Writing a Winning Application—Nail Your Budget

Funding News Edition: December 02, 2020
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A purposefully “low” budget will not make the overall project more attractive to reviewers such that they give it a better score.

Credit: FDA

Our series continues with this seventh installment on developing a budget that’s in the Goldilocks zone: not too big and not too small, but just right.

On the Mark

Hitting that "just right" sweet spot is critical for multiple reasons.

Peer 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. While reviewers’ budget concerns are not directly reflected in your application’s overall impact score, those issues could undermine the feasibility of your proposed research and reviewers may adjust their overall impact scores accordingly.

The purpose of the budget and justification is to present and justify all expenses required to achieve project aims and objectives and complete the work described in the application. You'll want to be realistic, request only what is necessary and reasonable, and justify everything, especially the unusual and "big ticket" items. Know your limits! Carefully read your chosen funding opportunity announcement for important budget instructions.

Your budget request is reviewed for compliance with the governing federal cost principles and other requirements and policies applicable to the type of recipient and the type of award. The cost principles address four tests that NIH follows in determining the allowability of costs. Costs charged to awards must be allowable, allocable, reasonable, and necessary. They must also be consistently applied regardless of the source of funds. Requested costs may be disallowed if it is determined that the costs do not meet the four tests.

Significant under- or over-estimating may suggest that you do not understand the scope of the work. A budget request that misses its mark will undermine the reviewers’ confidence not only in your fiscal responsibility but also in your ability to ultimately manage the project. You can plan only those experiments you can afford, and you want your budget to be well-justified and appropriate for the work proposed. A purposefully “low” budget will not make the overall project more attractive to reviewers such that they give it a better score.

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.

Include your salary and that of other senior/key personnel as well as consultants you may need to hire. Keep in mind the legislatively mandated salary cap [see Salary Cap Summary (FY 1990-Present)] when calculating personnel salaries. Be sure to include the correct fringe benefit rate based on your institution's negotiated rate.

Reviewers will consider the person months you've listed for each of the senior/key personnel and will judge whether the numbers are in sync with their expectations, based on the research proposed. Carefully determine the number, qualifications, and amount of effort needed for the principal investigator(s) and all personnel. It is not unusual for effort levels and staffing levels to fluctuate in the outyears. 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.

For example, some reviewers might think that expenses should be lower in the last year of a clinical research project compared to the first since subject follow-up 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.

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 indirectly influence their overall impact score by reducing reviewer confidence in the feasibility of your work.

As you develop the budget for your research grant application, questions may arise. Your best resources for answering these questions are the grants or sponsored programs office within your own institution, your departmental administrative officials, and your peers who are established investigators.

Modular Versus Detailed Budgets

NIH uses two different formats (Modular vs. Detailed) for budget submission depending on the total direct costs requested and the activity code used.

The modular budget format is for requesting up to a total of $250,000 of direct costs per year (in modules of $25,000, excluding consortium facilities and administrative costs) for some applications, rather than requiring a full detailed budget. The modular research grant application format is designed to focus the attention of investigators, their institutions, peer reviewers, and NIH staff on science rather than budget details.

Modular budgets are applicable only to certain activity codes such as R01/U01, R03, R15, R21/UH2, and R34/U34 applications. The modular budget format is not accepted for​​ ​Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grant applications, nor for applications from foreign (non-U.S.) institutions (must use detailed budget even when modular option is available). Find additional information on modular budgets at NIH Modular Research Grant Applications.

If you propose a large-scale project and request $500,000 or more in direct costs for any year, you must get NIAID's prior approval to submit your application at least six weeks before you submit it. For more information, read our Big Grants SOP, linked below.

To get an idea of average R01 grant costs, see Plan Your Budget & Personnel.

You can find more information about application budgets and get more advice in the links below. Also, see examples of budgets from successful investigators at Sample Applications & More.

Related Links

Contact Us

Email us at deaweb@niaid.nih.gov for help navigating NIAID’s grant and contract policies and procedures.

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