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Components of a Proposal

This section will provide guidance regarding the various components of the proposal.

Abstract (also project summary or executive summary)

Whether it’s called an abstract, a project summary or an executive summary, a good abstract summarizes the full proposal, is hypothesis driven, contains goals and objectives and outlines a solid plan of action. It guides reviewers as they read to pay special attention to what you want them to notice and helps them to recall these points clearly when they think about (and judge) your proposal later on. In general, an abstract should address:

  • what you intend to do (the topic of the project, broad goal, specific objectives)
  • why the work is important or needed (what is the problem or the issue to be addressed)
  • how you are going to do the work and how will you measure success (methods, procedures, evaluation)
  • who will benefit from the project (what is the target population, group served or studied)
  • when the will project take place (dates or duration)
  • the significance or the "so what?" of the project (what is the significance, outcomes expected)

Most importantly, search the RFP or the Call for Proposals to determine if the sponsor requires The abstract to include certain elements. Some federal agencies are very specific in the content of The abstract. For example, some may require you to designate the topic, goal or track of a certain competition, the number of participants to be served and your collaborating partners. 

Format

Refer to your RFP for specific formatting including margins and fonts.  Abstracts are usually one page and often single-spaced, but the RFP should contain specific formatting information that must be followed precisely.

Tips and Suggestions

  • Write The abstract last so it reflects the entire application
  • Be succinct and explicit in describing what you propose to do, The abstract is often your first opportunity to capture a reviewer’s interest
  • Avoid jargon and discipline-specific references as reviewers may include the lay public and professionals who are not experts in your field
  • Use all of the space provided
  • Do not include proprietary or confidential information as abstracts generally become public information

Specific agency guidance

Many federal agency websites publish The abstracts of awarded projects on their websites, so this will be the public summary of your proposed work.Some agencies have specific requirements for Abstracts.  Below are the general requirements for NIH and NSF. 

NIH NSF
  • project summary should contain a statement of objectives and methods to be employed
  • members of the study section who are not primary reviewers may rely heavily on The abstract to understand your application
  • significance and innovation of the research proposed are core elements of the NIH review criteria
  • the project summary must be no longer than 30 lines of text and follow the required font and margin specifications
  • project summary must indicate the relevance of this research to public health, using plain language that can be understood by a general audience
  • project summary should not contain proprietary confidential information
  • project summary should include
    • a brief background of the project;
    • specific aims, objectives or hypotheses;
    • the significance of the proposed research and relevance to public health;
    • the unique features and innovation of the project;
    • the methodology (action steps) to be used;
    • expected results; and
    • description of how your results will affect other research areas.
  • be complete, but brief
  • use all the space allotted
  • avoid describing past accomplishments and the use of the first person
  • write the abstract last so that it reflects the entire application
  • remember that The abstract will be used for purposes other than the review, such as to provide a brief description of the grant in annual reports, presentations and dissemination to the public
  • project summary consists of an overview, a statement on the intellectual merit of the proposed activity and a statement on the broader impacts of the proposed activity
  • some specific NSF program competitions require additional elements that must be included in the project summary
  • project summary should be written in the third person, in language understandable to a scientifically or technically literate reader
  • project summary should include
    • an overview describing the activity that would result if the proposal were funded
    • a statement of objectives and methods to be employed
    • a statement on intellectual merit  describing the potential of the proposed activity to advance knowledge
    • a statement on broader impacts describing the potential of the proposed activity to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific desired societal outcomes
  • should be no more than one page in total length (4600 characters, including spaces or 51 lines

FastLane includes three separate text boxes in which proposers must provide an overview and address the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposed activity. There is an exception for special characters (see FastLane) but font formatting does not qualify as special characters.

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Background and significance (statement of need) 

The following is an excerpt from The Art of Grantsmanship, by Dr. Jacob Kraicer:

Background and Significance: Current State of Knowledge

  • This section should answer 3 questions: what is known, what is not known, and why is it essential to pursue answers to the remaining open questions.
  • Begin with a brief outline of the highlights in the background review. State where your own previous contributions (if any) fit in.
  • Then critically evaluate the relevant literature. This section should be considerably more than an uncritical compendium or list of the existing literature.
  • Discuss fairly all sides of any controversy, disagreement, and/or discrepancy in published results. Remember, though, that a participant in that controversy may become your proposal reviewer.
  • Identify specifically the gaps and contradictions that you will clarify. Carry this into the rationale for your proposal.
  • Emphasize the importance and relevance of your proposal in bridging your hypotheses and long-term objectives with the background review.
  • Integrate your previous findings within the background to give the reviewers a sense of your relevant contributions.

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Writing strong aims and objectives

In many ways, your objectives or "specific aims" (NIH terminology) are the most important portion of your proposal. They allow the reviewer to see, in a brief overview, exactly the work you propose to undertake.

The aims and objectives might be a separate document or they might be a portion of the longer research plan. You should format them precisely as the sponsor specifies. Typically, though, they are organized as follows:

  • a brief recap of the problem statement and its importance,
  • define the over-arching hypothesis to be tested, and
  • develop that into 2-4 smaller working hypotheses that will allow you to address the larger question.

