A DNA model

NSF announces changes to IOS Core Programs solicitation

Individuals in the mollusk species Donax variabilis show diverse coloration and patterning in their phenotypes. Coquina shells.

Last week, the National Science Foundation’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) hosted a webinar about two changes being made to its Core Programs solicitation:

  • Proposals focused on plant symbioses of all types will now be submitted to the new Plant-Biotic Interactions (PBI) program, rather than to Core Programs. PBI will be jointly reviewed with the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and offers more flexibility by allowing translational and/or applied research in addition to/instead of basic research. Required letters of intent are due April 29, 2016, full proposals are due June 1, 2016, and awards will be made after October 1, 2016 (i.e., after the start of the Federal government’s FY2017).
  • A new track is available: EDGE (Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools). This track has been added to address impediments to testing cause-and-effect relationships between genes and phenotypes. Because this is a new track, PIs are strongly encouraged to contact a Program Director to discuss project ideas before submitting. Submissions to this track follow the same deadlines as other IOS Core proposals: January 15, 2016 for pre-proposals and August 5, 2016 for invited full proposals.

FAQs about the revised solicitation can be found here. The slide deck from the webinar will eventually be posted to the IOS blog, IOS in Foucs.

DNA model photo by Caroline Davis2010 via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license. Coquina shell photo by Debivort, via Wikipedia. Used under GNU Free Documentation license.


“Research Whisperer” explains how to build a simple research budget

An Apple keyboard with a green budget key in place of the shift key.

We’re pleased to reblog this Research Whisperer post by Jonathan O’Donnell. (Please note that the blogger is from Australia, so all costs are in AUD. Also, some research administration terms and cost rules may differ from those in the U.S.)

Every research project needs a budget*.

If you are applying for funding, you must say what you are planning to spend that funding on. More than that, you need to show how spending that money will help you to answer your research question.

So, developing the budget is the perfect time to plan your project clearly. A good budget shows the assessors that you have thought about your research in detail and, if it is done well, it can serve as a great, convincing overview of the project.

Here are five steps to create a simple budget for your research project.

1. List your activities

Make a list of everything that you plan to do in the project, and who is going to do it.

Take your methodology and turn it into a step-by-step plan. Have you said that you will interview 50 people? Write it on your list.

Are you performing statistical analysis on your sample? Write it down.

Think through the implications of what you are going to do. Do you need to use a Thingatron? Note down that you will need to buy it, install it, and commission it.

What about travel? Write down each trip separately. Be specific. You can’t just go to ‘South East Asia’ to do fieldwork. You need to go to Kuala Lumpur to interview X number of people over Y weeks, then the same again for Singapore and Jakarta.

  • Your budget list might look like this:
  • I’m going to do 10 interviews in Kuala Lumpur; 10 interviews in Singapore; 10 interviews in Jakarta by me.
  • I’ll need teaching release for three months for fieldwork.
  • I’ll need Flights to KL, Singapore, Jakarta and back to Melbourne.
  • I’ll need Accommodation for a month in each place, plus per diem.
  • The transcription service will transcribe the 30 interviews.
  • I’ll analysis the transcribed results. (No teaching release required – I’ll do it in my meagre research time allowance.)
  • I’ll need a Thingatron X32C to do the trials.
  • Thing Inc will need to install the Thingatron. (I wonder how long that will take.)
  • The research assistant will do three trials a month with the Thingatron.
  • I’ll need to hire a research assistant (1 day per week for a year at Level B1.)
  • The research assistant will do the statistical analysis of the Thingatron results.
  • I’ll do the writing up in my research allowance time.

By the end, you should feel like you have thought through the entire project in detail. You should be able to walk someone else through the project, so grab a critical friend and read the list to them. If they ask questions, write down the answers.

This will help you to get to the level of specificity you need for the next step.

2. Check the rules again

You’ve already read the funding rules, right? If not, go and read them now – I’ll wait right here until you get back.

Once you’ve listed everything you want to do, go back and read the specific rules for budgets again. What is and isn’t allowed? The funding scheme won’t pay for equipment – you’ll need to fund your Thingatron from somewhere else. Cross it off.

Some schemes won’t fund people. Others won’t fund travel. It is important to know what you need for your project. It is just as important to know what you can include in the application that you are writing right now.

