Photo by StellrWeb on Unsplash

Photo by StellrWeb on Unsplash

If you’re a researcher interested in getting involved in science communication and you’re considering hiring an expert to help, I think one of my overall top tips would be: plan for the costs!

While working at a science communication consulting firm, I noticed time and time again that researchers were often surprised at (or unprepared for) the costs of communications work. Now, that’s not to say that I blame the researchers at all for their reaction! As communications professionals, we should be doing a better job of reaching out to scientists, explaining our budgets, and bridging the gap between our two disciplines.

And this blog is a first step towards doing just that! In this post I hope to provide a few tips and tricks to help you plan communications into your next scientific grant. Equipped with some tools to realistically estimate the cost of communications work, hopefully you will not feel creatively limited later when it comes time to have some communications materials developed.

Wait… what about doing scicomm internally?

You may be thinking, “well, why not just do this internally and save the costs?” I think it’s a great idea to foster science communication expertise within your research group, and this can be a great route to go if your team has the interest and time! There are lots of ways to engage in science communication without having to go external (e.g., media interviews, blogging on your lab website).

I would just say one word of caution, however: everything takes time. By doing things in-house there is an inevitable trade-off, as your team will have less time for their other obligations as researchers. One of the most effective strategies can be to do a blend of internal and external work – your team might have time to do a blog post and tweet here and there, but if the mission is to create a field guide that translates your results into practice? It may be a project that is a bit too hefty for a PhD student to fit in their workload!

Tip #1: Evaluate the communications needs for your project.

First of all, it’s worth asking: what scale of investment do you think is needed for this particular project? As a science communicator I will be the first to say that I think all research should be communicated at some level, but the magnitude of that effort (and therefore budget) can and should vary among projects! For example, the amount of investment needed to disseminate information (make the knowledge available in an accessible way) is markedly less than the amount of investment needed to help people implement information (create a change in behaviour or practices as a result of the new knowledge).

Speaking to an expert science communicator during the planning stages can help you to track down some answers to these questions and sketch out a plan for your project. In general, many of the questions you may have about scaling your investment can be answered by thinking about your target audience.

Is your audience online and do they have an internet connection? How much prior knowledge do they have about the topic? Can they interpret graphs and charts? How much time do they have? Do they tend to read long-form content, or do they prefer bite-sized info? When you know your target audience’s needs, you can more easily determine what kind of communications product you need. In turn, knowing the product you’re looking for will help you budget for the costs!

Here are a few additional questions to ask yourself when figuring out the scale of investment you want to make:

  • Is your goal to disseminate information (make knowledge available) or to help others implement information (translate knowledge into practice)? For example, if the findings of your research have implications for changes in field practices, then your audience likely needs to both understand the new knowledge and implement it in their work (e.g., change the way that they perform a method or technique). Implementation strategies can include things like training sessions and workshops, systems to remind practitioners of the new information, and audits/feedback systems to evaluate uptake. Implementation is generally longer-term and more multifaceted than dissemination, so it tends to cost more.
  • What format (e.g., video, report, infographic) would have the best chance of uptake with your target audience? What tools/formats do your target audience usually use? Addition of videos and visual media will increase the budget.
  • How many target audiences do you need to reach? How different are their needs and interests? Inclusion of multiple target audiences may increase the budget if a different communications product is needed for each one.
  • How will you measure the results of your science communication effort? Is there a need for accompanying online systems (e.g., surveys, feedback forms, polls), or would it be beneficial to have a website where analytics can be tracked (e.g., number of users, number of document downloads)?

Tip #2: Evaluate the service providers you could use.

Doing a quick Google search for possible service providers is a great step to take if you have the time. It’s possible they might even have rates posted on their website that you could use to help you budget! Unfortunately, “science communicator” is a bit harder to Google than “lawyer” or even “graphic designer.” Since this occupation isn’t yet a common term, if you’re coming up empty on your searches you might also want to try searching the product you are aiming for (e.g., infographic, public report) with other professional terms (e.g., freelancer, contractor, consultant).

There are a few other handy online resources you also have at your disposal:

  • Lifeology! This website is designed to help sidestep the very problem of finding someone to hire or collaborate with. Check out the Member Directory to start browsing possible connections. Lifeology can also act as a service provider, as we work with scientists to produce Lifeology courses, which can help with uptake/implementation of new knowledge!
  • UpWork: This website hosts a database of freelancers that you can search for the skills you need. What’s great is that everyone’s hourly rates are publicly posted, so you can also get a quick snapshot of what things might cost.
  • Map of Science Communicators (Canada): This database maps and lists science communicators across Canada. By clicking on your province and perusing the list, you might be able to find a great local professional connection!

Some examples of popular science communication service providers that our team is aware of are listed below. Please note this is not an exhaustive list, and it is always a great idea to search around for service providers that are local to your area! Using local service providers can improve your reach and impact, as local businesses will likely already be familiar with your target audience(s) and ways to reach them.

