Coastal Research Grants: Prepare a budget and additional materials

Author: Zofia Knorek

Greetings, y’all--this is the fifth blog in the six-post #CoastalResearchGrants series, in which we’re walking through the steps of preparing a proposal for a coastal research grant using the Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship application as a specific case study. If you’re following along chronologically, you will have a version of your project description (research statement) articulated on paper, which we discussed drafting last week. This week, we’re discussing a few of the additional components of the application, the: Project Summary Statement of Interest; Budget Narrative and Justification; and Data Management Plan. 
It’s okay to develop these components in conjunction with the research statement--there’s no singular correct order. Because the research statement is the bulk of the application, we recommend starting it earliest, so you have ample time to make edits and polish it. But if you want to switch between working on components that comprise the research statement and Budget, or perhaps knock out a low-hanging fruit like the Data Sharing Plan to keep morale high, that’s a reasonable option, too. 

Project summary

The Project summary is effectively the one-page abstract of your Project Description. The RFP says to include the following: (i) Project title; (ii) Name of reserve at which the project will be conducted; (iii) Brief project summary including priority management needs, project objectives, expected results, and intended benefits and outcomes. You’ll note that I was very explicit about labeling the subsections included in c., whereas Marae was not. Regardless of how you choose to organize this section, note that you can use developing this summary as motivation for revising your Project Description, since it’s always easier to write a summary from a complete statement.

Statement of Interest

This section should include information you would generally put in a personal statement/cover letter, specifically “the connections between the research you are proposing, your interests, and career goals; ii.) a demonstration of the understanding of the importance of the local reserve, its community, and how that understanding will contribute to a successful research project; iii.) their interest in the professional development opportunities.

Budget Narrative and Justification

The most important thing to consider when developing a budget is what is appropriate for the work I am proposing to do? Depending on your situation, appropriateness may include a consideration of other sources of funding or support you or your lab has already secured. Talk to your advisor in the early stages of your budget development so you both are on the same page as to what support you will need to complete your project. This fellowship award is for $60,000 each year (direct & indirect costs), and you should plan on budgeting for/requesting the full amount.

Realistically, what can that get you? Reference the two applications we have from 2020 fellow Marae Lindquist West and applicant Zofia Knorek as examples (this advice applies to all four sections covered today). You’ll notice that Marae included funds for a research technician for a field season, while Zofia didn’t. There are inherent discrepancies between their budgets because Marae’s budget used UNCW cost rates (including indirect costs, as well as salary, tuition, and benefits), whereas Zofia’s used UNC-Chapel Hill’s. When budgeting for materials, you should list specific costs; whether that value is acquired from the online store you’d purchase the item from or a quote from a supply company, it’s important that you find as specific of a number as possible. 

Beyond differences in institutional costs, your research may require you to send samples out for analysis at an external lab, which will eat through a modest budget quickly. So you may not have the funds to hire a technician, and that’s okay--not involving an additional person won’t count against your proposal.

Hint: try to incorporate as many components that are “encouraged” in the RFP as are relevant to your project proposal. Funders are encouraging it for a reason, and that reason is usually that it relates to the overarching mission of their agency, so they’re looking to fund it. That said, don’t slap things onto a proposal even if it isn’t relevant to your project just because you think it’s what the agency wants to hear. Overcommitting to things that aren’t realistic for you to accomplish will only undermine the strength of your application. 

Other things to know about the budget for this proposal specifically:

  • Read more about indirect charges here. You’ll need to incorporate them eventually, so it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with them now. 
  • Match is not required. But again, if you’re curious about the concept of grant matching, you can learn more here.
  • You aren’t allowed to pay your advisor with this fellowship money. (Many faculty are salaried on an academic, or nine-month, schedule. They can write the other three months of their salaries into grants, including those that their graduate students may write--but not this one!)
  • Your budget will almost certainly need to be signed off by someone who works in the business office or office of sponsored research at your institution. If you don’t know whose signature you need, ask your advisor; they should be able to direct you to the correct person. Get to know and develop a working relationship with the people in your organization’s business office--they are likely able to help you navigate what can be a confusing bureaucratic maze.

Data Management Plan

While it may seem technical and complicated, the Data Management Plan (DMP) is one of the most prescribed components of the application. If you follow the detailed directions in the RFP and reference the DMPs from the example applications, your DMP will come together quickly. Also ask your advisor if they have a recent DMP from a NOAA/NERRS application that they would be willing to share. The point is, don’t reinvent the wheel here. It’s okay to reuse big chunks of past plans--you want the management of data to be relatively consistent from project to project. This is another point in the application process where if you are unsure about whether your ideas are sufficient, you can reach out to the agency directly for feedback.

Closing thoughts

If you are planning on having an undergraduate or post-baccalaureate technician help with data collection or processing, you should do everything in your power to make sure they are compensated financially for their labor. Even if you can’t pay them from this funding source, you can help facilitate the security of their own support through alternative resources, including via their institution’s office of undergraduate research. Unpaid internships and research opportunities are inherently exploitative and have demonstrated negative impacts on graduate employment outcomes.

We hope you found this helpful and look forward to discussing more next week. For reference, the topics for this series are:

  1. Before you write…
  2. Solicit early feedback 
  3. Draft an outline
  4. Write the project description
  5. Prepare a budget and additional materials (this post)
  6. Assemble and polish the application package; intangibles

Questions? Requests for content to cover in future posts? Have a resource you think everyone should know about? Join the discussion with the #CoastalResearchGrants hashtag.

Don’t forget the Davidson Fellowship is due December 10, 2021!

Zofia Knorek (@zofiaknorek, she/her) is a PhD candidate in ecology at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences and the 2020 Coastal Training Program grant writing intern with the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. 

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