Dividing up the money

Australian 10, 20, 50 and 100 dollar notes
Poster money, by Michael Coghlan on Flickr

Dear applicant

Congratulations! We have decided to give you a grant.

Unfortunately, funding is tight, so we have cut your budget to the bone. Sorry about that.

Yours truly,
The funding agency

Sometimes, you can win only to lose.

One of the trickiest times for any research team is when you have to work out what you can do with a reduced amount of money.

The decisions that you make at this point will shape your whole project. They may also have repercussions for the team dynamic. If Professor Needs-Grant feels that they didn’t get their fair share of the loot, they can get grumpy. Their enthusiasm for the project may disappear, or at least diminish.

There are ways to improve this situation.

Before you submit the application 

First of all, when you are designing your project, assume that you won’t be fully funded. After all, it is the norm for funding agencies to cut budgets so they can fund as many grants as possible. Assume that will be the case. Ask each of your research partners to provide the costing for their part of the project. This should include the correct figures for their time on the project, as well as the funds that they want to spend. Then talk to everybody about where things overlap and how different elements might be combined. Work out, with your co-researchers, what will happen if things get cut. Talk about what the project will look like if the postdoc isn’t funded, or if you don’t get all the fieldwork money.

Imagine the possibilities and talk about them with your team. Work out what is the minimum amount that would make a viable project.

This conversation will help you to strengthen your budget rationale. It will allow you to say things like “Maintenance is vital as the project will not be viable if our 15-year-old Thingatron breaks down. It will also help you to understand what each member of the team needs. Don’t be afraid of talking about money with your colleagues. Managing the money is part of the process, and part of your responsibility as a project leader. That responsibility starts when you are planning the project, not when you get the grant. Putting off the difficult conversations at the start won’t help you in the long run.

Make sure that everybody in the team is clear how the money will flow. When the application is successful, your university will set up sub-agreements with the other partners so that the funds can be distributed as agreed. This normally doesn’t appear in the application, so you should write it down among yourselves before you submit the application. It doesn’t need to be formal – just an exchange of emails will do. This sets out what everybody’s expectations are. You don’t want to start your project with a squabble over money. If it is all written down and agreed upon before you submit, there won’t be so many headaches when the funding comes through.

My advice is to try to do it by percentages, rather than according to set amounts. If you ask for $100,000 and you want 70% and Prof Needs-Grant wants 30%, there will be no arguments when the funding body gives you 80,000. But if you ask for $100,000 and you want $70,000, and Prof Needs-Grant wants $30,000, what do you do when the funding body gives you $80,000? Does Prof Needs-Grant still get $30,000, leaving you with $50,000? Or do you keep $70,000, leaving Prof Needs-Grant with only $10,000? Actually, what happens is that you go back to the drawing board and start talking about money all over again, which is an unnecessary distraction when you just want to get on with doing the work.

Finally, don’t give away the farm. No point in getting a $400,000 project if $399,999 goes to other universities. Well, actually, there is a point (getting good research done), but it isn’t a great way to win yourself friends at your own university.

After you submit the application

Once you’ve submitted that application, submit another to another funding agency. You’ll need to do a bit of rewriting – every funding agency wants different things, and you need to shape the application to the audience. But having a second application in the pipeline will double your chances of getting some funding for your research program. In the unlikely event that both applications are funded, then you can use the second grant to ameliorate the shortfall in the first grant (while still maintain its integrity as a stand-alone project), or decide which one you might have to give up (this may depend on the funding guidelines).

When the grant is announced

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that you’ve done everything you can in the application itself. You’ve submitted a well-considered budget, with no fat, and you have argued strongly for every item in that budget. And they’ve still given it a very severe haircut.

For most researchers, the natural reaction is to reduce scope and start to restructure the project. That is a reasonable thing to do. However, that shouldn’t be your first response. I think that a better way to go is to quickly try to find the shortfall from somewhere else. You’ve planned your project to work in a certain way – spend a week trying to stick to that plan. You should consider these options:

  • The universities involved might put funds towards the project, to make sure that it goes ahead. If you have worked out a percentage split of the funds, they might contribute funds along the same ratio.
  • Your industry partners might be interested in making up the shortfall. After all, they have a vested interest in seeing that the project goes ahead.
  • Local or state government might have an interest in helping out, particularly if the project is bringing new possibilities to the local area, or
  • It might be a combination of these sources. If the industry partner puts in, and the universities agree to match that funding, that might make it easier for everybody. If your university contribution is split between Centre, Department, and Faculty, then the amounts might be small enough to mean that everybody is happy to help.

This will only work rarely, but it is worth a try. You’ll have to move fast to secure the funds, and they must be secure funds. Don’t start your project hoping that you might get top-up funding from some competitive process future down the track. Don’t count on your back-up grant application at this point. If it comes in, it is a bonus. But it is just a chance, not a plan.

If you can’t make up the shortfall, then you will need to restructure the project. Go back to the notes you made about how to restructure the project when you were writing your bid. Does any of that make sense now? Sit down with your research partners and plan what might happen. It is probably six months or more since you wrote the application. Things might have changed that make a smaller project more viable. Someone might have access to new equipment, or have already hired a postdoc from other funding. Work out what is possible.

Remember that you don’t have to do the full scope of the project. The grant application is a plan, based on a certain amount of funding. If you are not offered that amount of funding, then you have the right to change the scope to match the funds available. The granting agency has to agree to the changes (and the processes and attitude to these sorts of negotiations vary widely, I think), but that is the reality of the situation. It is a contract negotiation, not a fait accompli.

Sometimes, nothing is possible. The funds on offer are too small to make a viable project, or the granting agency wants too much for the funds that they are offering. Before you decline to accept the grant, check with the funding agency that there isn’t another group in a similar situation. Sometimes, granting agencies will do this themselves – they will say, “We like your idea, but there is another group that has a very similar idea. Can you combine your projects?” If you are faced with the prospect of declining the grant, ask the funding agency if there is another group that you might combine with instead. This is more likely to work with focused schemes where everybody is working on one big issue. It is a very fraught process to work out a solution that everybody is happy with. However, no funding agency wants money left over – it is their job to give funds out, not have an odd amount left at the end of a funding round.

Finally, if none of that works, you may have to decline the grant. It happens. Nobody likes doing it, but it is better than trying to make your project limp along with too little cash to be viable. Nobody wants that, either.


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