Whether one is a seasoned project investigator or new to the world of grants, the first thing to remember is that there are resources available. The administrators in Sponsored Projects are part of the research team, and they are here to help. Investigators are encouraged to contact their Sponsored Projects pre-award administrator early in the grant writing process for assistance with navigating what can sometimes be a confusing nexus of sponsor, institution and federal requirements.
The budget is a plan
The proposal budget is the financial reflection of a project. Regardless of format, it provides a roadmap for completing the scope of work. The budget should include all costs that will be incurred. In actuality, the budget is a commitment made on behalf of the University of Nevada, Reno (University or UNR). Forethought and accuracy are important when developing the budget because once a sponsor approves the budget, the principal investigator, their research team and the University 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 the University's adherence to these guidelines and regulations; therefore, when developing a proposal budget, it is important to use “real” cost estimates (not general or “rough” estimates) and to ensure each budgeted 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 University internal routing and approval process. A well developed and organized budget provides chairs/directors, deans/VPs and others in the leadership chain a bird’s-eye view of the 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. One can develop a scope of work and budget to fit a funding opportunity. Alternatively, if one has already outlined the scope and cost of a project, one can “go shopping” for a funding opportunity that fits the project or simply nip and tuck the project to fit a funding opportunity. To assist investigators in locating funding opportunities, UNR provides access to the searchable funding opportunity database, InfoEd SPIN. SPIN allows users to configure and set their search criteria for funding opportunities, and the search results can be delivered right to a user's email box on a weekly or even daily basis. Additionally, a listing of all federal funding opportunities is available at Grants.gov. For assistance with these resources, please contact the Sponsored Projects Information & Training Specialist for assistance or visit the Funding Resources page.
Since the budget will mirror the scope of work, it will be helpful to note what resources will be needed while one develops 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 if any will be needed and by what means? Make a comprehensive list based on the scope of work. Then, once the scope of work is set, start to fill in the budget numbers. Work with research associates and departmental support staff to access the actual salaries of the project personnel. Know and understand their employment categories (twelve-month faculty, eight-month faculty, post doc, graduate assistant, classified staff, etc.) because this will influence fringe rates (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 UNR. This will provide a general idea of what the 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 the project. Inflated budgets are red flags for proposal reviewers and auditors. However, budgets are estimates especially for outlying project 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. Budget formats will vary from sponsor to sponsor, but there are some items likely to be included in any budget: salary and fringe of participating project personnel, travel, equipment, operating costs (materials and supplies, consultant fees, sub-awards, etc.), graduate assistant tuition, participant support, and facilities and administrative costs (commonly referred to as F&A, indirect costs or overhead).
Note: If use of lab animals is anticipated, project investigators are strongly urged to contact the University's Animal Resources to discuss expenses associated with animal use so that these expenses can be properly accounted for in the proposal budget.