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:

1. Don’t pull figures from the air or just ask the people around you (unless they happen to be multi-grant-winning grant ponies who have done their own budgets in the past…).

Almost all organisations have standard tools and ways of costing budget items, particularly when it comes to fieldwork and travel expenses. Find these tools, ask for them, get people in the know to share them and show you how to use them.

There’s nothing that says “I didn’t bother doing any real work on this budget!” than budgets that are thin on detail and (often) rounded to the nearest hundred. Or just badly presented (e.g. you mash all fieldwork costs into a single line for “Data collection”).

Learning this kind of basic grant writing / project planning skill from the get-go will set you streets ahead of your peers, if not most of your senior profs.

2. Work out what the actual time commitment of project staff will be over the life of the project. Ditto consumables.

Don’t just ‘guesstimate’ – there are peaks and troughs in research activity over the life of a project. It’s not logical to argue for a heap of  intensive RA time for data analysis at the end of the project, whereas it makes perfect sense for this to be necessary in the early and mid stages of it. Similarly, with consumables: in the writing-up phase of the research, you probably wouldn’t be doing resource-heavy work or mailing out huge rounds of surveys.

Don’t just repeat the year one budget in year two and three. Your budget needs to reflect the rhythm of the project’s pace.

3. Be wary of using research grant money to fund networking extravaganzas.

Hosting a conference or major workshop is often part of what a research project can do; it’s often a fitting finale to disseminate outcomes or assert the state of the field.

What you don’t want to do is have this event look like a junket. Keep it professional but not overblown. I’ve assessed an application where an incredible set of workshops were planned, with all the biggest names in the broad area included (most of them flying in from overseas to Australia). It was dazzling, brought out the fangirl in me, and made me think, “Hmm. But, why?”. The premise for holding the event wasn’t only weak, it was improbable. I knew the event would not deliver the outcomes the application said it would. It made me view the whole application in a different light.

It can be a good idea to get funding from your own institution promised for project conferences or symposiums. It’s as much about badging their researchers and their work as it is for the funding body.

4. Do you really need to go to Bora Bora three times every year?

Even if you’ve managed to plan well and site your research fieldwork in Bora Bora, you can overdose on the fieldwork aspect.

Fieldwork is a tricky beast to cost out. Depending on the area you are in, fieldwork can be quite the badge of authenticity. What you need to work out is what is the most efficient amount of time to be at your fieldwork site, and how often. If you need to go for longer and you manage to do much more because of the momentum built during the trip, that makes sense. Jetting in and out of places for isolated interviews or other research activities can just look disorganised (and junket-y), but there are obviously cases where this is necessary and sound.

It all boils down to making sure your justification is sensible and strong.

5. Overpopulation! 

Let me share a truism of academia: Senior researchers always think they need more research assistant (RA) time than they actually do; early career researchers (ECRs) often never think to cost for RA time.

Somewhere in between is the golden mean. Think about the personnel and how much work the application flags each person is doing. If three lead investigators are putting in a stunning combination of half a day a week, and they want to put on a raft of RAs, you’d be asking a few questions about the level of engagement of the research team. If the named investigators are putting in a combination of about 4 days a week, and also ask for a raft of RAs and maybe a few PhDs, reviewers would balance the scope of the project and its methods with the number of hours that kind of project team would be putting in. Sometimes, it makes sense. Other times…not so much.

Padding your budget is surprisingly transparent to reviewers in your field. They usually know what’s involved, on a practical level, with the research you’re proposing.

You can’t go too far wrong if you create your budget with this mantra: lean, strong, effective.

Other relevant posts at The Research Whisperer:

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