One way to develop this section is with four distinct paragraphs:

  1. Introductory paragraph
    • should begin with a restatement of the problem to catch the readers’ attention.
    • follow up with a very brief (1-2 sentences) of the literature, outlining what is already known about the problem
    • should lead the reader to what is unknown about the problem
    • concluding sentence should indicate why this lack of knowledge is important, what we are prevented from doing or knowing or understanding because of this missing information
  2. The W’s paragraph—who, what, when, and where
    • outline the long-term goal of your research, briefly outlining your long-term research plans
    • recap the objective of this proposal, clearly identifying it as a step toward your long-term goals
    • identify this work’s central hypothesis as clearly, and with as much focus, as you can bring to it (proposals frequently fail at exactly this point in the process)
    • explain the rationale for the hypothesis
    • finish with an argument as to why this research question and this research team are precisely the right ones to bring to the work
  3. Getting down to business
    • briefly detail the smaller aims that will allow you to test your central hypothesis
    • cite primary and secondary measures (if possible)
    • Note: These aims should be supportive of each other but not entirely inter-dependent. If one fails early on, you do not want your entire project to fail. There should still be something you can pull from the research.
  4. The payoff
    • outline how this proposal (its question, its methodology, its instrumentation, etc.) is innovative (This is another sentence that causes proposals to fail. Please do not confuse "innovative" with new-to-you; a thorough knowledge of the literature is essential here.)
    • outline your expected outcomes, the "so what?," clearly identifying the impact the study will have on the population at large

The Foundation Center describes the following 4 types of objectives:

  1. Behavioral - a human action is anticipated
  2. Performance - a specific time frame within which a behavior will occur, at an expected proficiency level, is expected
  3. Process - the manner in which something occurs is an end in itself
  4. Product - a tangible item results

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Sustainability 

Most research projects have a beginning and end date and are less likely to have requirements to sustain a part of the research project beyond the end date. Look to the guidelines for any requirements for the project to continue after funding ends.

Some program grants and public service projects are expected to make an impact or to develop an institutional capacity for the implemented project to continue beyond the end date.

Sustainability plan

If sustainability is a required element, describe a plan for how the project will continue, who will be responsible for the maintenance and how the institutional change will enable the project to continue and possibly grow.

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Developing a Budget

The overall approach to developing a budget is this:

  • ask for what you need to do the work – not less, not more
  • justify requests that are significant or out of the ordinary
  • remember: reviewers emphasize project quality over budget
  • follow sponsor and institutional guidelines and policies

It is also important to be aware of the following federal rules, which determine the appropriateness of listing an expense as a direct charge on a sponsored award:

  • Allowability - Is the cost permitted by a sponsor and NIU regulations?
  • Allocability - Is the cost incurred solely to support the specific project being proposed, and necessary for its completion?
  • Reasonableness - Can the cost withstand public scrutiny, i.e. would someone not affiliated with the university find the cost reasonable and appropriate?
  • Consistency - Is the cost applied the same way on sponsored vs. non-sponsored projects and as a direct and/or indirect (Facilities & Administrative) cost

Common questions/basic considerations in developing a budget for the following categories

How do I budget faculty & staff salary? Full salary and fringe benefits should be budgeted for faculty and staff who participate on a sponsored project. Salary and benefits are determined by the amount of time to be spent by the individual on the project (time and effort). Your Research Development Specialist will calculate salary and benefit amounts using the base salary for existing positions. In general, salaries for to-be-named positions should reflect market pay rates for the type of position and geographic area. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, colleagues in your field, and/or your RDS may be good sources for this information. Budgeting administrative and clerical salaries require special consideration. See Budgeting Administrative-Clerical Salaries.
How do I pay graduate students? Graduate students are budgeted as assistantships, which include a monthly stipend and tuition remission, both pro-rated to the appointment term. Graduate assistants are budgeted at full-time (20 hours per week), three-quarter time (15 hours per week), or half-time (10 hours per week), and for a calendar year, academic term, semester, or summer only. Graduate student stipends are set by individual colleges and departments and fall within minimum and maximum rates established by the Division of Research and Graduate Studies. Tuition remission is budgeted in accordance with NIU’s Tuition Remission Policy and Procedure.
Can I pay undergraduate students? Undergraduate assistants are paid an hourly wage plus appropriate fringe benefits based on the type of position to be employed. Undergraduate assistants can work a maximum of 20 hours per week while taking courses, and 40 hours per week while not taking courses. Hourly wages must meet state and federal minimum wage requirements and should reflect market rates for the position as much as possible.
What are Fringe Benefits? In addition to salary, the associated fringe benefits are also charged to sponsored projects. Fringe benefits include Medicare, retirement, health, dental, and life insurance. Fringe benefit rates vary depending on (1) the employee's salary amount, (2) the type of salary requested, and (3) the benefits choices made by the employee.

Fringe benefits on grant budgets should be calculated as follows: - for summer salary, for faculty on regular 9-month appointments: 14.5% (Medicare and retirement only);

- for salary taken as extra compensation (when available: check with your RDS): 14.5% (Medicare and retirement only);

- for graduate assistant salaries: No fringe benefits;

- for undergraduate students and all personnel on extra-help appointments: 7.65% (Medicare and Social Security only)

For all other categories of personnel, including faculty release time and buyouts salaries of deans, directors and department chairs, the full normal fringe rate is used. Your RDS will calculate the appropriate fringe benefit rate based on fringe benefit information in PeopleSoft. In cases where a grant-funded position is to be filled by a to-be-named individual, we must budget fringe benefits for that position according to the applicable salary level and assume maximum benefits usage (see the NIU Estimated Fringe Benefit Chart, FY2015).
How do I pay a consultant on the project? A consultant is not an NIU employee. This individual is hired to give professional advice or perform professional services for a fee. This line should also include any travel costs incurred by the consultant. Some sponsors may limit the amount of compensation for consultants. Please refer to the sponsor guidelines for further information.

