Developing a Proper Budget (Part One)

111212_TECH_money.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeIn preparing a proposal, whether for a substantial government award or a small agreement with a private sponsor, it can be reasonably stated that the technical portion, detailing the specific nature of the research or activity, is undoubtedly the most important aspect of creating a strong submission. This does not mean, however, that the other facets of the proposal can be largely ignored. In fact, the opposite is true: With less available funding and the increasing harshness of sponsor guidelines, it is critical to devote the proper amount of time and care to each section of the proposal. Perhaps the best example of this fact is the proposal budget.

The budget is crucial to the proposal as a whole for a couple of reasons. First, and most obvious, a detailed and precise budget and justification gives the sponsor an excellent indication of how the PI plans to allocate the funds of his or her award in order to produce the most effective results possible. Slightly less obvious, but no less important, is the fact that strictly following both sponsor and University budget guidelines will help avoid issues that arise in proposal review and, most importantly, the award stage, that can negatively affect the proposal’s ultimate success. Thus, the following is the first in a series of entries regarding the effective creation of budgets for proposals.


The foundation of almost any proposal budget is the personnel section. It gives the sponsor the best indication of the scope of work and the amount of time that each investigator will need to devote in order to complete the activities and obtain the desired results from the project. In recent years, sponsors (especially federal) have placed an emphasis on properly gauging and tracking effort. As a result, it is paramount to have a proper indication of how much effort each personnel member will be putting forth.

The first red flag that will pop out to any proposal reviewer, from a university research office or sponsor alike, in regards to effort is an investigator devoting either a very small or very significant amount of time to the project. This is not to say that the estimation would not be correct (often times a proposal for a large award will require several months of effort while a travel award or an award for student research where the PI is simply acting in a supervisory role will require minimal effort), but rather that in the event of small or significant amounts of effort, it is important to thoroughly justify the effort within the project’s scope of work.

One way to avoid problems with effort is to properly identify personnel. The difference between whether a faculty member will be listed as either a principal investigator or a co-investigator is largely dependent on how the faculty members foresee their roles in the project. Most projects will see one principal investigator and any number of co-investigators. In that sense, it is most common for the principal investigator to devote more effort towards the project than the co-investigator(s), though that is not always the case. In some instances there may be several principal investigators, which works as long as the scope of the project dictates the need and any sponsor protocol for multiple PIs is followed (such as NIH’s Multiple Leadership Plan). Regardless of the classification, accurately listed effort for both PIs and Co-PIs is critical to positive proposal review and will ultimately aid in effort reporting if the project is funded.   (Continued. . . .)