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The power of a budget plan in grant writing

Ethan Wilk, who begins an undergraduate programme this autumn, explains how a detailed outline of his proposed expenses and timeline helped him to win a competitive award to study endangered trout.

I awoke one morning last June to a blaring bedside alarm that nearly gave me a heart attack. That shock, however, paled in comparison to the one that followed when I read my e-mail — I had won a Harvard CBE Sustainability Grant, an environmental award of up to US$20,000 that is typically conferred on a cohort of students and faculty members at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’m an 18-year-old high-school student.

I had applied for the grant to support my research into the use of blockchain technology for tracking Apache trout (Oncorhynchus apache), a critically endangered species that’s native to the state of Arizona. I had become interested in the logistics of blockchain — a digital tool that uses cryptography to protect information — through studying the economics of the similarly esoteric Bitcoin cryptocurrency. I reasoned, therefore, that the innovative spirit of my project proposal had earned me the award. I could not have been more wrong: I won the grant because of my budget plan.

It’s clear from my age and the fact that I’m still a high-school student that I’m by no means a veteran of grant writing. But I hope that sharing my approach will help others to also win funding. Here’s what I did.

What is the purpose of a budget plan?

I first heard the term budget plan from my father. (He received his doctorate in applied physics from Harvard and conducted dielectrics research at Texas Instruments in Dallas, before moving to Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, to work as a semiconductor engineer. He now works for Advanced Semiconductor Materials in Phoenix, Arizona.) He told me that in the context of a grant application, a budget plan is an outline of the proposal’s expected financial outlays over a certain period of time. Last year, with guidance from my mentor, financial economist Yuri Tserlukevich at Arizona State University in Tempe, I began delving further into the mechanics of budget plans by researching financial economics.

Grant application essentials

I learnt that as part of a grant application, a budget plan allows funders to understand exactly where the money will be going and what researchers will be doing with it at any given point. Through crafting my own, I also found out that a coherent budget plan is invaluable to the grant writer. I formed an image of my project timeline and established a level of discipline and organization for myself that I maintained during the following months. Having the timeline in place helped me to set deadlines for every stage, from beginning the research to drawing final conclusions.

What does a budget plan entail?

The individual content and formatting of a budget plan will vary by funder and type of project, but a standard outline is generally composed of two sections: direct and indirect costs. As I began to incorporate this into my own plan, I looked for online lectures and notes to reinforce my understanding. I also consulted my mentor throughout the grant-writing process.

Direct costs are expenditures that directly contribute to a project’s research and development, whereas indirect costs are those that cannot be traced directly to progress in research and development, but are nonetheless required to operate a project.

For example, salaries paid to postdoctoral researchers would be categorized as direct costs, because researchers directly contribute to the project, whereas salaries paid to administrative staff members would be categorized as indirect costs, because these employees typically do not contribute to the research directly but are still necessary for the project to progress. In the United States, indirect costs typically comprise up to one-third of a total project budget.

Secrets to writing a winning grant

Although budget plans tend to be straightforward, a simple breakdown of costs can often highlight how a project could be affected by factors that a researcher might not otherwise have noted. I uncovered this truth while I was drafting my own budget plan last April and May.

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, I faced a dilemma: would I allocate the same level of funding for travel expenses in light of the restrictions and lockdowns? Or would I adapt my plan?

Ultimately, after consulting my father and mentor, I decided to allocate a much larger proportion of my funds to purchasing lab equipment and materials, which would allow me to continue my project despite any restrictions.

The necessity of justification

The other crucial element of the budget plan is its justification. According to the guidelines of the Harvard School of Public Health, a budget justification “indicates how and why a proposed cost helps to meet the project aims”. For example, when I was justifying my need for 250 radio-frequency identification tags to affix to Apache trout, I wrote that the tags would allow me to identify the exact locations of the fish throughout the waters of Arizona’s White Mountains. I needed those data to learn the migration patterns of the species.

Most funders will require some form of budget justification1, although some do not. According to one article2, however, “justification of the budget is paramount”, because it will help you to see your project timeline and logistics more clearly, beyond what is possible with just an explanation of an item’s purpose.

For example, after allocating a relatively small portion of funds to marketing, I wrote that advertisements paid for by my project’s organizational partners would eliminate the need for me to spend significant amounts of money on my own marketing. This helped both me and the grant reviewers to understand my project’s strengths and limitations more clearly.

I am only due to start university later this year, where I’ll be studying sustainable and environmental economics. But winning this grant is important to me today because it means I can now fully trace the migration swimming patterns of this highly endangered species in Arizona, which will help me to work on mitigating aquatic extinction both locally and abroad. This award has enabled me to continue contributing to the world around me.

I’ve also come to understand the significant and possibly under-recognized value of a budget plan in any grant application, for myself as an early-stage grant writer, and for reviewers, who face countless difficult decisions throughout the selection process.

By Ethan Wilk, first published on https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00096-x January 14, 2021