Most funding schemes won’t fund infrastructure (like building costs) and other things that aren’t directly related to the project. Some will, though. If they do, you should include overheads (i.e. the general costs that your organisation needs to keep running). This includes the cost of basics like power and lighting; desks and chairs; and cleaners and security staff. It also includes service areas like the university library. Ask your finance officer for help with this. Often, it is a percentage of the overall cost of the project.

If you are hiring people, don’t forget to use the right salary rate and include salary on-costs. These are the extra costs that an organisation has to pay for an employee, but that doesn’t appear in their pay check. This might include things like superannuation, leave loading, insurance, and payroll tax. Once again, your finance officer can help with this.

Your budget list might now look like this:

  • 10 interviews in Kuala Lumpur; 10 interviews in Singapore; 10 interviews in Jakarta by me.
  • Teaching release for three months for fieldwork.
  • Flights to KL, Singapore, Jakarta and back to Melbourne.
  • Accommodation for a month in each place, plus per diem, plus travel insurance (rule 3F).
  • Transcription of 30 interviews, by the transcription service.
  • Analysis of transcribed results, by me. No teaching release required.
  • Purchase and install Thingatron X32C, by Thing Inc. Not allowed by rule 3C. Organise access to Thingatron via partner organistion – this is an in-kind contribution to the project.
  • Three trials a month with Thingatron, by research assistant.
  • Statistical analysis of Thingatron results, by research assistant.
  • Research assistant: 1 day per week for a year at Level B1, plus 25.91% salary on-costs.
  • Overheads at 125% of total cash request, as per rule 3H.

3. Cost each item

For each item on your list, find a reasonable cost for it. Are you going to interview the fifty people and do the statistical analysis yourself? If so, do you need time release from teaching? How much time? What is your salary for that period of time, or how much will it cost to hire a replacement? Don’t forget any hidden costs, like salary on-costs.

If you aren’t going to do the work yourself, work out how long you need a research assistant for. Be realistic. Work out what level you want to employ them at, and find out how much that costs.

How much is your Thingatron going to cost? Sometimes, you can just look that stuff up on the web. Other times, you’ll need to ring a supplier, particularly if there are delivery and installation costs.

Jump on a travel website and find reasonable costs for travel to Kuala Lumpur and the other places. Find accommodation costs for the period that you are planning to stay, and work out living expenses. Your university, or your government, may have per diem rates for travel like this.

Make a note of where you got each of your estimates from. This will be handy later, when you write the budget justification.

  • 10 interviews in Kuala Lumpur; 10 interviews in Singapore; 10 interviews in Jakarta by me (see below for travel costs).
  • Teaching release for three months for fieldwork = $25,342 – advice from finance officer.
  • Flights to KL ($775), Singapore ($564), Jakarta ($726), Melbourne ($535) – Blue Sky airlines, return economy.
  • Accommodation for a month in each place (KL: $3,500; Sing: $4,245; Jak: $2,750 – long stay, three star accommodation as per TripAdviser).
  • Per diem for three months (60 days x $125 per day – University travel rules).
  • Travel insurance (rule 3F): $145 – University travel insurance calculator.
  • Transcription of 30 interviews, by the transcription service: 30 interviews x 60 minutes per interview x $2.75 per minute – Quote from transcription service, accented voices rate.
  • Analysis of transcribed results, by me. No teaching release required. (In-kind contribution of university worth $2,112 for one week of my time – advice from finance officer).
  • Purchase and install Thingatron X32C, by Thing Inc. Not allowed by rule 3C. Organise access to Thingatron via partner organistion – this is an in-kind contribution to the project. ($2,435 in-kind – quote from partner organisation, at ‘favoured client’ rate.)
  • Three trials a month with Thingatron, by research assistant.
  • Statistical analysis of Thingatron results, by research assistant.
  • Research assistant: 1 day per week for a year at Level B1, plus 25.91% salary on-costs. $12,456 – advice from finance officer.
  • Overheads at 125% of total cash request, as per rule 3H.

Things are getting messy, but the next step will tidy it up.

4. Put it in a spreadsheet

Some people work naturally in spreadsheets (like Excel). Others don’t. If you don’t like Excel, tough. You are going to be doing research budgets for the rest of your research life.

When you are working with budgets, a spreadsheet is the right tool for the job, so learn to use it! Learn enough to construct a simple budget – adding things up and multiplying things together will get you through most of it. Go and do a course if you have to.

For a start, your spreadsheet will multiply things like 7 days in Kuala Lumpur at $89.52 per day, and it will also add up all of your sub-totals for you.

