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Home Back Issues No. 8: Grant Clinic: Grant Application Budget

Dec 21
2009

No. 8: Grant Clinic: Grant Application Budget

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Grant Clinic:

Grant Application Budget

Reader Question: Do the reviewers look at the grant application budget, and is it taken into account as a review criterion? How does one ensure that a budget will be viewed as realistic?

Expert Comments:

In theory, the reviewers are not supposed to take the budget into consideration – that is for the council, which meets several months after the study section. The study section reviewers’ job is to evaluate, and assign, a priority score, to the science and feasibility (at the broadest level).

However, the budget is there if the reviewers want to take a look at it – I do – and may be factored into their scores, albeit unnamed as such. After all, it is one measure of the PI’s experience and judgment.

If the budget is deemed inadequate, you may be told that your proposal is an “ambitious” one. Although excellent science is necessary to receive a good score, it is not sufficient: The reviewers are equally concerned with the question of whether you are likely to accomplish the goals and milestones you have laid out. Less experienced investigators often will try to show that they are a “bargain”, thinking that the more “bang for its buck” NIH is receiving, the more impressed will be the reviewers. Not a good calculation. Reviewers don’t care about a bargain; they care about you successfully completing the proposed study.

Moreover, less experienced investigators often hold the attitude “I’ll say what I have to in the application to get the funding; I’ll worry about actually carrying out the work after I have the money”. I offer a bit of advice: Be careful what you wish for.

Years ago I held this attitude myself, and then, blessedly (so I thought!) I did get funded. Then I spent a miserable five years trying to fulfill my commitments with inadequate resources. One place that is easy to cut in the budget is the amount of effort you, and/or co-investigators, and/or staff is allocated; you then will be overwhelmed, because no matter what your percent effort is listed as, you still have to do all the work, or end with a poorly run grant.

You may not regard the above comments as very useful if you are in the position where your contract will not be renewed if you do not get funded for your K (career) or R (research grant) award. You may even be booted out of the tenure track. So getting the grant is all you care about, consequences be damned. There is no good response to this: You are correct, no funding, no job. Many are very ego-invested in getting NIH awards – let’s face it, this is a pretty exclusive club, and having such awards marks one as a player. Maintaining that self-image may be more important to those individuals than worrying about the management of the grant. Just remember by “low-balling”, you make it difficult for yourself once funded, and you run the risk of failing to honor your commitments to NIH, which may cost you in the long run.

On the other hand, be careful about padding your budget to gain extra funds. Do it where it is unnoticeable. But experienced investigators/reviewers can look at a project and get a pretty good notion of what the direct costs should be.

Comments by William Gerin, Ph.D., Professor of Biobehavioral Health, Pennsylvania State University. Author, Writing the NIH Grant Proposal: A Step-by-Step Guide SAGE Books (2006)

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This eAlert is brought to you as an informational training tool by the Principal Investigators Association, which is an independent organization. Neither the eAlert nor its contents have any connection with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF), nor are they endorsed by these agencies. All views expressed are those personally held by the author and are not official government policies or opinions.