NIU faculty who perform professional services on a grant or contract held by NIU should not be listed as consultants; they should instead appear on the personnel line as an expert or specialist and any travel they undertake should be listed on the travel line. Generally, these individuals will receive compensation in the form of summer salary, release time, or extra compensation.
How do I budget travel costs? Grant budgets may include travel costs when the travel is directly related to and/or necessary for the performance of the proposed project, and when the sponsor allows it. Money is typically requested to attend professional/scientific conferences, for data collection or field work, and/or PI meetings. Travel should be budgeted in accordance with sponsor guidelines and institutional and State of Illinois travel regulations. Most federal sponsors require international travel to be budgeted separately from domestic travel. Items typically budgeted under the travel category include airfare, ground transportation, lodging, a per diem allowance (meals), and conference registration fees. Federal sponsors require travel on U.S. Flag Carrying airlines at coach class rates. Ground transportation to and from the airport and for travel at the destination may include taxi service, mileage rate (see Related Resources) at or public transportation. If an overnight stay is required, lodging and per diem (see Related Resources) should be calculated according to state travel regulations. Travel for external consultants and project participants (see below) should be budgeted separately under those budget categories.
Can I travel to conferences? Yes, as long as (1) the sponsor allows the cost (check the sponsor budget guidelines), and (2) attendance at the conference is directly related to the project (i.e., you are going to present results or gather information that will inform the project’s execution or results). SPA recommends budgeting $1,500 per person per conference for domestic conferences, and $2,500 per trip for international conferences in general, although these amounts may be altered for special circumstances. These amounts include airfare and/or ground transportation, lodging, meals, and registration fees. If you are flying, remember to budget for transportation to and from the airport.
What costs can/should I budget for field research? Field research often carries with it unusual travel requirements, and sponsors that support field research are typically familiar with and allow such costs to be budgeted. The sponsor’s budget guidelines should list any budget restrictions. Field research travel budgets will vary by the field site location (e.g., how remote it is, the social and political environment surrounding the location, the physical infrastructure of the area, etc.) and the length of time of the stay. Items budgeted for field research may include travel to the site (airfare and ground transportation to and from the airport, which may mean renting a jeep to get to a remote site), rental of a special vehicle and/or paying a driver to transport staff and supplies to and from the field location, and/or "camp fees" at an established field location (which include lodging and meals at a daily rate). Field research may bring additional needs, and your RDS can help you brainstorm what those may be.
Can I budget international travel? Your RDS will help you to budget appropriate amounts for international travel based on the purpose of the trip and your destination. SPA recommends budgeting $2,500 per trip to attend international conferences. Budgeting international travel for other purposes may need to be a bit more customized. Federal sponsors and NIU regulations require coach class airfare on U.S. Flag Carrying airlines unless a U.S. Flag Carrier is not available in the location (which is very rare). Most federal sponsors require international travel to be budgeted separately from domestic travel.
How do I budget to travel locally to conduct my project? Local project travel usually includes reimbursement for mileage rate (see Related Resources) at or public transportation. If an overnight stay is required, lodging and per diem (see Related Resources) should be calculated according to state travel regulations.
I need supplies – what can I ask for? Supplies purchased with federal grant funds must be purchased solely to support the proposed project, and necessary for its completion. General or departmental supplies cannot be purchased as direct costs on federal grants. Small computing devices may be purchased as long as they are essential to the project. See Budgeting Computing Devices.
When is something a supply and when is it equipment? NIU defines Equipment specifically as a single item* having a useful life of at least one year and costing at least $5,000. All other items are budgeted as supplies.
* The purchase of individual components that will ultimately form a single unit usually meets this definition as well.
What if I have a subcontract for a collaborator from another institution? Individuals who collaborate on a project are budgeted as consultants. Funds budgeted for consulting typically include a daily or hourly rate and any necessary travel. In some cases it may be necessary to budget other consultant needs in this category; however, consultants are considered to be independent and usually provide their own supplies, equipment, and space. Note that NIU personnel cannot be budgeted in this category – they must be budgeted under the personnel category as described above. A vendor (an organization providing goods or a specific and narrowly defined service such as lab analysis or program evaluation) is budgeted under the Other category. When seeking vendor services, a quote specifying the service to be provided and the total cost should be obtained whenever possible to ensure that an accurate cost is included and to avoid the need to re-budget during the grant award. (See our Developing a Collaboration section for additional description of a Vendor). A sub-recipient relationship (aka subcontractor) requires administrative arrangements to be made as the proposal is developed. The sub-recipient organization should provide a sub-recipient commitment form to NIU, including a budget, budget justification, and scope of work. This specifies an agreement between NIU and the collaborating institution with regard to the project costs and level of involvement of and work to be performed by the partnering organization, which protects against misunderstandings and facilitates the development of award arrangements to the collaborating partner if NIU receives an award.
What if my research requires payments to human participants? Payments to research subjects are included under the "Other" category.
Do I need to budget tuition for the Graduate Student(s) on my project? How do I do that? It is current policy (see our Tuition Remission Policy and Procedure under NIU Resources/Forms) that funds for tuition remission be budgeted for graduate research assistants (GRA) included in grant and contract proposals unless the sponsor does not allow tuition remission. If the sponsor requires a match, tuition costs may be used to meet that requirement as appropriate. Current tuition amounts are available on the NIU Bursar site. Full in-state tuition (18 credit hours for combined fall/spring semesters, 6 credit hours for a summer semester) should be budgeted for each GRA involved in the project for a full academic year. Tuition costs should be pro-rated for GRAs involved on projects for less than a full academic year. In-state tuition is calculated based on NIU Office of the Bursar's rates. The tuition rate should be inflated by 10% for each subsequent year. Requests for the university to cover all or part of the tuition costs will be considered when inclusion of such cost places a hardship on the PI in completing the proposed project. To request such a waiver, complete the online Tuition Cost Share Request Form at least 15 business days prior to the submission deadline, and submit it to Sponsored Programs Administration for consideration. Please contact your Research Development Specialist to address questions concerning the completion of the form.
What are indirect costs (aka, "overhead")? Indirect costs (aka overhead, facilities and administrative costs) are the infrastructure and administrative costs associated with sponsored projects that cannot be attributed to any one individual project with any degree of accuracy (e.g., buildings and maintenance, utilities, departmental administration, sponsored programs administration, library resources, etc.). These costs should be included in budgets in order to recover the full cost of conducting a project. The rate is determined based on project type and location and is often budgeted as a percentage of the total direct costs. The percentage used should be either (1) NIU’s federally negotiated rate, or (2) the rate allowed by the sponsor if the sponsor allows a different rate that is documented. Your RDS will calculate the appropriate rate for your budget.
The sponsor is requiring NIU to provide financial support – how does that work?