If your budget doesn’t add up properly (because, for example, you constructed it as a table in Word), two things will happen. First, you will look foolish. Secondly, and more importantly, people will lose confidence in all your other numbers, too. If your total is wrong, they will start to question the validity of the rest of your budget. You don’t want that.

If you are shy of maths, then Excel is your friend. It will do most of the heavy lifting for you.

For this exercise, the trick is to put each number on a new line. Here is how it might look.

Simple research budget

Budget items Number of items Cost per item Total cash cost In-kind cost Notes
Melbourne – Kuala Lumpur economy airfare 1 $775.00 $775.00 Blue Sky Airlines
1 month accommodation 1 $3,500.00 $3,500.00 1 month x long stay via TripAdvisor
30 days per diem 30 $125.00 $3,750.00 University travel rules
Kuala Lumpur – Singapore economy airfare 1 $564.00 $564.00 Blue Sky Airlines
1 month accommodation 1 $4,245.00 $4,245.00 1 month x long stay via TripAdvisor
30 days per diem 30 $125.00 $3,750.00 University travel rules
Singapore – Jakarta economy airfare 1 $726.00 $726.00 Blue Sky Airlines
1 month accommodation 1 $2,750.00 $2,750.00 1 month x long stay via TripAdvisor
30 days per diem 30 $125.00 $3,750.00 University travel rules
Jakarta – Melbourne economy airfare 1 $535.00 $535.00 Blue Sky Airlines
Travel insurance: 90 days, South East Asia 90 $1.61 $145.00 University travel rules
Transcription: 30 interviews with foreign accents 1800 $2.75 $4,950.00 Quote from transcription service
Access to Thingatron $2,435.00 Favoured client rate, Thing Inc.
Chief Investigator: 0.2 of Academic D.2 $36,457.00 Includes 25.91% salary on-costs
Teaching relief: 90 days of Academic D.2 $25,342.00 Includes 25.91% salary on-costs
Research Assistant: 0.1 of Academic B.1 $12,456.00 Includes 25.91% salary on-costs
Sub-total $67,238.00 $38,892.00
Overheads $84,047.50 University overheads at 125%
Total $151,285.50 $38,892.00

5. Justify it

Accompanying every budget is a budget justification. For each item in your budget, you need to answer two questions:

  • Why do you need this money?
  • Where did you get your figures from?

The budget justification links your budget to your project plan and back again. Everything item in your budget should be listed in your budget justification, so take the list from your budget and paste it into your budget justification.

For each item, give a short paragraph that says why you need it. Refer back to the project plan and expand on what is there. For example, if you have listed a research assistant in your application, this is a perfect opportunity to say what the research assistant will be doing.

Also, for each item, show where you got your figures from. For a research assistant, this might mean talking about the level of responsibility required, so people can understand why you chose the salary level. For a flight, it might be as easy as saying: “Blue Sky airlines economy return flight.”

Here is an example for just one aspect of the budget:

Fieldwork: Kuala Lumpur
Past experience has shown that one month allows enough time to refine and localise interview questions with research partners at University of Malaya, test interview instrument, recruit participants, conduct ten x one-hour interviews with field notes. In addition, the novel methodology will be presented at CONF2015, to be held in Malaysia in February 2015.

Melbourne – Kuala Lumpur economy airfare is based on current Blue Sky Airlines rates. Note that airfares have been kept to a minimum by travelling from country to country, rather than returning to Australia.

1 month accommodation is based on three star, long stay accommodation rates provided by TripAdvisor.

30 days per diem rate is based on standard university rates for South-East Asia.

Pro tip: Use the same nomenclature everywhere. If you list a Thingatron X32C in your budget, then call it a Thingatron X32C in your budget justification and project plan. In an ideal world, someone should be able to flip from the project plan, to the budget and to the budget justification and back again and always know exactly where they are.

  • Project plan: “Doing fieldwork in Malaysia? Whereabouts?” Flips to budget.
  • Budget: “A month in Kuala Lumpur – OK. Why a month?” Flips to budget justification.
  • Budget justification: “Ah, the field work happens at the same time as the conference. Now I get it. So, what are they presenting at the conference?” Flips back to the project description…

So, there you have it: Make a list; check the rules; cost everything; spreadsheet it; and then justify it. Budget done. Good job, team!

This article builds on several previous articles. I have shamelessly stolen from them.

