Start planning for the financial support of systems projects early. Most simulated agricultural systems projects that have been in place for 10 or more years are still in operation because the researchers planned ahead to receive institutional support (Table 3.1). Even where institutional support is provided, extramural funding is often required to carry out more ambitious research efforts after the experiment has been established. Interdisciplinary systems projects can be initiated with funding from competitive grants, but do not expect to maintain these studies beyond about eight years with competitive grant funding alone. This part of this chapter focuses on financial planning for initiating an interdisciplinary systems research project. Strategies for long-term funding are discussed further in chapter 5.
Financial planning for interdisciplinary systems experiments can be complicated if the project includes more than three or four co-principal investigators (co-PIs) from different institutions, and if the goals are long term and exceed typical funding cycles. For large, complex projects, identify multiple funding sources in the early stages of project development if possible. Discuss funding levels early in the process so that proposal goals and objectives that are set for a particular proposal will be realistic for the funder.
Two considerations shape the distribution of funds among collaborators and institutions: (1) good collaboration will be promoted if funds are reasonably distributed among the individuals and institutions playing major roles in the project; and (2) the proposal goals, objectives and work plan must be compatible with the mission and goals outlined in the request for proposals. Budget planning typically needs to begin earlier for interdisciplinary projects than for disciplinary research. In single-discipline studies, researchers often develop the goals and experimental plan before constructing the budget because they have the experience to estimate the resources required for the planned work. This is often not the case in longer-term interdisciplinary systems projects; begin budget planning early, and be willing to refine and adjust the budget over time.
As with many other aspects of project planning, budget development is an iterative process that often requires adjustment of the experimental plan. The following steps can help with budget planning:
- Identify a target budget that is reasonable for the likely funding source and that reflects the project scope. Have this discussion in the early planning stages to help avoid developing unrealistic goals. Nothing will cause conflict in a newly formed group faster than trying to shrink a $600,000 research plan to meet a $200,000 budget cap. Begin with a conservative list of objectives and an experimental plan that can be expanded if the total budget is larger than expected.
- As goals and objectives become finalized, identify who will do the work to achieve each objective.
- The project leader should take a first stab at assigning budget allocations to organizations and co-PIs based on the outcomes expected from each contributor. Then, ask each co-PI to aim for those amounts when they draft their budgets. If funding sources allow indirect costs, be sure to include these in the budget plan and be clear about where overhead will be charged.
- While the experimental plan is being developed, have each organization and PI draft an individual budget. This will help in defining the details of the work plan. For example, the preliminary experimental plan may specify that 25 farms will be studied, but the budget may only allow for 20 farms.
- As the team fine-tunes the budgets and work plan, continue to assess whether the integrity of the overall project is being maintained. The project leader must help the group balance individual interests and budget needs with the needs of the project as a whole. Often, the original plan developed by an interdisciplinary team is too costly and needs to be paired down to meet budget limitations. This can be an advantage, because it helps the group to focus and identify key priorities.
This open budgeting process ensures that experimental planning and budget development progress concurrently with the participation of all collaborators. As with any large project, establish a shared budget that is explicitly set aside for expenses related to the overall project. Collaborative research often entails foundational costs, which cannot be attributed to a single co-PI but are needed for the overall enterprise. In simulated agricultural system experiments, foundational costs would include land-use fees, farming costs (including spatial analyses and baseline years), and data collection (e.g., yield and biomass data, soil characterization). Create a detailed expense budget to help ensure that resources will be available to maintain the project infrastructure, including costs for travel, conference calls or video conferencing. If necessary, budget for administrative assistance to manage the project.
Specify foundational costs to help achieve a reasonable balance between resources used to maintain experimental plots and resources used for data collection. A project in which 80 percent of the resources go toward maintaining experimental plots is probably not viable unless there is a solid plan for obtaining other funds to perform the research. Likewise, if performing an on-farm study, budget for costs associated with characterizing the research sites through farmer interviews and preliminary sampling. In contrast to field station experiments, which have ongoing farming and plot maintenance costs, foundational costs for on-farm research decrease after the research sites are characterized. In both cases, consider generating supplemental funding by adding disciplinary research that capitalizes on the established infrastructure. Regardless of the long-term strategy, give careful thought to support for the project infrastructure in the planning stage to facilitate collaborative aspects of the project during the implementation phase.
Look for opportunities to reduce costs by sharing items such as research vehicles, basic soil characterization data and analytical services. For research in both simulated and existing agricultural systems, sharing information and collecting samples that can be used by multiple laboratories can also result in significant savings.
Above all, ensure that the budgeting process is fair and transparent. Give special consideration to untenured faculty to ensure they receive adequate funding to continue meeting their tenure goals. Since individuals from nonprofit organizations often lack permanent funding and are totally dependent on grants, they might need to receive compensation to participate in the project, as will farmers. Such compensation normally includes the costs of staff time needed for the project. Be sure everyone on the research team understands these considerations.