In some cases, a sponsor may require cost sharing – the contribution of in-kind or cash support to a project by NIU. In other cases, cost sharing may be a matter of practicality – i.e., the sponsor does not allow recovery of faculty salaries or some other item required for the project. Cost sharing should only be shown in the proposal to the sponsor when it is mandatory, or when a sponsor includes the provision of cost-sharing in the scoring criteria or there is some other compelling reason. Cost sharing disclosed to a sponsor in a grant proposal must be tracked during the award, and if the obligation is not met, there may be repercussions. In cases where cost sharing is required (and regardless of whether it is to be disclosed to the sponsor), approval from the head of the unit whose budget will provide the cost sharing is required, and it is strongly advised that the situation is discussed and approval gained in advance.

  • In general, avoid cost-sharing except when required by sponsor or program guidelines
  • If a project involves cost-sharing, make sure your dean/director/department chair are all involved in the discussion
  • Cost-sharing specified in a proposal is subject to audit and must be documented

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Budget justifications

  • usually required at time of proposal submission
  • intended to provide a more detailed explanation of costs in the budget
  • provide the basis for rates and costs
  • only cover the budget that is submitted to the sponsor (and any cost-sharing, if included in that budget)
  • ensure that all costs charged to the sponsored research award are allowable, allocable and reasonable

FAQs

What is a budget justification?

A budget justification is a narrative explanation of each of the components of the budget which "justifies" the cost in terms of the proposed work. The explanations should focus on how each budget item is required to achieve the goals of the project and how the estimated costs in the budget were calculated. When a detailed budget is submitted, all items in the budget should be justified. Each sub-recipient that is included in the project would have their own budget justification, separate from the NIU budget justification.

Who prepares the budget justification?

Some PI’s draft the budget justification. Templates are available for NSF and NIH in the Related Content links at the right. Also, the Budget Justification Job Aid file provides detailed explanations that may be useful in preparing your budget justification. Your SPA RDS can draft a general budget justification; often the PI needs to provide additional detail for some of the items such as explaining personnel’s duties and responsibilities on the project.

What is the format for a budget justification?

In their guidelines, a sponsor may require a specific form or a format for the budget justification. Refer to the Templates at the right for specific agencies and one that might be used for a foundation that requires a budget justification. Follow the agency guidelines for font typeface, font size, margins, and other formatting rules.

Is there a page limit for the budget justification?

Most agencies indicate a page limit for a budget justification. NSF, for example, limits the budget justification to 3 pages. Explanations must provide detail for Reviewers to understand the necessity of the requested expense, yet be concise to fit within the page limits.

Guidance on justifying typical budget categories

Personnel

Provide information for all roles for which budget support is being requested on the project.

