5 Costs PIs Most Loathe Putting in Their Budgets…and why they matter

Part of my job as a research administrator is to shine sunlight on the shadowy areas of budgeting that my PIs do not fully comprehend. June is always a fun month for this – my institution has just come out with their updated fringe benefit rates, which lead to a higher amount of costs being moved “away from research” to budget lines that don’t always seem connected to PI’s cutting-edge projects. Think about it this way – a piece of scientific equipment for a project is clearly going to contribute to a PI’s research. But “facilities” costs? What does that even mean? It’s enough to make most PIs terribly cranky. And I get that feeling, I really do! But oftentimes, when I explain the reasons behind these 5 costs PIs most loathe putting in their budgets, we can usually come to a mutual understanding that these costs are a necessary part of research.


  1. Indirect costs. F&A costs. Overhead. “Research Tax.” Dum dum dum…”Indirect Costs” have to be the two most hated words in the world of university research. The general consensus seems to be that greedy research goblins in the sponsored programs office concocted indirect costs to enrich themselves. That’s not the case – trust me on this one! (If it were, I would not be driving a ’97 Toyota!) F&A costs go toward the personnel that help you manage your
    What my PIs think I drive...
    What my PIs think I drive, based on current F&A rates…

    grant, and the clerical staff in your office. They pay for the lights to be on in your lab. Books in the library. Sometimes, F&A recovery pays for entire buildings, focused on research! And want to hear something incredible? At most institutions, F&A recovery goes right back to the dean’s office or the department – NOT the sponsored programs office! Whoa! 😀

  2. Fringe Benefits. If you have salary on your project, odds are, you will need to also request fringe benefits for your personnel. These costs can really add up – and at most institutions, the percentages climb higher every year! But before you get in high dudgeon over fringe benefits, ask yourself: Do you really want your lab assistants, post-docs, graduate students, and fellow faculty to be without health insurance?Retirement benefits? Disability coverage? Unfortunately, these costs go up every year, but they are very necessary!
  3. Overhead charged by your subawardees. I often hear this called the “double tax.” As one particularly annoyed PI once told me: “I think this is a devious collusion among universities.” Your institution takes a piece of F&A costs from 3887095398_aef8697ea0_zyour original grant, and then your subawardee turns around and takes a slice as well! Yikes! I understand the frustration, I really do. But if I convinced you with Point 1, consider that your subawardee’s institution also needs to keep the water running in their labs! And never, ever try and negotiate indirects out of your subawardee’s budget with your counterpart PI. If the sponsor allows them to collect indirects, they are within their rights to do so – even if you waive indirects on your own.
  4. Travel to Sponsor Meetings. When your budget is capped at a certain number, it can be frustrating to see in the RFP that the sponsor requires you to budget for travel to a national meeting every year. (NIFA does this the most frequently, but many federal and non-profit sponsors include such requirements) These meetings, however, are the sponsor’s way of seeing your work first-hand. The contacts you make at sponsor conferences can help guide you toward your next pot of funding, and getting to show your work to representatives from that agency can help you determine what other programs might be suitable for your work.
  5. Tuition. Oftentimes, if your department is not willing to pay the tuition costs for the graduate student working on your
    Tuition is a small price to pay for training up the next generation of scholars
    Tuition is a small price to pay for training up the next generation of scholars

    project, you will need to cover those costs. Sometimes, PIs feel this is an undue burden that keeps them from hiring as many graduate assistants as they would wish. But think about it this way – is not one of the key goals of research to train up the next generations of scholars? Tuition remission might be steep, but it’s a small price to pay for giving a graduate student real-world research experience!…And if that does not convince you, their fringe benefits rates are extremely low and no overhead is taken on tuition at most institutions. Hooray!

5 Myths About Voluntary Cost-Sharing

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So picture this: you’re reading through your “Request for Proposals” from a sponsor and you find this sentence:

“Cost sharing not required”

Sounds great, right? Cost sharing, or, matching a percentage of sponsor funds, can be incredibly difficult to come up with. Especially in this era of tight budgets! You breathe a sigh of relief and move on.

But then you start thinking: “But what does ‘not required’ really mean? Will cost sharing make my proposal more competitive? Will it make me look like I have departmental support?”

But not so fast! Before committing yourself, do yourself a favor and review these 5 myths about voluntary cost sharing that are becoming increasingly prevalent in university culture.

Have additions to this list? Questions or comments? Leave them below!

Myth #1: “Voluntary cost share will make my proposal stronger!”

For federal grants? Nope. Local and foundation grants? Not necessarily. Some agencies, like NSF, straight-up prohibit cost share (because of how burdensome it is to track). The moral of the story – if the sponsor says cost sharing is not part of the scored review, piling it on will not help. If anything, gathering the third party pledges and convincing your chair to commit a percentage of the department’s budget will distract you from the required parts of your proposal. When a sponsor – like the NEH – says cost share is “recommended” talk to your department’s research administrator or grants manager to see what that has really meant for past proposals.