* Actually, there are some grant schemes that give you a fixed amount of money, which I think is a really great idea. However, you will still need to work out what you are going to spend the money on, so you will still need a budget at some stage, even if you don’t need it for the application.

Source: How to make a simple research budget

Building blocks photo by André Hofmeister via Flickr.  Budget keyboard photo by Got Credit via Flickr. Both used under Creative Commons license.

Photo of Tampa, Florida skyline as viewed from Bayshore Boulevard. In the right front of the frame is a river. A bridge over the river is visible in the background. In the left front of the frame, a road runs along the river. A bicyclist is riding on the sidewalk toward the viewer, while two cars are driving on the road in the opposite direction. A small grassy area with a few trees and other plantings is between the road and the river. A tall building with several balconies is partially visible at the far left of the image. Seven other multi-story buildings are visible in the background.

NSF to hold grants conference in Tampa

Logo of the National Science Foundation

The NSF will hold its spring 2015 Grants Conference June 1-2 in Tampa, Florida.

According to NSF, “this two-day conference is a must, especially for new faculty, researchers and administrators who want to gain key insight into a wide range of current issues at NSF including the state of current funding; new and current policies and procedures; and pertinent administrative issues. NSF program officers representing each NSF directorate will be on hand to provide up-to-date information about specific funding opportunities and answer your questions.”

The conference will be hosted by the State University System of Florida, and will be held at the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel.  The registration fee is $370.  Registration is scheduled to open this week (sign up here to be notified) and is expected to reach capacity very quickly.

Red, orange and yellow digital ones and zeros stream from front to back across the frame. The numbers are clear in the foreground, blurry in the background, giving the image a sense of motion.

eSPA training is on the horizon

Photograph of the unibody iMac. The screensaver is an image of space -- swirling matter and stars.

“eSPA?” you ask. In case you have missed our previous announcements, OARS is in the process of implementing a new Electronic Sponsored Programs Administration (eSPA) software tool — Evisions Cayuse Research Suite — that will officially launch on January 1, 2015.

This system will provide for system-to-system electronic submission of all Federal proposals formerly submitted through grants.gov and Fastlane, and will replace our paper Proposal Approval Form (PAF) with electronic routing. In addition, the new system’s robust features will allow faculty and administrators to generate grant-activity reports on their own at any time.

We will launch training for this new system on October 6-8, when Evisions staff will be onsite at the Oxford campus. OARS will lead additional training sessions throughout the remainder of fall semester, with multiple sessions every two weeks, to accommodate as many schedules as possible. Be on the look out — here on the blog, on Twitter @MiamiOH_OARS, on the OARS website, and on 25Live — for the training schedule for specific dates and times.

For more information about eSPA, read the FAQs on the OARS website or contact me.

Featured image (left) by freeimages.com user flavioloka, used with permission. Image above by Matthieu Riegler (user:Kyro) via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

A red ribbon flows from the upper right of the black background to the lower left

The new Uniform Guidance: What to expect

Official seal of the Office of Management and Budget, which reports to the Executive Office of the President of the United States

Recently, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released final guidance on “Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principals, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards.”  This guidance, termed the “Omni-Circular” or “Uniform Guidance” combines eight previous circulars in an attempt to streamline policies and procedures for Federal awards into one place.

The new guidance will go into effect on December 26, 2014, with the exception of guidance on audit requirements, which will go into effect at the start of the institution’s fiscal year (July 1, 2015, for Miami University).

Just what the new guidance means for those who submit proposals and receive awards from Federal agencies is yet to be 100% determined, but we can expect some of the following changes.

Conflict of Interest
While a few of the Federal grant awarding agencies have conflict of interest policies in place, many do not. With the new guidance, all Federal agencies will be required to develop conflict of interest policies. Luckily for us, the practice of reporting potential and actual conflicts of interest is already in place at Miami University, so the new guidance should not affect our current practice beyond tweaking our current policy.

Funding Opportunities
The new circular requires that Federal funding opportunities be announced 60 days in advance of due date.  While some exceptions allow for a minimum of 30-days advance notice, we should see fewer “surprise” or last-minute announcements, allowing more time for proposal preparation.  As always, advance notice to OARS is appreciated.  In fact, we developed the External Proposal Submission Incentive (EPSI) Program to encourage an early heads-up to your OARS consultants.