Comments (12)
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written by duffy, December 15, 2009
Budget is listed under "Additional Review Considerations" and is not scored individually and is not considered in the overall score. The SRO can make an administrative note on the budget if he/she so desires. That being said, reviewers do at least glance at the budget and are asked to comment if it seems excessive. One ensures that a budget is realistic by being honest about the needs of a project. For a modular budget, if you are doing cell culture with one person and you have other funding then asking for the maximal amount may seem excessive. On the other hand, if you are testing a wildly expensive compound it may be okay. You can put that information in the grant itself if you really feel you need that information out there. If you do a detailed budget please remember that the reviewers are scientists. They will know that a single wild type mouse experiment that does not require long housing stays can not possibly cost 5K a mouse. Break down the costs honestly and this won't be an issue.
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written by netsailer, December 15, 2009
Duffy is correct. Reviewers look at the budget -- AFTER the application is scored. As i recall, the new template has you indicate whether the budget is appropriate. there is a forced choice ratiang, plus room for comments. so essentially it is for administrator guidance in the event that the grant is funded and they need to work with the grantee.
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written by goldfish, December 15, 2009
It depends in part on the reviewer and his/her preference, and in part on the funding agency and the program person. One hopes that the reviewer at least is a professional in the area and can evaluate the proposed budget objectively. As a former program person, I always appreciated comments on the budget as it was my 'call' (assuming the proposal was to be recommended for funding) to make the decision as to the size of the award. As a reviewer, I do examine the budget and not infrequently am of the opinion that the budget proposed is significantly inflated.
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written by prez, December 16, 2009
Who's kidding whom? In today's tight economic climate of course the budget is looked at and considered. If not by peering at a sheet of actual numbers, then by the reviewer having years of experience knowing roughly what various quatities of supplies and labor will cost--explicitly revealed and tabulated or not.
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written by Anonymous, December 17, 2009
The PI across the hall "low balled" his budget. He thus got "funded", but guess where he now must get part of his supplies? My lab! His tech makes two "visits" a day to my staff asking if she can "borrow" some reagents, buffers etc.If you are reading this, you know who you are. Please budget realistically next time! I'm getting tired of being your supply cupboard.
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written by JBT, December 22, 2009
Using the new NIH (CSR) grant application process, we always discuss the budget after the contents are discussed but before the final scoring is done. The budget is not scored but is commented upon in the reviews by the primary and secondary reviewers. It is factored into the final score. Primarily, it must be reasonable, feasible and without excess padding. With the modular budgets, categories are considered only in the justification.
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written by DVN, December 22, 2009
The budget is a key place for the applicant to show their stuff. A detailed budget and justification shows that the PI has really thought through the project. It should match the proposed work. Conversly a poorly thought out budget can sink a proposal. That $10,000.00 item for travel and $8,000.00 for new laptops for three investigators shows a clear lack of thought. Conversely if every mouse to be used is priced to the penny and every interview is carefully costed out, this should impress a reviewer.
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written by RBH, December 22, 2009
I too "factor" the budget into my review of NIH grants. There are often many quite fundable grants and an off budget is a red flag when compared to another strong proposal with an on-target budget.
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written by Anon, December 22, 2009
Under-budgeting could cause problems on NSF-funded projects. I planned a budget very carefully (it would have easily covered all the work), and the NSF decided to fund the research, but they asked that about 15% be chopped out of the budget because the total money they allocated (to all funded projects) exceeded the amount they were allowed to spend in that area! I felt like I was in a Dilbert cartoon.
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written by Price Witterhouse, December 25, 2009
Thank God Tom Edison, Alexander Bell, and Alex Fleming were never asked to budget to the penny. Where would we be today? Green eyeshade CPA's have their place, but how many discoveries have they ever made?
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written by [email protected], January 04, 2010
Of course, reviewers look at budgets. Some commenters make it sound as if they only peek with one eye or something; and maybe a few actually do that. Budgets are not supposed to affect NIH scores, but once in awhile, a reviewer might point out a budget so far out of line with the project proposed as to impact their judgment of feasibility. After applications are scored, NIH reviewers are asked for any budget concerns. Budget concerns become part of the official summary, and thus, budgets can affect award decisions. POs can recommend cuts to a fat budget, and still advance a meritorious scored application toward award. Agencies cannot award above request, so a puny budget can derail an application.
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written by Dr Deek, January 18, 2010
It's all part of the continuum; the reviewer looks at the entire proposal and if it all adds up; it is in every aspect appropriate to the applicant and co-applicants, their history and that of the proposal, the grant does well in all of the categories that the government has assigned for specific review. Often, a conservative proposal from a young investigator which presents innovative approaches to complex problems will appear to merit funding, and this appearance will be strengthened if all the categories are appropriate. The Facilities and Environment are excellent, usually. The Human and Animal Experimentation Points are all completely addressed. The progress report elaborates on the attention each prior aim received, or why it did not. The budget; resonable and appropriate. Deviations from this require a stellar advance; perhaps a new item of equipment. Loading the budget with postdocs and techs is fatal, as is partitioning effort between many established investigators. Reviewers like to see starting investigators "go it alone", basically, with a reasonable budget, innovative yet realistic aims, an excellent environment. Of course the budget is taken into account; but only after all the other items fall into place. Here, an extradinory budget can be lethal, whereas a reasonable one can only be consistent with an otherwise good review. Unless you've made a stellar discovery, don't ask for an unreasonable amount. The bottom line is that all categories overlap/ An unreasonable budget request can and does diminish enthusiasm for the rest of the proposal.

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