Sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it? On most research proposals, personnel costs range from 60-70%. Budgeting and justifying personnel is extremely important and in principle, comes down to a few key issues:
Are the right faculty and staff on the proposal? Does the project have the right leadership?
Are the personnel on the proposal performing the right work?
Are the personnel on the proposal performing the right work for a reasonable estimate of time?
Fortunately, the choice of faculty and staff isn’t up to the research administrator. The PI will select his or her collaborators to achieve the scientific aims and enhance his or her chances of getting funded. But let’s face it. It’s a good thing we’re working on the budget – because there isn’t a PI on the planet that really understands how people are paid (or what they really make). Double and triple checking this information is key to submitting an accurate budget that covers the University’s actual personnel costs. If the proposal is awarded, the salary had better be calculated correctly, proposed with the proper person-months of effort, contain summer salary if the faculty member has a nine-month appointment, and justify the VA commitment if it exists. Not so simple after all.
Budgeting Salary and Effort on Sponsored Projects
It’s important to start with the FOA – and any requirements from the sponsor. Is there a required amount of effort from the PI, or any others on the proposal? For grantsmanship, you’ll find that for most federal proposals, the PI will have to give at least 15-25%. (1.80 to 3.0 person months)
Who else is essential for the project? What levels of effort will they be working? Note that most PI’s think in levels of effort – you can convert to person months when you are done tweaking the budget. Outline each role for each person on the application. What will they be doing for the level of effort the PI has given them? Discuss with the PI that 20% time is one day a week, 10% time is 1/2 day a week, for that level of effort, how will the PI justify that much time on a sponsored project? Push for detail.
Draft the budget justification based on this information – and then look at the numbers and see where you end up – and edit from there. That’s how the process works. There are a couple of important things to be aware of as you write the document, which I’ll outline below.
General Budget Justification Format for Personnel with Salary and Fringe
Henry Smith, Ph.D., P.I. (1.8 calendar months), will serve as PI and Project Director on this project. Professor of Pathology at Superb University and an HHMI investigator, he has researched nanostructures extensively, and has over 25 years of highly regarded work in the field. He will have overall responsibility for all aspects of the project, supervise lab personnel working on experiments and will be responsible for organizing and chairing meetings of the advisory committee. In addition, he will be serving as the lead investigator of the microbiology core.
Looking for ways to justify a person or item on your justification? Google it! Someone else has faced the same problem, I guarantee it.
Justifying Faculty and Staff Fringe Rates
Your institution’s F&A agreement also contains the approved fringe rates for all employees. Be sure to use the correct fringe rates for each type of faculty and staff member, depending on their appointment. Most universities require a standard template to be used in the justification.
Remember to Inflate Salaries, Blend Fringe and Use the Cap only When Needed
In these economic times, institutions are ensuring that every salary dollar is proposed on the application – that means using the formula that factors in a salary increase each year, blends the fringe rate across each project year and only uses the salary cap on projects where it is required. Ensure that you include your inflation factors in your budget justification.
A research administrator who is beginning the budgeting process should be prepared for several common questions that may arise, depending on the level of experience that the PI and project staff have with project planning and budgeting. Awareness of these potential concerns can prevent misunderstandings and assist in decision making.
1. Limit the distribution of salary information. Plan to limit distribution of salary information to as few people as possible during the budgeting process, especially during the budgeting of salary on the project. Faculty and staff may not know one another’s salary information if they have not budgeted many grants together. If salary information has to be distributed, hiding the base salary column may be recommended, you can check.
2. Beware of language in your justification that commits cost sharing. If your PI or any personnel for that matter are “contributing services” you need to write about their work in a way that does not specify exactly what they will do or how much time they will give. That’s voluntary committed cost sharing, and it happens all the time. Beware!
3. Understand the basis of a faculty or staff member’s appointment before moving forward with budgeting them on the proposal. Alert the PI if there is a problem with how the PI is proposing them on the application. The faculty or staff member must have an appointment that is consistent with how they are proposed on the application; they should have salary at the institution (versus an affiliate), or be eligible to receive a stipend versus salary and fringe. If there is some discrepancy, it can be corrected at the time of the application, instead of trying to fix a problem downstream at the time of the award (when the budget won’t allow for an increase).
4. Keep in mind that in most cases, stipends are for students or trainees receiving an education benefit from participating in the grant. Investigators are occasionally inclined to propose paying stipends for employees – instead of trainees. Consult your HR guidelines, and the FOA for more information.
5. Similarly, even seasoned investigators propose hiring colleagues on a proposal as a consultant. There are specific rules as to the type of personnel who can fulfill a consultant role. In a majority of cases, the role is fulfilled by an individual from outside the institution who is using their own resources and providing a specific expertise that is essential to the project. This individual does not contribute to the direction of the scientific work of the study.
These are general guidelines for budgeting salary and fringe on sponsored projects – it’s impossible to be specific for each type of application. For specific questions about types of applications there are excellent websites for federal agencies – and you can reach out to experienced research administrators for help.
NEXT: MORE ABOUT BUDGETING FACULTY AND STAFF, AND BUDGETING TRAINEES