  • Animate Your Science: animations, scientific posters, and graphical abstracts
  • Creative Research Communications (Echo Rivera): services and/or training for presentation design, report design, science communication, and digital illustration
  • Impact Media Lab: design services, filmmaking, and brand strategies
  • Spacetime Labs: design services, 360 degree photography/virtual reality, filmmaking, and app development
  • Fuse Consulting: design services, knowledge synthesis/reports, 360 degree photography/virtual reality, interpretive signage, and workshop facilitation

By this point, you may have some ideas about who you could hire and even potentially how much they cost on an hourly basis. The next step is to try to scale that hourly rate up to cover the entire costs of your communications project!

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Tip #3: Know what kind of product you’re looking for? Get a budget estimate from a service provider.

Most companies and freelancers set an hourly rate for their services and provide an estimate of the number of hours it will take to do the proposed project upfront, before any costs have been billed.

If you have time and a rough idea of what communications product you are looking for (e.g., field guide, infographic) consider reaching out to a service provider before you submit your grant application. The service provider will likely complete a budget estimate for you for free, and you can use this number in your grant application.

The advantage of this method is that someone else thinks out all the tasks and costs for you, and you just plug and play the numbers into your grant application! It’s also an advantage to have already done the work to identify who you’d like to hire, so you won’t need to do this research later. Finally, you’ve also got a number you can “shop around with” now if you’d like to continue exploring your options – a bit of a savvy business-y move, I know, but this is a common approach to engaging any kind of service. As long as you haven’t signed a contract, it’s totally your prerogative to see what other budget estimates might be out there!

Tip #4: Not sure what kind of product you will want? Ask for rates and examples of approximate previous budgets.

In many cases, you might not be sure exactly what kind of communications product will be needed at the end of your project. In this situation, my advice would be to try reaching out to a service provider and asking for some information on their rates. It’s also worth requesting some examples of approximate costs for previous projects they’ve completed. Is there a type of project in their portfolio you think might suit your needs? They might be able to give you a ballpark of what that cost the last time they did it. Businesses might vary on how much of this information they are willing to give out, but there is no harm in asking. Most businesses can probably give you a sense of the range of possible costs if nothing else – what does a big project budget look like for them versus a small one? Using the range of possible costs, you can likely set an approximate number for the proposed budget that will suit your needs.

To give a brief idea of what sorts of rates you might encounter (in Canadian dollars!), I have seen freelancer and company rates for science communicators vary from $50/hour to $120/hour, depending on the individual’s level of experience. Graphic designers and science writers often set their rates in the range of $65 to $90/hour, and based on my experience, this is the rate you can expect for most of the “meat” of the work (e.g., writing, shooting video, illustrating). Higher rates come into play for senior responsibilities like project management, so you can likely expect some higher rates for this work, but these tasks will also comprise a smaller fraction of the whole budget.

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

Tip #5: Streamline your budget (if you need to).

After all of that, you might have come out with a number that you know you won’t get away with asking for. It depends on the granting agency – some are very supportive of communications and even require them as part of your budget, whereas others might not even have a space on their form for communications costs! If your number seems too high, here are some ideas for how you might be able to save a few dollars:

  • If you’ve budgeted for printing costs: is there a way to go digital that would be just as effective?
  • If you’ve budgeted for writing/knowledge synthesis costs: you might be able to decrease this number if you can spend some time on the writing internally. In particular, if someone on your team is willing to come up with a bullet list of “key takeaways” from the research, that will put you ahead of the game!
  • If you’ve budgeted for multiple audiences: is one audience more important than the other(s)? It’s never fun to detract from your grand vision, but it might be advisable to scale back the number of communication products (at least for now!).
  • If you’ve set your budget based on one service provider’s estimate: now might be the time to “shop around” that number – can someone else provide the same services for less? Or, you can always consider having a candid conversation with your original service provider – they will likely have some ideas for how you could scale things back without losing the big picture!
  • Can you collaborate with others to bring the costs down, or can you ask your institution to match grant funds for scicomm? Institutional support and collaborations can go a long way to alleviating the overall costs of a scicomm project.

Hopefully, these tips can help you in your current or next grant application. By having the communications money built in from the start, a weight will be off your mind and you shouldn’t have any surprises when the bill comes in at the end! Another big benefit of doing the budgeting work in advance is that you also won’t have to feel creatively constrained when it comes time to put together the final communications product.

If you have any other questions about budgeting for arts and communications in your scientific grants, please join the Lifeology Slack! There is a channel to discuss budgeting for science communication (#scicomm-budgeting), and our community will be happy to help you figure out your next steps. 

Not a member or don’t feel like joining slack? Drop a question in this budgeting forum topic and I’ll answer it for you!

Good luck and good grant writing!