Funding your Research

To Tender or not to Tender….

18th Jan

Having come from a background in consultancy and government where tendering for work and evaluating tender proposals was an everyday part of life it surprised me greatly how tendering for research work is not something that commonly occurs in the academic community. There are and always will be exceptions to this with some departments gaining most of their research income through tendering for research work from governments, charities and other agencies.

I recognise that not all tendered work will either meet the definitions of research, be they the Frascati definition or the REF definition but there is a great deal of research work that is tendered and can be usefully used to develop subsequent publications and dare I say it, Impact! For some academics tendering can be seen as responding to other people’s research agendas and as such, won’t meet their own academic or research goals. This is undoubtedly true in some cases but creative thinking can ensure that the research work undertaken contributes to their specific research interests. Talking to your research development officer or team can help here.

Tendering for research work is a useful way of building a research profile, gaining an understanding of how to write research funding proposals and how to manage a research project and budget. This can be particularly useful for early career researchers or smaller universities starting with a small research base.

Despite this I understand that tendering can be stepping into the unknown for many academics and a lack of knowledge regarding how to tender can put people off. Tendering doesn’t have to be difficult but there are some key rules you should follow and it is really helpful if the university or department concerned takes the time to set up professional templates that can be easily adapted to meet each unique tender opportunity. If your university doesn’t have any templates then talk to your research office or ask colleagues who may have tendered for work before, there may be useful examples that can be used to develop templates.

To help demystify the process I have included a simple guide to tendering for research work below. It covers the basics and should enable the development of professional and competitive tenders. I hope you find it useful. Let me know if you have any suggestions or other ideas to help develop great tenders.

Developing Tender Proposals

The Research Project Budget!

It is not uncommon when developing a research funding application for the budget to be left until the very end and sometimes it becomes a last minute thing! Many academics will see the budget as a wholly administrative task and not something to worry about. It is often viewed as something that can be done by someone else. I don’t agree with this approach and I encourage all academics to think about their budget right at the start of the development of an application. This is important for a number of reasons including:

  • The process through which a budget is developed helps to map out the research, what resources are required and whether it is feasible. It can provide an early ‘sense check’ for the research. By developing a full and comprehensive budget early on it is easier to make adjustments to meet funder guidelines and subsequently identify where there may be shortfalls that need to be met from other budgets. I believe you should start with the full picture and see if the research project will work!
  • The budget can act as a guide to ensure that the written narrative in the proposal is internally consistent. Often when budgets are left to the end of the process things are included in the budget which are not referenced in the text or vice versa. In addition the budget may not match the methods. For example, getting the right number of interviews or trips is crucial both in the budget and the text and shows an attention to detail and a good overall understanding of what you are trying to achieve.
  • The early development of the budget may steer you towards different funders. I have worked with academics in the past who wanted to apply for grants like the ESRC Standard Grant Scheme but after working up a budget the total cost of the research came in much lower than the £200,000 threshold for the scheme. By developing the budget early we can focus our efforts on more appropriate funders.

Now that I have convinced you to start developing the budget early on I know many people start to panic about what should go into the budget. The key thing is don’t worry! All budgets, like applications or journal articles, go through a number of drafts in order to refine them and make them as realistic and robust as possible. Having said this I know it is useful to have a template to start the thinking process. As such the following list should help in developing the first draft of a budget:

  • Start and end dates – are they realistic for the project? Do they fit with the funders guidelines?
  • PI and Co-I time – How much time will be spent on the project?
  • Other researcher time – Will other researchers need to be appointed? If so, for how long and are they full time, part time etc?
  • Travel – Where will you need to travel to conduct the research? How will you get there – train? Plane? How many trips are required?
  • Consumables – these should generally make only a small proportion of costs but are any required? Laptop? Dictaphone? Check the funders guidance.
  • Transcription – How many hours of transcription? Who will do this? Is it in house or outsourced?
  • Experiment costs – Are there any costs to hire equipment or to pay for participant involvement in any experiments?
  • Conferences – Will you be attending any conferences to share findings? Where are the conferences? Are they within the project dates? Are they appropriate to your research?

This list is just for starters. The more you map out your research at the beginning the more detail will be included in the early budgets which will only strengthen the proposal. Lastly, it is worth remembering, you will need to justify your budget? Most funders will expect you to justify the amounts you are asking for so be ready to explain what you have done and why! Further really useful information regarding budget development can be found on the Research Whisperer Blog here. Any other thoughts and suggestions are welcome – what are your tips to developing a good research proposal budget?

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