In the budget justification, include the following for each role:

  • Name of the individual, or TBA (to-be-appointed) for roles not yet filled. It is not necessary to name graduate students, undergraduate students, or postdoctoral associates in your budget justification. However, if you do name these individuals, it demonstrates to reviewers and program staff that you have someone in mind for the position, and will, therefore, be able to put them to work on the project more quickly than would be the case if you had to identify a likely candidate first. Even if you name an individual in the budget justification, this does not represent a commitment on your part to hire that exact person, or a commitment from the sponsor to fund them.
  • Role title on this project (e.g. principal investigator, co-investigator, postdoctoral researcher, etc.). In some cases, the individual’s personnel title (e.g. Professor) is not appropriate. The role title should reflect what the individual is doing in terms of the work of the project.
  • Amount of effort being devoted to this project (express effort in the number of academic/summer/calendar months for Federal proposals and in percent of effort for most other proposals). When an individual’s effort varies by budget period, list the different amounts of effort and when they apply (e.g. 2 academic months in budget periods 1-2 during the data collection phase and 1.5 summer months in budget period 3).
    • Agencies such as the NSF and NIH require that effort is shown in person-months (PM) rather than a percentage of time. The calculation to convert the percentage of effort to PM is to multiply the % effort by the appointment period (academic/summer/calendar).
    • Ex: A PI requesting 5% effort (e.g. 5% of the institutional base salary) during the normal 9-month academic contract period would commit .45 academic PM towards the project (.05 * 9 = .45).
  • A brief description of the role responsibilities in relation to the specific goals of the project.
  • Administrative and clerical salaries, in particular, must be well justified if you are including them in the budget as direct costs. Federal regulations (OMB Circular A-21) state that administrative salaries will normally be treated as F&A costs. Direct charging of these costs is usually not allowed, but may be allowable when a substantial amount of administrative work is required to meet the aims of a major project. The federal regulations define "major project" as a project that requires an extensive amount of administrative or clerical support, which is significant
    ly greate
    r than the routine level of such services provided by academic departments.
    • Note: Committing effort to a project without also charging the salary for that effort to the project budget is considered an institutional cost share. PIs are expected to request some level of effort support during the academic period.

See the Budget justification job aid for language that may be used in the budget justification to support the request for such costs.

Consultants

Provide the consultant's name, institution, and an explanation of the area of expertise the consultant will provide to the project. If a consulting fee is to be paid, explain how it was calculated (for example, $ XYZ/day x the number of days). The rate may be calculated on an hourly or daily basis, or may be based on completion of a task or milestone.

Consultants, by definition, are not performing part of the project work -- they are providing expert advice to the investigators as the investigators do the work. In contrast, collaborating investigators, who will be involved in the execution of the project work, are not consultants and should be included in the personnel (for NIU employees) or as sub-recipients (if from outside of NIU).

Be sure that the daily rate is not in excess of the maximum allowed by the funding agency, and provide justification for the rate. If travel and subsistence costs are not factored into the daily rate, these should be justified separately.

OSP will require justification of the rate during the proposal development process. Be prepared to obtain a letter from each consultant indicating his/her willingness to act as a consultant to the project and the basis for the rate to be charged to the project.

Equipment

Only items of equipment that meet the criteria of "capital equipment" should be budgeted in this category. Equipment is defined as durable goods with a purchase price of at least $5,000 per item and a useful life of at least one year. Items that do not meet both criteria are considered materials/supplies.

In the Budget Justification, specify the type of equipment, and if known, the model and vendor name. Explain how this equipment will be used in the project and why it is necessary to purchase equipment dedicated to this project rather than using shared resources. If possible, provide a detailed vendor quote. If a quote is not available, indicate how the amount budgeted was determined (e.g., website price list, standard equipment catalogs, prices from University purchasing contracts, etc.).

General-purpose equipment is not eligible as a direct cost on a grant budget unless it is primarily or exclusively used in the actual conduct of the research. This includes items such as desktop and laptop computers, word-processing software packages, and the like. These types of purchases are unlikely to total $5,000 or more and would typically be included under "other direct costs" (or elsewhere, according to the agency’s budget categories).

Travel

Domestic travel: Explain the purpose of the travel in terms of the project goals. Specify the number of trips and destinations anticipated and the number of individuals traveling. Explain how the costs were estimated. (For example, $XYZ roundtrip airfare + $XYZ lodging for the number of nights, plus $YZ per diem for the number of days.) You do not have to specify exactly which conference(s) you propose to attend, but you can name them if you have some in mind.

For field work and other research-related travel (collaborating with researchers at another institution, for example, or projects at a national laboratory or other external facility), you should provide information about the number of people making each trip, its duration, and other details such as whether you will be traveling by automobile or by plane, how you estimated the travel costs, etc.

Local travel: In addition to indicating the purpose of the local travel In the budget justification, indicate the most recent Illinois travel reimbursement for mileage rate, the approximate number of miles, and how many trips per year or project period.

International travel: Federal regulations require that all air travel paid for from federal grant funds must be on a U.S.-flagged carrier. Foreign travel estimates should be based on the use of U.S. flag carrier if one is available, although this can be on a code-sharing basis (i.e., the flight is on an airline that is technically not a U.S.-flagged carrier, but the ticket was issued by a cooperating partner that is). The NIH defines foreign travel as any travel outside of Canada and the U.S. and its territories and possessions, or for an organization located outside Canada and the U.S. and its territories and possessions, foreign travel means travel outside that country. The NSF includes Canada as a foreign country. Review sponsor instructions!

