Create a Budget

Create a Budget

You must present and justify all the expenses required to achieve your project aims and objectives. Ensure that your percent effort, duration, and project scope fit your budget.

On the Mark

Hitting the right budget sweet spot is critical for multiple reasons.

Let's start with the least obvious: your reviewers will use your budget request to gauge your understanding of how much your project will cost and what it takes to accomplish the proposed research.

Significant over- or under-estimating shows you don't understand the scope of the work, which will count against you in peer review.

The purpose of the budget and justification is to present and justify all expenses required to achieve project aims and objectives. You'll want to be realistic, request only what is necessary and reasonable, and justify everything, especially the unusual and "big ticket" items.

Reviewers don't use the budget to assess scientific merit. They discuss the budget after the application is scored. However, a poorly prepared budget request can influence their score.

If you deliberately under- or overbudget, reviewers will recognize this as naiveté. A request that misses its mark will undermine their confidence not only in your money smarts but also in your ability to manage a major independent project.

Make sure to provide an adequate description of the expenses as well as the justification for why those expenses are needed in each project period of the grant. For example, the number of personnel could vary over the course of a five-year clinical research project as well as the level of effort for individual personnel.

Some reviewers might think that expenses should be lower in the last year of a clinical research project compared to the first since subject followup should be ending. However, if many of the samples are stored and tested in batch at the end of the study, there might be a high level of effort and expenses required in the last year.

Be sure to not only describe the level of effort for a person for each year, but also explain the role(s) that person will be playing and the reason why that level of effort is required for a particular year. Otherwise, you risk reviewers making assumptions about your work and recommending budget cuts.

As for the best reason to create an appropriate budget: the success of your project depends on it.

The Iterative Approach to Application Planning Checklist on Draft Specific Aims can help you stay on track.

Plan What You Can Afford

The best things in life may be free, but research isn't one of them.

All aspects of your experimental design revolve around your budget. You can plan only those experiments you can afford, and in this era of scarce resources, you want your budget to be as lean as possible, unless you have strong justification for why it needs to be larger.

For example, animal-intensive studies and studies involving human subjects tend to be more costly and require a full, detailed (itemized) budget.

For most people, lean means a modular budget of up to $250,000 in annual direct costs (excluding consortium facilities and administrative (F&A) costs). Modular budgets are applicable only to R01, R03, R15, R21, and R34 applications, except applications from foreign (non-U.S.) institutions.

For additional information on modular budgets, see NIH Modular Research Grant Applications.

Why go the modular route? You will have an easier time on several fronts.

  • Reviewers tend to recommend more budget cuts to larger projects, especially in a time of fiscal constraints when everyone is hurting.
  • Unlike with a detailed budget, reviewers have few details to consider when deciding whether to cut a modular budget.
  • This lack of detail means you have less to prepare for your application.

Consider Personnel Costs

Personnel are likely going to be your biggest expense. In a typical scenario, you can figure personnel will come in at about 80 percent of your budget, and equipment and supplies at around 20 percent.

Calculate that personnel cost using your institution’s salary levels and each person’s level of effort. Read more on level of effort below.

In the application, you will specify all key personnel (including collaborators and consultants) by name (or "to be determined") and justify their roles and effort to be contributed to the project. Note that postdocs, students, and technical staff are not generally considered senior/key personnel.

Though you will stay within the limits of a modular budget, your expenses may vary over time. For example, your personnel costs may be lower in the first year since you may be able to hold off recruiting some of your people until later, but you may need to spend more on equipment up front.

Start by calculating how much money each experiment will cost based on the personnel and resources needed to do the work.

If the numbers don't line up with your (no-flab) dollar target, go back and revise, always making sure that any new plans you make fit your Specific Aims.

And should those objectives change, be sure that your new aims are still significant to your field.

As you develop your plans, stay in this feedback loop, rechecking that everything remains in sync.

How Much Is Enough?

To gauge expenses, add up costs for personnel (the largest expense category), consultant services, travel, materials and supplies, reagents, animal costs, consortium agreements, and any requested equipment. Speaking of equipment, requesting funds for a big purchase is likely a one-time request and will not recur in subsequent budget years.

Coming up short will not further your cause—ask for enough money to perform your research and no more. Also, don't propose more work than can be reasonably done during the proposed project period.

Start by calculating how much money each experiment will cost based on the personnel and resources needed to do the work.

