Creating a Budget

All expenses required to achieve the project aims and objectives must be present and justified. Ensure that percent effort, duration, and project scope fit the budget. Reviewers will use the budget request to gauge understanding of how much the project will cost and what it takes to accomplish the proposed research. 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.

Budget Planning

All aspects of your experimental design revolve around the budget. Plan only those experiments can be afforded in the budget. In this era of scarce resources, the budget should be as lean as possible, unless there is 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.

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 Early-Stage Investigators used a modular budget. (Applications requesting $250,000 or less in annual direct costs use a modular budget.)
  • For non-Early-Stage Investigators, 44 percent went the modular route.

Modular Budgets

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 an Early-Stage Investigator. Most Early-Stage Investigators should utilize a lean modular budget of $250,000 (or less) in annual direct costs. Generally, 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. Modular budgets provide several advantages:

  • Large budgets are more likely to receive cuts during the review process
  • Reviewers have fewer critiques to consider when deciding whether to cut a modular budget.
  • Modular budgets usually require less time to compose than non-modular budgets

For additional information please see NIH Modular Research Grant Applications.

Budgets Exceeding $500,000 in annual direct costs

If you propose a large-scale project and request $500,000 or more in direct costs for any year, you must get NINDS agreement to accept assignment of your application at least six weeks before you submit it.  Learn more at Pre-Submission Approvals Required.

Personnel and Effort

Personnel are generally the largest expense, often representing 80% of the budget. Calculate the personnel cost using the institution’s salary levels and each person’s level of effort. In the application, 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. For more information, please see the Budget Justification section below. Note that postdocs, students, and technical staff are not generally considered senior/key personnel.

Approximate the cost of each experiment based on the personnel and resources needed to do the work. Be sure to include the correct fringe benefit rate based on your institution's policy. Keep in mind the legislatively mandated salary cap when calculating the personnel salaries. For more information, please see Salary Cap, Stipends, and Training Funds.

Effort should be appropriate to the work proposed work. 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.) It is not unusual for effort levels and staffing levels to fluctuate in the outyears. Be sure to justify year-to-year changes in effort and funding.

The NIH does not set a requirement for minimum effort, peer reviewers expect you enough time to effectively manage the project. However, if you are an Early-Stage 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.

Please see the NIH Usage of Person Months for more information

Scope and Feasibility

Plan your research design with the understanding that your research may take more time than you originally thought. 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. Don’t 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.

Budget Justification

Be sure to provide an adequate description of the expenses as well as the rationale 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 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. 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, reviewers could make assumptions about the work and recommend budget cuts.

Other Expenses

After determining your personnel costs, approximate consultant services, travel, materials and supplies, reagents, animal costs, consortium agreements, and any requested equipment. Equipment requests funds are generally a one-time request and do not recur in subsequent budget years. If the proposed work doesn’t fit within the constraints of your budget allocations, revisit and revise the Specific Aims.

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.  


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