Thinking of claiming 40% of your time on a grant?: Some words of advice on costing grants

While I’m on the topic of grants, here is another little piece of advice.

I review grants for RCUK and numerous charities around the world, some of which allow you to budget for staff costs. It is this latter point that I would like to offer a little bit of advice based on my reviewing experience.

If a peer-reviewer has any sense then one of the things they will put quite a lot of weight on when making a decision as to whether to recommend a grant for funding is cost. Obviously, this is a measure that the grant cmt’s also make.

Do not be fooled. Your price tag is very important. The more you ask for the more critical the reviewer will be and will hold you to higher and higher standards. If you are asking for a lot then you are taking a big slice of that round’s funding which means other worthy projects cannot be funded: more smaller grants can be funded with that pot of cash than bigger ones. So, if you’re asking for close to a mill then it better be focused, tightly written, blockbusting material (and on the latter point, you as the PI might not be the best judge of that). So, realise that if you ask for a lot of money you could be pricing yourself out of the market.

Of course, total amount asked for is a blunt instrument: it’s what you plan to do with it that counts.

Firstly, if you have never had a grant before, then ask for a small amount. No-one is going to fund you if you are the only investigator and you want £500k.

Secondly, be reasonable with asking for payment for staff time. RCUK usually work on the principle that anything over 40% is unreasonable. However, the people assessing your grant will have a fair idea of how much time is needed to successfully complete the grant on time and on budget. So, don’t think you can pull a swifty. My rule of thumb is that 20% and higher requires iron tight reasoning.

Following up on the latter point, in RCUK there are sections on Staff Duties and Justification of Resources. These sections allow you to go into great detail as to what everyone who is claiming staff time for will do. Saying that you will supervise the overall project is not sufficient. You need to be really detailed. And, if you are claiming 20%+ in time I expect you to be REALLY detailed about how you will be spending your time. If you claim for 20% and only say you’ll supervise the day to day running of the project then I will not be happy. That is what postdocs do, not PIs.

Thirdly, people like me calculate the proportion of the costs of the grant that is being spent on PI/CI time. If it is top heavy on staff time you could be looking at a reject based on cost effectiveness.

Fourthly, in this climate, you have to have a really good reason to cost for a postdoc. Obviously, postdocs out there don’t want to hear that, but in many cases, where experiments are relatively simple with no specialised techniques or populations or equipment, someone with an MSc could do the job just as well for a snip of the price. So, if you really want a postdoc then you need to go to town on justifying why. At the same time, if you want a postdoc then you are going to have to cut back on claiming PI time, as the postdoc can do much of the day to day running of the grant for you. Otherwise, you’re double dipping, and undermining your claim of needing a postdoc.

If you are PI and have a senior role within your university then you need to be cautious with the amount of time you claim for. If you are Dean and claim for 20% time a reviewer could reasonably query how you will find that time during the week to devote to the grant and juggle other substantial responsibilities. My recommendation is reduce the time requested (and, given that such people will have big salaries, will cut costs), and request an experienced postdoc instead. I think that seems reasonable and practical.

Only under exceptional circumstances will a claim for a full time postdoc plus full time RAs be acceptable. If you really do need this then you need to justify it.

Basically, don’t be cheeky, and don’t expect reviewers or grant panels to accept your view that you need all this money for your time, your CI’s time, or that you need postdocs and RAs. We are not mind readers and without justification it just looks extremely cheeky.

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