NSF: Writing Budget Justifications

A budget justification is the narrative that accompanies your NSF budget and can be up to 5 pages in length. This is where investigators validate and explain the dollar amounts they requested in their line-item budget. Justifications explain pay rates and outline equipment, materials, and supplies requests. Investigators should ask themselves if their budget justifications are answering these questions;

  1. Why are these requested funds needed?
  2. How does each item in the budget help meet the proposed deliverables?
  3. How were these requested funds estimated?

The first place to start before writing any budget justification is the PAPPG. In addition to all the picky details provided there, here are three general pieces of advice that typify budgets that meet little resistance when it comes time to fund your project. The best budget justifications tend to have these things in common:

Use of Parallel Formatting with the Budget Pages

The absolute best way to organize and format your budget justification is to use the same letter and number system used in the budget template. This also helps your Program Officer locate specific items and amounts.

Using Senior Personnel as an example, your budget template will look something like this;

budget just.png

Then your budget justification for this exciting, cross-disciplinary proposal should follow this order;

A. Senior Personnel

  1. Pomona Sprout- Principal Investigator, # months’ work/year, list specific responsibilities and explain how she arrived at this calculation.Year 1 $$$$, Year 2 $$$$, Year 3 $$$$, Year 4 $$$$
  2. Indiana Jones- Co-Principal Investigator, # months’ work/year, list specific responsibilities and explain how he arrived at this calculation.Year 1 $$$$, Year 2 $$$$, Year 3 $$$$, Year 4 $$$$

Salaries: Time and Rates

For all personnel, show what amounts you are asking for and state how you calculated those salary amounts. Give a monthly breakdown and include any fringe rates.

If you are requesting more than two months’ salary for any senior personnel, clearly justify that the rationale fits into one of these two categories:

  1. the person has a soft money position, or
  2. the project scope requires buying out of teaching time.

Section G. Other Direct Costs

Section G is often where confusion happens. The best way to avoid confusion is to start in the PAPPG. It clearly defines which costs should live in lines G1-G6. Some key points to keep in mind are;

  • Do not include funds for Materials and Supplies under Participant Support Costs (section F), even if those items will be used by students or other trainees. List them under G.1.
  • Section G.3 (Consultant Services): If you are using the consultant category, Program Officers may request additional information as to each individual’s expertise, primary organizational affiliation, normal daily compensation rate, and number of days of expected service.
  • Section G.5 (Subawards): For each subaward, a budget and budget narrative need to be prepared and submitted. Please make sure that the subaward budgets list the subawardee institution and PI (and not the information of the lead proposal again).
  • Section G.6 (Other Direct Costs – Other) is a catch-all category that will always attract scrutiny, so especially for this section be sure to be explicit about what you’re requesting, why, and how much it will cost. Also,
  • Graduate student tuition goes in G.6. Other.

In Conclusion

Justify everything. Assume nothing. If necessary, clarify the NSF budget guidelines with your Authorized Organizational Representative prior to submitting a proposal. This is especially important for rare or unusual expenditures, such as foreign subawards or consultancies or salary requests beyond two months for any senior personnel. It’s also important for normal expenditures like travel.

For example, don’t just write, “I need $8000 for international travel to go to two meetings in Europe.” PIs should use an airfare estimator and show the breakdown of costs.

Again, make sure your Program Officer understands how you came up with the total number you’re requesting in each category. There’s no harm in adding a table to show calculations. And this may seem obvious, but make sure the numbers in the budget justification match the numbers in the budget.

Finally, if most of your work is off-campus, check with your Authorized Organizational Representative about whether the off-campus indirect cost rate applies. Different institutions have different policies on when the off-campus rate is appropriate.

For additional tips on preparing an award budget, visit the MCB blog.

Original post by DEB Science Staff 8/23/19