Whether you are a seasoned researcher or new to the world of grants, the first thing to remember is you are not alone. The administrators in the Office of Sponsored Projects are part of your research team and we are here to help. You are encouraged to contact your OSP administrator early in the grant writing process so s/he can help you and your staff to navigate what can sometimes be a confusing nexus of sponsor, university, and federal requirements.
The Budget is a Plan
The budget is the financial reflection of your project. Regardless of format, it provides a roadmap for completing the scope of work. The budget should include all of the costs that will be incurred, which, in actuality, are commitments made on behalf of the institution. Forethought and accuracy are important because, once a sponsor approves your budget, we (you, your research team, and the institution) are obligated to spend the funds in a manner consistent with the proposal, as well as with applicable guidelines and regulations. Auditors from private, state, and federal agencies monitor our adherence to these guidelines and regulations so it is important to use “real” estimates (not general or “rough” estimates) and to ensure each cost is allocable to the project, allowable under the applicable rules for the project, and reasonable given the parameters set forth in the scope of work.
In addition, the budget is integral to the internal routing and approval process. A well developed and organized budget provides chairs, deans, directors, and others in your leadership chain a bird’s eye view of your project. It is one means to help them understand the level of support and the resources required, especially in instances where cost share/match or course releases may be needed, to complete the scope of work.
There is no wrong order for finding a funding opportunity. You can develop a scope of work and budget to fit a funding opportunity. Or, if you have already outlined the scope and cost of your project, you can “go shopping” for a funding opportunity that fits your project or you can nip and tuck your project to fit a funding opportunity. The university has subscriptions to searchable funding opportunity data bases such as Grants Resource Center (GRC) and Community of Science (COS) and all federal funding opportunities are available at Grants.gov. If you need help using these resources, please contact the OSP Information and Training Officer for assistance (775-784-4040).
Since the budget will mirror the scope of work, it will be helpful to note what resources will be needed as you develop the project narrative. Try not to think about costs at this point. Concentrate on how long tasks will take to complete; how many researchers, assistants, and support staff will be needed; what kind of equipment and supplies are required; how many trips and by what means will be needed, if any. Make a comprehensive list based on the scope of work then, once you feel the scope is pretty well set, start to fill in the numbers. Work with your research associates and departmental support staff to access the actual salaries of your research team. Know and understand their employment categories (twelve month faculty, nine month faculty, post doc, graduate assistant, classified staff, etc.) because these will influence fringe rates (that is, the rates associated with paying for health insurance and other benefits). Use the internet to research equipment and travel costs, including the approved per diem rates for the university. This will give you a general idea of what your project will cost.
It is important to be realistic with estimates. Shortfalls could jeopardize the completion of a project or force colleges and departments to absorb costs associated with sponsored projects. Inflated budgets are red flags for reviewers and auditors. However, budgets are estimates, especially for outlying years and researchers are usually given limited flexibility with an awarded budget as long as the appropriate approvals have been given.
Common Budget Items
Budgets generally consist of two components, a line item budget and a budget justification. A line item budget lists cost categories and the sums requested for each. A budget justification explains how the line item costs were derived and provides adequate detail for sponsors to determine if the funds requested are allocable, allowable, and reasonable. See samples here. Formats will vary from sponsor to sponsor but there are some items you are likely to see on any budget: Salary, Fringe, Travel, Equipment, Operating Costs (Materials and Supplies, consultants, sub-awards, etc.), Tuition, Participant Support, Facilities and Administrative Costs (aka “F&A”, “indirect costs”, “overhead”).