Institutional Review Board
Budgeting for Your Consulting Project
Most institutions of higher education have Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). Postsecondary institutions' IRBs are often run by faculty members with full teaching and research agendas, so they tend to move slowly compared to the alternative. Their purpose is extremely important: to protect human (and animal) subjects participating in research and evaluation projects. They are governed by rules set forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Human Research Protections. The rules are complex and may seem labyrinthine to new researchers. If you successfully fill out the required paperwork and detail every element of your protocols, you may still be asked clarifying questions that may slow you down unexpectedly. For many postsecondary-based IRBs, a 2-4 month turnaround from submission to approval for a "greater than minimal risk" study is not uncommon.
There is another option: external IRB companies. These companies follow the same rules as all other IRBs, but they don't have teaching schedules or research agendas to work around. They may be able to do more scaffolding--helping you understand and complete the paperwork--before they review your proposal. Their turn-around time can save your project: imagine getting approval within 3-7 days of submission! They are also not free. The cost for using one of these is its own budget line.
Most external evaluation (and education) consultants charge anywhere from $100 to $250 per hour, and that may not include overhead. Hourly rates depend on level of education, experience, and location, and this is only the cost of the consultant's time. Oddly, most small consulting firms do not get rich at this rate because so much of our intake work with you, the client, is unbilled. And most projects do not allow us to charge overhead on the many, many fees that we accrue securely archiving data and supporting your project years after it is complete.
So, what should you expect to pay for in addition to your evaluator's time? That depends on the complexity and duration of your project. The following are expenses that may not be considered part of the consultant's fee unless specifically stated at the outset...and why. And here are a few really good resources so that you don't have to take our word for it:
Does your project include collecting audio or video data? Expect your consultant to have to outsource transription services. Transcriptions cost between $1.00 and $2.50 per minute of video/audio depending on a number of factors. Heavy accents, poor recording quality, number of speakers/participants, and excess background noise all increase the cost (and reliability) of transcriptions. If you start by assuming $1.50 per minute of audio for transcription, and you have 20 hours of audio to be be processed, the transription bill will come to $1,800. Yes, that is substantial. Your evaluator might handle this one of two ways:
- Include an upper cap of amount of audio/video data in the estimate.
- Separate it out as a reimbursable expense with its own budget line.
If you are writing a grant proposal and intend to travel to a conference to present or go off-site for meetings or data collection, you would not expect those travel costs to come out of your salary budget line item. Nor will a Provost welcome taking those costs out of your institution's negotiated Indirect Costs. Similarly, travel should not come out of your consultant's hourly fees unless explicitly outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding or formal estimate. Reviewers expect to see travel and per diem expenses separated from other costs and justified with government sanctioned mileage and per diem rates, especially for federally funded projects.
Also, if your consultant is doing a significant amount of the intellectual work of setting up your research/evaluation framework/plan and you intend to disseminate findings, it is your ethical duty to include that consultant as a co-author (order determined by standard academic practices) and include his/her conference registration and travel in your overall travel budget.
Helpful hint: Some evaluators will donate the time spent preparing papers for publication or conference presentation. We consider it our ethical duty to contribute to the fields in which you and we work. So remember that tidbit if you're having trouble identifying enough matching funds--see if you can count your consultant's conference or publication preparation and presentation time as cost sharing.
Specialized software or hardware, intellectual property fees, and other items
Depending on the requirements of your project, your consultant may need to secure specialized data analysis software, hardware for data collection, or proprietary instruments to measure specific attitudes, aptitudes, beliefs, or whatever else needs to be collected. For example, protection of human subjects (see IRB above) may compel consultants to purchase hardware with cellular upload capacity to avoid the possibility of WiFi data interception. Your consultant should also have a plan in place to pay for 5-7 years of encrypted HIPAA-compliant data storage after the project is finished. Specialized data analysis packages can easily cost $1000-$4000 per user for a license. Often, a firm can roll all of this into "overhead," but it's best to stay in contact with your consultant as plans progress to make sure.
Survey nonresponse bias: what is it? It is a threat to the validity of research and evaluation that happens when a large percentage of your sample chooses not to participate. That's a problem. In order to raise partipation rates, researchers and evaluators often use some sort of incentive to thank the respondent for his/her/their time. Depending on the task, the incentive may be small or large. It may be a choice of refrigerator magnets from your gift shop. It may be a $25 gift certificate.
Again, it can be included in the initial estimate with an upper cap on the number of participants, or it can be separated out into its own line item. As with transcription fees above, if the incentives are expected to be a substantial portion of the budget, it may be advantageous to separate it out into its own line item for transparency.
So...how much will my project cost?
One of the most difficult things to do is tell you how much your project "should" cost without enough contextual information to support our estimate. We use zero-based budgeting to make sure we cover known costs--protocol and instrument development time, IRB submission, transcription, participant incentives, et cetera (see below). Once we have subtracted out the known costs, we can collaborate with you about the best way to spend your evaluation dollars to determine the best way to spend your evaluation dollars. We help you consider:
- Quantitative, qualitative, or both types of data collection?
- How large should your sample of project participants be?
- How rigorous and in-depth do the analyses need to be for your project?
- Should you be using a logic model and looking at causation?
- Do you have the time and funding for front-end evaluation, and how transformative could that information be for your work?
Projects can cost anywhere from $3000 to $200,000/year, so "How much should this cost" is a tough question without sufficient background information!