Merit Review
Federal awarding agencies will be required to design and execute proposal review processes based on proposal merit.  The nature of the review process will be left up to the individual agencies.  Over the past couple of years, we have seen the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the NSF (National Science Foundation) take a close look at their review processes, resulting in changes both review and scoring of proposals.  Likely we will see other agencies follow suit.

Voluntary Cost Sharing
Recently, the NSF clamped down on showing voluntary (i.e., non-mandatory) cost sharing in a proposal in order to gain an “upper hand” in the review process.  In the new circular, all Federal agencies are being required to crack down on voluntary cost share.  The bottom line for grant writers: if cost sharing is not required, don’t include it!

Program Income
In the past, Federal agencies could either let program income generated under a Federal award be used toward project costs –or- require that generated funds be returned to the Federal-awarding agency.  In the new guidance, income from fees for services performed, from rental or personal property acquired under a Federal award or from the sale of commodities or items fabricated under a Federal awards (e.g., license fees and royalties on patents and copyrights) can be used to pay for current project costs or used to meet Federal cost share requirements.

Administrative and Clerical Support
Can Federal funds be used to pay administrative/clerical staff?  “It depends,” was the previous answer to this question, and with the new circular little has changed.  The new circular states that salaries for administrative and clerical staff may be allowable as direct costs in certain circumstances provided those costs are not being captured under indirect or facilities and administrative costs (F&A).  Additionally, a specific individual must be identified and associated with specific work on a project in order to directly charge for clerical support.  In our current negotiated indirect cost rate agreement, administrative and clerical support is captured as part of our F&A base.  Therefore, the answer to “Can Federal funds be used to pay administrative/clerical staff?” is still “it depends” based on the nature of the project and the duties to be performed — contact OARS if you have questions.

F&A (Facilities & Administrative Costs)
Federal awarding agencies are now required under the new guidance to accept Federally-negotiated rates unless a particular funding program has a statutory rate.  This means that our current F&A rate of 42% of modified total direct costs can be charged to a majority of our Federal sponsors.  (And if we happen to be working with an entity that does not have a Federally-negotiated rate, the new guidance has set a rate of 10% of modified total direct costs for those entities.)  Again, if you have questions, feel free to contact an OARS representative.

In the past, a computer or computing device had to be essential to the project (or research) being proposed and had to be 100% allocable and dedicated to the project.  The good news is that while computing devices must still be essential and allocable, they do not have to be 100% dedicated to a project in order to be requested.

Performance Management
The new circular requires that all financial data (i.e., the budget and expenditures) be related to performance outcomes. Because of this new requirement, we may see some Federal agencies requesting budgets be based on performance indicators or milestones. Stay tuned…

In order to procure goods and services, institutions currently have to go through a competitive bidding process depending on the cost of the goods/services. The new guidance specifically lays out guidelines for procuring goods and services <$3,000, between $3,000 and $149,999 and >$150,000. If in doubt, contact Miami’s procurement office for guidance.

Grant Close-out
In the past, grantees had 90 days after the award end date to officially close out their grants (with both a technical and final, financial report). The close-out period has been extended to 120 days, but beware, as failure to close-out by the end of the 120 days could result in a loss of funds or future funding with an agency!

More to come
The Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship (OARS), along with Grants and Contracts, will be heavily monitoring the changes in the new guidance and reviewing and analyzing our existing policies and procedures to ensure we are in compliance with the new guidance.  Any changes to our current policies and practices will be communicated to you, our constituents, via e-mail, this blog, and special training/education sessions.

Written by Tricia Callahan, Director of Proposal Development, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Featured image (left) by Flickr user Neets & Dre, used under Creative Commons license.

A pile of money - $100 dollar bills. Focus is on the $100 with Benjamin Franklin looking in from the corner.

Power to the PI

Bunches of carrots, with tops, in a pile

Two programs provide incentives directly to Miami University faculty and staff who are eligible to participate as principal investigators (PIs) on externally funded grants and contracts.

Currently in the second year of a three-year pilot, the External Proposal Submission Incentive (EPSI) program awards up to $1000 in professional expense funds to PIs who meet internal deadlines.  The amount awarded depends on the number of submissions and the amount of direct and indirect (F&A) costs requested in proposal budgets.  Details are available here.

The Indirect Cost Recovery Distribution to Principal Investigators program awards 5% of F&A costs to the PI to use for professional expenses.  Details are available here.

Featured image (left) by Flickr user Philip Taylor.  Image (above) by Flickr user swong96765,  Both used under Creative Commons license.