5 Sections You Should Highlight When Reading Your Grant Agreement

For the new PI, award agreements can be daunting. They come in all sizes and formats – I have read through award agreements as short as a paragraph and as long as thirty pages. They come as forms, letters, and even emails with attachments such as “Standard Terms and Conditions,” Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), and applicable pieces of federal legislation. Some are written in jargon and legalese, while others use informal language. Yikes!

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In essence, an award agreement should stipulate what the PI is responsible for and what the funding agency is responsible for. It is meant to specify what terms and conditions the PI will be operating under, what you owe to the sponsor in terms of deliverables, reports, etc., and how the financial side of things will work.

If your university has a research administration apparatus, they will most likely deal with scary things such as indemnification, confidentiality, governing law, etc. (although it’s never bad to read over these terms!). It is important that you allow your research administration office to sign the agreement (NEVER sign an agreement with a sponsor on behalf of the university!) but this important document should be passed along to you at some point for your review and approval. What are the most important things for you, the PI, to highlight and consider?

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  • Reporting requirements. I will probably dedicate an entire blog post to reporting requirements in the future. In essence, this is where the sponsor identifies when they want technical/progress reports from you. Some will be very specific about what forms you should use, or what information to include. Other sponsors will be more general and leave things up to you. After reviewing these terms, ask yourself these questions: Is the amount of reports unduly burdensome? Usually, sponsors want quarterly, biannual, or annual reports. If the sponsor is asking for a weekly 10-page report, that may be too much for you to accomplish, given the amount of effort you are planning to put on the project. Is the final report due long enough after the project end for me to prepare a report? 90 days is typical, but I have seen sponsors ask for the final report on the day of the project end. Make sure that is feasible for you! Do I understand how to submit the report? If not, talk to your friendly sponsored research administrator! Some sponsors have a website you submit through – others want reports to be mailed or emailed.
  • Intellectual property. Typically, your research administrator will negotiate intellectual property and copyright issues with the sponsor. Do make sure, however, that you read and understand these terms. In particular, ask yourself: At the end of the project, who owns any inventions or discoveries? Usually, these will be owned by the PI, or be owned jointly – but not always, especially if you are working with a for-profit business. At the end of the project, what are the publication restrictions?  Some agencies want you to send all publications to them 30-90 in advance of them becoming published. At end end of the project, how can the sponsor use my work? Usually, federal and other major sponsors will want to use your work for internal reporting and informational purposes.
  • The budget and scope of work. After that headache of a proposal, you might think you know your budget and SOW backwards and forwards. But in these days of slashed budgets, your funding amount may have been truncated significantly. Regardless of not the sponsor wants you to submit a new budget, you should re-budget for your own purposes if your funding has been cut. If your funding has been reduced, make sure you can still complete your scope of work! If not, let the sponsor know immediately so you can submit a revised scope of work. Even if your numbers have remained intact, double-check the award budget and SOW and make sure you still want to keep everything the way it is. Circumstances may have changed since you submitted your proposal, and now is a better time to revise than later.

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  • Budget restrictions. Yes, the sponsor approved your budget, but prepare for the fact that you need to make purchases that were not in your original budget. Make sure you know up front about unallowable purchases, re-budgeting authority, and written permissions. For example, some federal agencies require you to ask them before adding equipment to your budget. Others want you to change no more than 10% of one of your budget lines without written approval. Agencies such as the NIH want you to report the effort of personnel working on the project. If you promised cost share, double-check that you can still do what you put down in the proposal.
  • Provisions for no-cost extensions. Even with the best of intentions, projects often get delayed. You may find yourself three months away from the project end with a chunk of your budget – and work – still left to go. It’s great to know up front what your options will be. Federal agencies such as the NIH and NSF often allow one no-cost extension without written approval, but other agencies are not so lenient. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst by knowing what your options will be.

Of course, you will want to read through the award agreement in its entirety, and ask whenever you have questions. But these are five areas that I would read with my green highlighter pen ready! If you are concerned about any of the terms, let your research administrator know right away. By reading and understanding these terms, you will be prepared for success during the life of your project!

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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.

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  • 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.