Supplies

All non-permanent, disposable supplies such as chemicals, drugs, assays, lab glassware, syringes fall into this category. Small equipment purchases costing less than $5,000 per item should also be included in the supplies category. Provide a list of the types of supplies needed on the project and explain how the costs were estimated. Except in rare cases, you do not have to provide an exhaustive list or show catalog numbers or other documentation for the amounts; but you should provide sufficient detail to demonstrate to reviewers and program staff that (a) you have anticipated the materials needs for the research plan you are proposing, and (b) there is adequate justification for the amount requested for materials and supplies.

Subrecipient (consortium) costs

A sub-award or a subcontract (sometimes called a consortium agreement) is required when a third party (the sub-recipient) will be responsible for the execution of a portion of the project work. When the NIU budget includes funding for sub-recipient(s), the NIU budget justification should state the name(s) of the sub-recipient organization(s) and include a brief justification for subcontracting to each entity by explaining the project goals involved in their work. This may include one or two sentences describing why the work cannot be done at NIU and why you chose the partner(s) you did (for example, because of a pre-existing collaborative relationship, proximity to the NIU campus, availability of the necessary instrumentation and/or expertise, etc.).

The specific items in the sub-recipient budget(s) should not be explained here. The budget and justification from each sub-recipient should be included in the proposal, separately from NIU’s budget and justification.

NIH modular budget guidelines require an abbreviated budget justification of the Consortium (sub-recipient) costs: Provide an estimate of total costs (direct plus facilities and administrative) for each year, rounded to the nearest $1,000. When more than one consortium is involved, provide this estimate for each. List the individuals/organizations with whom consortium or contractual arrangements have been made, along with all personnel, including percent of effort (in person months) and roles on the project. Do not provide individual salary information. Indicate whether the collaborating institution is foreign or domestic. Provide an estimate of total costs (direct plus facilities and administrative) for each year, rounded to the nearest $1,000. When more than one consortium is involved, provide this estimate for each. List the individuals/organizations with whom consortium or contractual arrangements have been made, along with all personnel, including percent of effort (in person months) and roles on the project. Do not provide individual salary information. Indicate whether the collaborating institution is foreign or domestic.

Other costs

This category is for all other project costs not captured in prior categories, and typically includes such items as:

  • Publication/documentation/dissemination costs. Specify the annual amount requested, and provide details on how you arrived at this number, particularly for documentation, storage, and preservation of samples, database cleanup, and other less-common costs that fall under this category.
  • Participant support costs. This category is specific to NSF only. Indicate the number of participants and the amount per participant, and what the cost is being provided for them to participate in the project (such as subsistence allowances, travel allowances, tuition and stipends, registration fee).
  • Human Subject (e.g. participant) Payments: Describe the incentive and cost of the incentive to be provided to the subjects who will be participating in the study.
  • Vendor services. When an entity does not contribute a significant portion to the project as described in the Statement of Work and is instead is providing goods and/or services that are ancillary to the operation of the sponsored program, this entity is classified as a vendor rather than a subcontractor.
  • Facilities and rental costs. When a project requires the use of non-NIU owned facilities, the rental costs associated with the use of such space may be charged to the project. Specify the rental rate, the basis for such rate and why the use of non-NIU facilities are necessary to support the project.
  • Tuition remission. Tuition remission is provided to all Northern Illinois University graduate research assistants employed in non-sponsored as well as sponsored activities and in accordance with the provision of OMB Circular A-21.

For each budget item, itemize the expenses, explain why they are needed to conduct the project, and explain how the costs were calculated.

Facilities and administrative costs

The budget justification may include a statement about the F&A cost rate (also referred to as indirect costs or overhead) that has been applied to the budget. See the OSP templates for typical language to include in the budget justification.

Matching funds and cost sharing
Some sponsors or grant programs require institutions to support part of the costs of performing the project. The terms used for this institutional support are "matching funds" (cash contributions) or "cost sharing" (cash or in-kind contributions).

There are three different types of cost sharing that can occur on sponsored projects:

Mandatory cost sharing: It is required by the sponsor as a condition of obtaining an award. It must be included or a proposal will receive no consideration by the sponsor.
If the sponsor requires matching or cost sharing by the institution, explain in the budget justification what is being provided and its value. For example:

  • The university will contribute 10% effort by Dr. Jane Smith as in-kind cost-sharing for this project, which represents $15,450 in salary, fringe benefits and unrecovered F&A costs.
  • The university will provide $50,000 matching funds for the purchase of the XYZ equipment.

Voluntary-committed cost sharing: It represents resources offered by the university (documented and quantified in the proposal) when it is not a specific sponsor requirement. It becomes a binding commitment which the university must provide as part of the performance of the sponsored agreement.

When the institution determines that it is in the best interest of the project to provide voluntary-committed cost share, the commitment should be explained in the budget justification as identified under Mandatory cost share.

Voluntary-uncommited cost sharing: It is cost sharing that is over and above an amout that was committed and budgeted for in a sponsored research agreement. It is neither pledged explicitly in the proposal nor stated in the award documents, but it occurs in the course of executing a project, often when an individual expends more effort on the project than his or her commitment requires.

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Biosketches and vitae

The curriculum vitae (CV), literally the "course of life," may also be referred to as a biographical sketch (or biosketch) by some sponsors.Many sponsors have specific formatting and page-length restrictions.

Whose biosketch or vita should be included in a grant proposal?

The primary answer is which ones are required by the sponsor. Beyond requirements, you should consider which additional ones are permitted by the sponsor.