Include your salary and that of other key personnel as well as consultants you need to hire. Keep in mind the legislatively mandated salary cap when calculating the personnel salaries, as seen at NIH’s Salary Cap Summary (FY 1990-Present). Be sure to include the correct fringe benefit rate based on your institution's policy.

Carefully determine the number, qualifications, and amount of effort needed for the PI(s) and all personnel. It is not unusual for effort levels and staffing levels to fluctuate in the outyears.

If you propose a large-scale project and request $500,000 or more in direct costs for any year, you must get NIAID agreement to accept assignment of your application at least six weeks before you submit it.  Learn more by reading our Big Grants SOP.

Keep in mind that while your budget must suit the research, it must also be appropriate to your career level. Reviewers may be skeptical if you ask for a lot of money, especially if you are a new investigator. Most new investigators should stick to a modular budget of $250,000 (or less) in annual direct costs.

Average Grant Costs

Your budget must be appropriate to the work you propose. To get an idea of average grant costs, see these FY 2014 data for competing R01 awards:

  • Average application received roughly $330,000 in first year direct costs (does not include your institution's overhead, called facilities and administrative costs).
  • About 71 percent of new investigators used a modular budget. (Applications requesting $250,000 or less in annual direct costs use a modular budget.)
  • For non-new investigators, 44 percent went the modular route.

Put Forth Your Best "Level of Effort"

Your budget includes the amount of salary you request, which in turn depends on how much time you and your personnel devote to your project. Percent effort should be appropriate to the work you propose.

Measurable Effort:  

The effort of PD/PI(s), faculty and other senior/key personnel devoted to a project expressed in terms of “person months” greater than zero. If consultants are considered senior/key personnel, they must have measurable effort expressed in person months.))

Though NIH does not set a requirement for minimum effort, peer reviewers expect you to devote enough time to your project so you can effectively manage it. Go to NIH Usage of Person Months questions and answers.

Just as your budget should be appropriate to the work you propose, so should the percentage of your time you devote to your project.

If you are a new investigator, put at least a 25 percent level of effort on each application you submit. Reviewers will likely raise concerns over a lower level of effort from somebody who does not already have a history of independent research on an NIH grant.

Also check with your business office about any institutional rules or guidelines related to calculating effort or balancing grant effort with other institutional responsibilities.

How Many Years to Request

It's best to not only contain your ambitions about the scope of your research, but also to be realistic—even a bit pessimistic—about how much you can accomplish each year of the grant. If you've never estimated how long research should take, get help.

Plan your research design with the understanding that your research may take more time than you originally thought.

Even if you are a new investigator, it's okay to ask for the maximum number of years (five for an R01) as long as you can fill the time productively.

Focus Your Scope, Make It Doable

To sidestep the common trap of proposing too much to do, you don't want to propose too many Specific Aims or undertake complex work that's beyond your skill level or requested budget.

You're better off playing it safe by having a Research Plan with two or three highly focused aims that are doable with the resources and time you ask for.

Ensuring that each application has a modest scope helps reviewers feel confident that you understand what the work involves, and your goals are achievable.

Scope Too Broad? Spread Out Your Ideas

Propose only what you are absolutely sure you can accomplish with the time and budget you request.

If you find yourself trying to squeeze too much into your Research Plan, i.e., overloading on Specific Aims, step back and reassess.

  • Rather than write a single overreaching application whose aims you are unlikely to achieve, propose only what you are absolutely sure you can accomplish in the time you request.
  • Take into account that research usually takes longer than people plan for, so build in extra time by proposing less work.
  • Then, submit additional applications in your second and third years, tying that research to your long-term plans.

One more issue that can affect the scope of your research is whether it will include any policy areas that have special requirements.

Ultimately, your goal is to be funded with multiple grants that overlap in time with significantly different renewal dates but are distinct projects that do not overlap scientifically. Learn more about this long-term plan at Approaches to Staying Funded.

Checklist: 

  • I'm not being overly ambitious in what I propose to do with my project.
  • I limit myself to two or three Specific Aims so I can accomplish them with the resources and time I have.
  • I think carefully about how much money to request since going way over or under can be a strike against me in peer review.
  • My budget is appropriate not only to my research but also to my career level.
  • My budget is sufficient to conduct my research and not more.
  • I allot time that's sufficient and appropriate for my project.

Have Questions?

A program officer in your area of science can give you application advice, NIAID's perspective on your research, and confirmation that NIAID will accept your application.

Find contacts and instructions at When to Contact a NIAID Program Officer.

Content last reviewed on August 11, 2016