Monday, September 6, 2010

Budget oasis

Biology is messy; grant applications even more so.

There are so many intangibles: is the scope too big, too small, or just the right mix of feasible and ambitious? How's the balance between hot topic sexy science and safe reliable techniques? Have we adequately addressed the specific aims of this RFA? How much preliminary data do we need? Should we include two fall-back alternatives to the shiny new technique we're planning to use, or will one be enough? Should Dr. X be a co-applicant, or just a collaborator? Who's on which review panels this year? Is the wording of the hypothesis the very best it could possibly be?

It goes on and on, and you can never really be sure you've got it right; there's always more second-guessing and tweaking that can be done. And of course it's not just a matter of learning "the rules" of a single agency, like the NIH or NSF: the Canadian research funding ecosystem teems with an incredible biodiversity, a tangled bank of government, charity, and private funding sources, with even the federal health research dollars being split between multiple funding agencies.

During my first few rounds of grant wrangling, I found budget development to be the most confusing part of my new job (I even wrote a limerick about it!) However, I've since come to view budget wrangling very differently, and in fact it's now my favourite part of the whole process.

A couple of years worth of experience and the resulting increase in confidence are a large part of the reason. I've worked on so many grants by now that if a PI wants to do some next-gen sequencing or build a tissue microarray or whatever, I can usually find an older grant that used the same methods and use its budget as the starting point for the new one. I've also learned who to go to for help with statements of work & service quotes, salary grades & benefits rates, and equipment quotes.

However, I've also learned that the true joy of budget development lies in its focus on those lovely tangible, quantitative things:


Thank the flying spaghetti monster for numbers! They can only ever add up one way, and there's always a definite right answer. The maximum amounts you can request for salaries, trainee stipends and equipmentare listed in the competition guidelines, and the grand total is always either over or under the stated limit. No quibbling, no second-guessing: if it's wrong, you fix it, and if it's right, you move on with a great sense of satisfaction.

I remember feeling the same way about maths lessons in high school; they were an oasis of certainty and logic amidst the hustle and bustle and messiness of history, English literature, music, French, and yes, biology*. None of this "which of these conflicting sources is the most reliable?", "what analogies does this poem draw on?", "how did this composer use changes in instrumentation to evoke different feelings in the second movement of this symphony?", "j'ai mangé but je suis allé", or "how might an increase in the numbers of a given species affect the population dynamics of its prey and its predators over time?". No, in maths lessons 2+2 was always 4, and when you'd solved an equation you got to write "QED" next to the obviously correct answer and feel extremely pleased with yourself.

Of course, grant budgets aren't quite this simple; there are always some messy intangibles involved. This agency has never once awarded a PI more in a given year than 85% of the stated maximim annual limit; that agency doesn't like chunky budgets, so be sure to spread your most expensive activities over the whole term of the project to make it look more even; the other agency always trims the budget by 8-10%, so put some cannon fodder in there**.

But overall, sitting down with a cup of tea to play with numbers in an Excel spreadsheet, rather than with pages and pages of messy words, still gives me the same joy as a high school maths lesson. Just as I did way back then, I do enjoy the messiness, too, but it's nice to have a break from time to time.

To use a different part of my brain.

To get a right-or-wrong answer.

Writing "QED"? Well, that's up to the PIs... but I'll be happy to write the progress report and edit the papers!

*with the exception of genetics; I think there's a reason why the logic of Mendelian inheritance, with its nice neat phenotype ratios, appealed to me so much when my biology teacher first introduced it to us!

**as with the other grant wrangling Dark Arts, none of this stuff is ever written down - you have to learn it by asking experienced PIs, especially those who've served on review committees, and from your own experiences (I re-read old grant reviews before each new round of applications to the same agency).


  1. Genetics? Nice and neat? Well, for a single trait I suppose. Throw some recombination out there and it all goes Gregor-Mendel-faked-his-data on you.

    As for grant budgets, I confess I gave up the habit several Genome Canada rounds ago. I'm still recovering. But the recycling idea applies equally well to methods sections, I've found (not to mention the dreaded "Benefits to Canada", "Progress in Training of HQP", "Commercialization Plan" and suchlike... you know of what I speak, I know you do.

  2. :D

    I'm talking genetics as it is taught to 14 year olds - pea phenotypes with 3:1 and 9:3:3:1 ratios. All very logical. My undergrad degree (BSc Genetics) revealed the true extent of the messiness - but there were some nice little bits of logic in there too!

    Genome Canada / Genome BC budgets are indeed a lot more complicated than your average grant application. Luckily I have colleagues who are a great deal more experienced than I am with this Darkest of the Dark Arts, who do all the heavy lifting. Almost all of my budget experience has been with smaller and more straightforward programmes like CIHR operating grants.

    And yes, I know exactly what you're talking about with those other grant sections...


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