If sponsor guidelines permit, CVs of personnel playing a significant role in the project may be included. This would include all professional personnel involved in the project: associated faculty members, major collaborators from other institutions, postdoctoral research associates, and so on. Also included are Subcontract PIs and co-PIs, Consultants, Collaborators, or Evaluators. In short, anyone who is making a substantial contribution to the project deserves, and ought, to have his/her vita included when possible.

Why is the biosketch or vita so important in the proposal process?

Among the most important factors considered by reviewers in rating a proposal are the past track record of the applicant and the ability of the applicant to perform the studies outlined in the proposal. The competence of the people proposed as researchers has much to do with whether or not the project will yield meaningful results. The biographical sketch is the only way by which reviewers can evaluate the researcher's competence, and often must serve as his/her only credentials. The Reviewer often examines your CV immediately after reading your project description--that is when he or she mentally decides who you are, professionally. In addition to an understanding of your research achievements and credentials, the Reviewer may be trying to determine: Are you also a collegial citizen of the university? Are you professional? Do you take your teaching seriously? Are you well-rounded? Are you broadly or narrowly educated? Are you disciplinary or interdisciplinary? The CV should reveal a professional persona appropriate to the granting agency and the type of award.

What is a typical format?

The Biosketch or CV included in a grant application is a different document than the resume you would prepare to apply for a job or the academic CV you maintain to document your full professional career. The sponsor usually limits its length, sometimes to as little as 1-2 pages. There may be very detailed instructions for the format and contents of the CV. The reviewers need to be able to find the information they need quickly and easily, which means it needs to be where they expect to find it and in the format they expect. Even when the sponsor does not specify the format, the biographical information should be limited in scope and carefully prepared, and should focus on information relevant to your research career.

NSF and NIH samples

Sample biosketches for NSF and NIH are included under Related Resources at the right. These two sponsors have very specific and strict requirements regarding what can be included.

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Writing a strong facilities statement

Why is a facilities statement important?

While it is understandable that PIs spend the bulk of their proposal-writing time and effort on the research plan, sponsors are increasingly looking to the "supporting documents" that typically accompany a proposal as they make their evaluation. PIs are often expected to provide a facilities statement which documents institutional capacity and the availability of the resources required for the project. As reviewers make difficult decisions among many equally strong and important projects, they look to these statements to assess which projects have the strongest institutional support. Therefore, boilerplate language is no longer sufficient.

Facilities statements used to include, for example, the size of a faculty member’s office, the office equipment available, etc. Certainly, these resources should still be noted if they are relevant to the scope of your work. However, sponsors generally expect you to have access to these resources, so it is important to highlight additional or unique resources that are available for carrying out your project.

Remember that nothing in the facilities statement has a dollar-value assigned to it, and all resources identified must be specific to the work you are proposing. Everything included should support the argument that the institutional capacity to support the research and the administration of the award is well in place.

NIU resources

Below are some descriptions of NIU resources and capabilities that might be included ina facilities statement. Your Research Development Specialist can assist you with identifying organizational resources and crafting a strong facilities statement.

  1. Existing Equipment
    There is no need to list every single item in a lab or office. In this section, though, you should indicate that you have the basic equipment to conduct the research, particularly if you are not asking for obviously-required equipment in the grant budget. Reviewers will want to know that you can, in fact, complete the research as described, if they give you the award. Early-career investigators should certainly reference, without quantifying, any start-up package associated with the development of a lab or research setting.
  2. Facilities
    Basic scientists might need to include the scientific glassblowing services, the machine shop that will fabricate specialty items, the analytical lab with its shared instrumentation, and/or the electronics shop. Other resources may include access to the University’s high-performance computer cluster for analyzing large amounts of data, Digital Convergence Lab, and/or the Research Methodology Service unit. Your Research Development Specialist can assist with identifying additional campus resources that may be appropriate for your particular project.

    The Research Methodology Service is a specialized service unit at NIU that helps faculty to strengthen research design and data analysis. If the research plan involves complex analysis, management of large or complicated data sets or a particularly esoteric form of analysis, use of the RMS may strengthen your proposal.
  3. Carnegie classifications
    You can look up NIU’s classification here: http://classifications.carnegiefoundation.org/lookup_listings/institution.php. We are currently classified as Research-High and have an impressive Engagement classification as well. If either of these classifications is important for your work, PIs should certainly consider mentioning them. However, one should always check these classifications before including them in a proposal. The Carnegie Foundation changes its classification system from time to time; it would not strengthen a proposal to use an out-of-date classification marker.
  4. Grants management or statement of fiscal responsibility
    Federal proposals typically need not include a statement about grant management; the existence of such services is covered in the standard certifications. Foundations and state-level sponsors, though, may well ask for an indication that there is the institutional ability to manage an award in compliance with the appropriate regulations. You might consider adding this language: "Northern Illinois University is committed to supporting externally funded faculty research. As part of that support, Sponsored Programs Administration (post-award) exists to assist faculty members with the administration of externally funded grants. Sponsored Programs Administration (post-award) is staffed with professional Grant Administrators who are knowledgeable of Federal and private agency regulations as well as NIU and State of Illinois procedures, PeopleSoft Human Resources, Procurement, Accounts Receivable and General Ledger systems." If additional language is required, contact your SPA Research Development Specialist.
  5. Agency-specific guidance
    NSF and NIH have very specific requests and requirements for the Facilities and Other Resources statements. Below includes some guidance to prepare a statement for each agency.
    NIH NSF

