I’m applying to the CFI Innovation Fund this year, for some big changes to my lab. There’s a horror story in my department of someone who grossly underestimated the money they’d need, so everyone is telling me to get the budget right – but my understanding is that construction costs always go over budget. So how do I know how much money I ought to be asking for in this grant?
– Anonymous, Chemistry
Dr. Editor’s response:
A CFI Innovation Fund (IF) grant application will likely be quite different from the NSERC grants you’ll usually write during your academic career. If you win a Discovery grant, you have a certain degree of freedom to investigate unexpected results or pursue unanticipated paths. An IF, though, is much closer to a contract. You submit a budget, and it’s expected that you’ll keep to that budget.
After all, the IF isn’t funding research: it’s funding research infrastructure, whether that’s a new piece of equipment, a renovation, or a new construction. The expectation is that you won’t be coming up with unexpected results or finding unanticipated paths, because you’re not exploring new terrain at the cutting-edge of knowledge; instead, you’re retrofitting a space, or buying a tool. These are knowable processes that have been done before, not novel research. You’ll need to do everything you can to avoid discovering unanticipated paths. Get all the information you need before you compile the budget, so that you ask for every penny you need to get the work done.
For this first piece in a two-part series on best practices for the CFI-IF, I spoke with Anaëlle Perez, who is lead project planner for laboratory and research facilities, buildings and places, at AECOM, an international infrastructure consulting firm. Before joining AECOM, Ms. Perez was the senior project planner for laboratory and research facilities at McGill University. I shared your question with her, and here’s what she recommended:
Step 1: Perform your own visual inspection of the space
Visit the space with a notebook and pen, and make a detailed visual inspection of the space. What state are the countertops in? Are there any chips that suggest a need for repair or replacement? And, how is the furniture – is there any absorbent material there, which might be a problem for a wet lab? Check all equipment against a list, if you have one, or create a bird’s-eye map of the room showing where the equipment is and its condition.
What you’re doing here is documenting the current conditions from your perspective. You’ll gather a lot of other peoples’ perspectives later in the process, and you ought to go into those conversations knowing, as best as possible, what questions you want to ask. So get your own thoughts about the space onto paper in as much detail as possible.
Step 2: Make notes on how you’ll use the space
Alongside your notes on the space, draft a paragraph or two about the work that you will perform in your lab. In these notes, detail:
- What kinds of procedures will be followed on a typical day?
- How many people will use the space, and what kind of work will they be performing?
- What are the procedures they’ll follow, and how regularly will these processes be run?
- Are there any relationships or links between your work and any other labs or services?
These notes will be helpful later on in the process, when you’ll be speaking with a range of people with expertise in things like humidity and air quality. Your answers to these questions will help them to understand how you want the space to function. For example, you’ll want the facilities management team at your institution to know if you plan on bringing in more computers or servers than are currently in the space. Computers can create a lot of heat, and, in some parts of the country, having too much heat in a space can render a lab inoperable in the summer months.
Making these notes early in the process will help you to ensure that you communicate to the building experts what they need to know to help you with your budget estimate.
Step 3: Speak with your colleagues
Invite colleagues at your own institution to have a coffee with you, so they can share their experience applying for and then renovating with IF funds. What challenges did they encounter? Looking back on their experience, who do they wish they’d spoken with earlier in the process?
When I asked Ms. Perez if there would be value in speaking with colleagues in your discipline or subdiscipline at other institutions, she advised against it. “The process and the experience is really different across institutions,” advised Ms. Perez, “because much depends on the age of the buildings and the experience of the support team.” So while you may depend on your professional association and network for advice when writing a different kind of grant, don’t turn to these same folks for help with a CFI; instead, stick with those who have been through the process at your institution.
Step 4: Speak with your facilities management office
Finally, once you’ve gathered as much information as you can about the space, your needs, and others’ experience, get in touch with your institution’s CFI support team or facilities management office. In addition to speaking with a building manager or other facilities expert, Ms. Perez recommends getting the input of folks with expertise in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; environmental health and safety; and mechanical and electrical engineering.
The kinds of questions that she recommends asking include:
- What kinds of modifications have been made in this space over the years?
- What can you tell me about heat and humidity in this space throughout the year?
- What capacity is left in the electrical, cooling, and ventilation systems?
- Given the equipment I plan on using in this space, do you think I could be exacerbating any problems in this room or building?
- Will the renovation affect any other researchers’ labs – because, for example, of electrical shutdown or vibrations? What is the budget provision to cover those collateral downtime costs or recalibrations of equipment?
- Will the renovation require relocation of existing equipment in the room? If so, how much will it cost to disconnect the equipment, relocate it, and reconnect it after the renovation?
- If I had a substantial renovation budget, what could I improve in this space?
- If my renovation goes over budget, who is responsible for covering the excess costs?
A thorough space assessment – the kind you’ll need to prevent budget overruns – can take eight weeks or more, so give yourself a lot of time to perform your investigation and prepare your budget request. An incorrect initial assessment can lead to increases in renovation costs and bad surprises after your grant has been awarded, so it’s worth investing a bit of extra time beforehand to get the details right.
In next month’s Ask Dr. Editor, we’ll look at best practices for the non-budgetary components of your CFI-IF application.