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Doing the math

Proper research budgeting can be decisive to obtaining funding

Daniel AlmeidaSomething every researcher learns at the beginning of their career is that quality research projects need funding. However, in an increasingly competitive academic environment where resources are scarce, creating an innovative and solid proposal is often not enough. There also needs to be a clear breakdown of how much the project will cost at each stage. “A detailed budget estimate is essential when seeking research funding,” says biologist Lúcia Lohmann, from the Institute of Biosciences at the University of São Paulo (IB-USP).

In recent years, many institutions—especially in the US—have issued guidelines on how to estimate and justify the costs of a project. The Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, for example, has published a guide on how to draft a research grant proposal, and Dartmouth University provides students with a manual on the importance of funding when planning a scientific research project.

The budget is a key element of any scientific grant application, presenting a quantitative financial plan for the future expenditure of a research project. “Among other things, a highly detailed budget proposal also shows evaluators that the researcher worked hard on planning their project and is clear about all the steps and components needed to achieve their objectives,” says Lohmann, who is currently responsible for coordinating several projects, one of which is being conducted as part of a partnership between the BIOTA-FAPESP program and Dimensions of Biodiversity, a program run by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the leading scientific research agency in the US.

She recommends that researchers always try to submit balanced grant proposals. “Overestimating expenses can work against the project, making it appear somewhat egoistical,” says the researcher, based on her experience as an ad hoc advisor. But the opposite can also be damaging. “Underestimating project costs can jeopardize the research, which in the worst case scenario could end up being suspended or left incomplete.”

“Creating a research budget is an arduous process. It requires a level of technical knowledge that not all researchers have at the beginning of their career,” says biochemist Bernadette Dora Gombossy de Melo Franco, from the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at USP, who has written numerous funding applications over the last 30 years. “It takes humility to ask for help when you need it. I have always taken the advice of more experienced colleagues, so I do not remember making any serious mistakes over the course of my career.”

Franco believes that a project and its budget must be developed in parallel. “You cannot conduct research without knowing how much it will cost, just as you cannot estimate a budget without knowing what the project will involve.” She points out that many calls for proposals by funding agencies place a maximum limit for each application that researchers planning their projects must observe, taking into account the infrastructure already available.

According to psychiatrist Euripedes Constantino Miguel, from the School of Medicine at USP (FM-USP), it is crucial that the research budget reflect the real expected costs. “Otherwise, the researcher runs the risk of not being able to deliver on their proposal, which could damage their credibility with the funding agency, and they could even end up having to return the money out of their own pocket.” For Franco, it is important to pay attention to the specific aspects of each funding agency. “Each agency has its own rules, which can vary according to the type of call.”

The NSF advises researchers to begin planning their research budget well before the submission deadline, paying attention to the costs of conducting experiments, publishing articles, traveling for field research, and participating in scientific events. “It is important to consider all elements of the project and to remember that markets can vary, especially if funding is granted in a foreign currency,” explains Juliana Juk, a project manager at the Brazilian Institute of Developmental Psychiatry for Children and Adolescents, one of the country’s National Institutes for Science and Technology (INCT).

In this respect, Miguel recommends that researchers only begin planning their budget proposal when they have a clear idea about their research objectives and methodologies. “The scientific questions and the methods to be used to answer them need to be consistent with the amount of funding requested,” he says. “If the research involves collaborations with other researchers, you should meet with them first to discuss the costs involved in each other’s activities. Each researcher agrees to a basic premise that must be met, but it is important that there also be room for negotiation between projects if necessary, or even adjustments to the initial objectives.”

The researchers point out that conducting research is a collective effort. “I have always counted on my team to help plan projects and estimate costs,” says Franco, who also coordinates the Food Research Center (FORC), one of the Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) funded by FAPESP.

A good way to organize budget information is to create a detailed list of each cost and its respective percentage of the total estimated budget. As well as spreadsheet software such as Microsoft Excel, there are several other tools available today that researchers can use to manage research costs, including Fluxx, Deltek, and Worktribe, widely used by universities in the US and the UK. Some institutions, including USP, use their own software to monitor the use of funding granted to researchers.

“It is important to maintain weekly control of expenses when working on large projects,” warns Lohamm, whose current projects are worth almost R$2 million in funding. “Researchers need to be well organized, record all cash flow, and file receipts and proof of purchase for all equipment, reagents, and so on.” As well as facilitating accountability, these practices help to balance expenditure.

Whenever possible, Miguel also recommends hiring a project manager. “Thanks to the expertise of these professionals, the National Institute of Developmental Psychiatry has been able to carry out several national and international projects at the same time, worth a total of approximately R$11 million in funding,” he says. By handing over at least part of the administrative and financial workload, researchers can devote more time and energy to their research. Time is money, even in science.