    Facilities and other resources. Information in this section is used to assess the adequacy of the organizational resources (inclusive of physical, intellectual, and human resources; exclusive of major equipment – see below) available to perform the proposed research. Identify the facilities to be used (laboratory, animal, computer, office, clinical, and other). If appropriate, indicate their capacities, pertinent capabilities, relative proximity and extent of availability to the project. Describe only those resources that are pertinent to the proposed project. Provide any information describing other resources available to the project (i.e., machine shops, electronics shops, etc.) and the extent to which they would be available to the project. Address how the research environment will contribute to the probability of success of the proposed research. Also note any unique features or resources that would contribute to the probable success of the project proposed (e.g., access to undergraduate student research assistants for a R15 application, time dedicated to research in the applicant’s institutional appointment). For an Early Stage Investigator, describe the institutional investment (start-up funding, course release, graduate assistants, etc.) in the success of the investigator. If facilities and resources outside of NIU will be used to carry out the project, describe those facilities in a separate section of the document. Your RDS can provide template/sample documents and language to support the development of this statement.

    Equipment. Briefly describe major items of equipment (e.g., computer cluster, electron microscope, centrifuge, etc.) available for the project, together with their location and pertinent capabilities, if appropriate. Only include equipment that will be necessary to conduct the project being proposed. If equipment outside of NIU will be employed for the project, describe it in a separate section of the document.

    Facilities, qquipment, and other resources. This section is intended to demonstrate that you already have adequate organizational resources available to perform the proposed work. List only those things that are directly relevant to the proposal. If you are requesting one or more items of equipment in the proposal, do not list them in this section. Instead, describe them in the project description, and provide a brief description of how they will supplement or interface with the existing equipment listed here.

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Letters of support and letters of commitment

Some sponsors request a letter of support or a letter of commitment (depending on the type of collaboration that is being presented or is being required).

Before attaching such letters to your proposal, check the guidelines to make sure the sponsor allows letters to be included. Some sponsors may not allow an Appendix to be included except for required documents as specified in the guidelines.

General differences between letters

Letters of support
  • Letter writer advocates for your project
  • Referred to in the text or the project narrative
  • How does the project fit with the mission/goals of their organization
  • Presents type of support
Letters of commitment
  • Evidence of interest in the project from participants
  • If the project is funded, they are ready with their contribution
  • What they will contribute
  • They will participate at the time you need them
  • Will usually indicate concrete actions they are committing to provide during the project.

Agency specific guidance

NIH NSF

Letters of support (if applicable). Attach appropriate letters from all individuals confirming their roles in the project.

For consultants, letters should include rates or charges for consulting services.

Letters of support are not needed for co-PIs or for personnel (such as research assistants) not contributing in a substantive, measurable way to the scientific development or execution of the project.

Do solicit such letters from collaborators at other institutions, evaluators, consultants, etc., and anyone not at NIU or in another department/college at NIU who is agreeing to support the project in a substantial, measurable manner. Letters should contain specific commitments and be as descriptive as possible. Letters from colleagues "in support" of the proposal should not be submitted.

Letters of support are not needed for co-PIs, but should be solicited from collaborators at other institutions, evaluators, consultants, etc., and anyone not at NIU or in another department/college at NIU who is agreeing to support the project.

Letters should contain specific commitments and be as descriptive as possible. Letters from colleagues "in support" of the proposal should not be submitted. (And if they are, NSF will either return the proposal without review or request that they are removed.)

However, please be sure to review the solicitation for the competition to which you are applying. Some competitions require specific kinds of supplementary documentation, and others do not allow any supplementary documents to be included. The guidelines for the specific competition trump the general rules presented above.

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Current & pending support

What is current and pending support?

Most if not all grant funders will request a statement of "current and pending support" (also referred to as "other support"): a listing of projects which are currently funded or for which funding is pending. Such information is typically required for each key person named in a proposal.

Why is it requested or required?

Most sponsors require that this information is submitted with the proposal; however, some (i.e., the National Institutes of Health and other PHS agencies) do not request current and pending information until an award seems likely. Sponsors require current and pending support statements for two reasons:

  1. To ensure that key personnel has sufficient time available to devote to the proposed project.
  2. To ensure that the proposed project does not significantly overlap with other projects currently receiving federal funding (i.e. scientific overlap).

Type of information requested; format

While formats and required information elements vary by sponsor, in most cases, a current and pending statement must include the title, sponsor, status (i.e., "current" or "pending"), start and end dates, amount of funding and time commitment for each project listed. Some sponsors (e.g., USDA) require that an award or proposal number be listed, and some (e.g., NSF) want the location where each project is being performed. Sponsors usually want to see the time commitment shown as a number of person months; however, some still want to know the percentage of effort.

Who completes current and pending forms?

SPA keeps a record of all pending and awarded external funding proposals. Using these records, your Research Development Specialist can (given enough time) compile a list of currently awarded and pending externally funded projects, customized to the format and information requirements of the particular sponsor to which you are applying, and send the document to you for review.

PIs are responsible for reviewing the information carefully for accuracy prior to proposal submission.

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