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Improving the Quality of Research: Preparing Proposal Budgets

Published: 2020-08-31

Our new IFS strategy for 2021-2030 has the theme of Investing in Future Scientists. This year of 2020 is one of transition, where we are continuing with elements of the “old” strategy as we begin incorporating parts of the “new”. To learn from this process, we are reflecting on it in several ways, for example, through these monthly blog posts. I will be highlighting our experiences from the IFS Secretariat and I also invite others in the IFS family to share any reflections they may have.

Nighisty Ghezae, DirectorNighisty Ghezae, IFS Director

For the current call, we received 2110 submissions from applicants. After a pre-screening at the Secretariat, 544 applications were sent to around 1200 reviewers. In our new strategy, the eligibility criteria have been changed to those who are enrolled in a PhD or are post-PhD. Although we expected that the quality of applications would be higher than in past calls, it was lower. To enhance the scientific capacity of early career researchers in eligible countries, IFS has for many years used several tools (e.g., guidelines, training courses and mentoring) to help researchers to improve the quality of their research. Despite progress, and with optimism for even more, our analysis of the 2020 call applications suggests that there are systematic problems with the quality and reliability of research and more attention needs to be given to support for early career researchers.

This month, we will have a look at the preparation of proposal budgets, drawing on what we have learned from the recent call and review process, and also by considering some in-house issues where IFS can tighten up in the coming years. Applicants who presented good budgets:

  • Followed the specifications in IFS application guidelines
  • Estimated details on the expenses per cost category, identified anticipated project costs, categorized and tied them to the project objectives and work plan
  • Gave a proper budget description by providing necessary information and explained why costs were valid and sufficient for the project, and
  • Examined the proposed cost estimates and identified the planned outcomes of their project.

Where there are issues with a submitted budget, they are probably caused by (in order of importance):

  • Not reading or following the IFS application guidelines; most applicants who were asked later to improve their budget did so, after receiving a copy of the application guidelines by email.
  • Not understanding the guidelines due to lack of experience in writing budgets
  • Some budgets being roughly estimated and not adequately itemised. This was the case for several of the more senior applicants, suggesting that donors to whom they have applied in the past may not require the level of detail we request for our budgets.
  • Many of the approved applications having their budgets cut, as applicants have requested items where the quality does not match the needs of the project. An example of a common overestimated budget item is a camera. Several applicants requested high-end DSLR cameras with the justification that it will be used to take pictures for project reports. If applicants optimise their budget from the start, then they can get more for their funding (as long as it is related to the project) and are less likely to get cut if approved.

As part of its efforts to support early career scientists, IFS has produced a video about preparing proposal budgets. In addition, IFS will restructure the application guidelines and process so that it will be easier to understand that we are looking for cost per activity, among other features of a well-built budget.

With thanks 

Nighisty Ghezae

Director

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