Myth #2: “I can just use the project expenses that weren’t allowed in the budget as easy cost share.”

This is a great way to get your proposal rejected without even getting read. Unless the sponsor says differently, costs that are unallowable for the proposed budget are unallowable for formally proposed cost share – even if it’s voluntary. The biggest exception sponsors make are unrecovered Facilities and Administrative (indirect) costs. So if the sponsor is only allowing a small percentage of your institution’s rate to be charged, you might be able to use that as match. But be sure to get that from the sponsor in writing.

Myth #3: “If the cost share is voluntary, I won’t have to report it back to the sponsor.”

If cost sharing appears in the agreement’s approved budget, you have to track it, regardless of whether your match was required or not. That means you must report it on fiscal communications, post it to the project, and make sure you meet the match. If, at the end of your project, you still have cost share to report, you could endanger future funding for yourself and your university, just as you would with a required match.

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Myth #4: “Voluntary cost share is the best way for me to show that I have support for this project.”

Even if PIs don’t say this out loud, most of them believe it wholeheartedly. Thankfully, there are many effective ways to show that your proposed project enjoys widespread support. Most federal applications have sections in the narrative where you can list equipment, laboratories, community resources and departmental assets that will be available to you (for NIH, there are a few sections specifically designated for this information). Some smaller sponsors allow for letters of support to be attached, even if no cash amount is specified. But be sure not to include specific dollar amounts or effort percentages – these could appear in the agreement and you will then be required to track them. The NIH is particularly picky about this.

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Myth #5: “Voluntary cost share is not ‘real money’.”

If my points above have not convinced you, let me reiterate – There is a real, tangible administrative cost to voluntary matching. These funds must be tracked and reported. They also commit you to fulfilling requirements that could become onerous and distract you from your research – the reason you asked for funding in the first place! 🙂

Inaugural Post: 5 Reasons Your Proposal Won’t Even Get Read

Welcome to my blog! I am excited to share and discuss my grant writing/researching/administering experience with you. I hope this advice, which comes from years of wanderings, informs and encourages you.


For my inaugural post, I wanted to tackle some of the reasons why proposals aren’t even read. In this day and age, funding agencies are receiving more and more proposals, even as their funding shrinks. I have literally heard reviewers say that they look for any reason to weed out proposals without spending a lot of time on them. If a proposal is out of compliance – well, that makes it easy to “chuck” – after all, should a reviewer or program officer entrust funds to someone who can’t even follow basic directions?

Don’t let your worthy project go totally unread! Avoid these (non-comprehensive) reasons why your proposal may get thrown out without even being read, and then leave any questions or comments below!


 

  • Your proposal was late.

I know you meant well, when you were revising right up to the deadline. But often, this strategy can backfire, especially if your proposal has to go though a lengthy internal process to be submitted (for instance, if you are working at a university). Also, some agencies (such as the National Institutes of Health), will spit back your proposal if their system detects errors in compliance. By the time you push it back, it might be too late.

A tip from me to you – some agencies, such as the NIH, might still review your proposal, if it is a tad bit late. But they are within their rights to reject your application if it comes in even a minute after the deadline. NSF, NEH, and other agencies will not even consider your proposal if it is late.


 

  • Your proposal was too long.

I know it’s tempting to get every bit of your research on paper for reviewers to experience, but that will not be worth it if they decide to throw out your proposal because you exceeded the page/character limits. Some agencies also put a cap on how many of your publications you can include. Better that you skimp on some of the details than never have your proposal read.

digitando-texto


  • Your narrative did not meet the stated requirements.

Writing your narrative seems intuitive enough – you describe your project and what you want to accomplish. But read – re-read – and re-read again – the exact questions the application is asking. Unfortunately, I have seen many seasoned academics skim over the funding agency’s questions and write their agenda without consulting them ever again. Here’s a tip: Be explicit when you are answering the specific questions required by the funder. Put these sections in bold. Use the same language as the question. Use bullet points. If the reviewer cannot easily find the answers to the RFP’s first question, they will probably toss your proposal without a second glance.

The same goes for your budget narrative. I cannot over-emphasize this. Do not put something in your budget without connecting it to the overall proposal.


 

  • Your budget was off.

Your proposal might never see a reviewer if your budget does not add up, is on the wrong form, or has unallowable costs on it. The program officer might be kind enough to give you a call and ask for a revision. But they are under no obligation to do so. Check and double-check your numbers, and make sure someone else checks them for you.

If you are working at a university with an Office of Research or a Grants Manager, work with them on the budget beginning months before the due date. If you pass along the basic information on what you want to ask for, they can usually take it from there. Who has time to calculate fringes, indirect costs, and tuition increases when you have so much to write, anyway?

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  • Your proposal’s format was non-compliant.

The details matter here. Font type, font size, pagination, and margins can become your worst enemy. Before submitting, check to make sure you are meeting the agency’s formatting requirements. Keep in mind that these may be found in the agency’s broad guidelines, and not necessarily the RFP.