coordinator or your postdoc, that not only looks bad: it also contributes to consultation fatigue.

Your budget and budget justification modules are your way to show your reviewers that you know what it takes to get the work done. A budget that is well aligned with the rest of your application, and that doesn’t include any bad surprises or omissions, will attest to your ability to complete your proposed project successfully.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia.
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