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Finessing grant scope through macro budgeting

On occasion, grant principal investigators contact me for guidance on their grant budget. I automatically respond, “I am not allowed to do grant budgets.”

There is a sound reason for this response. I am not in my institution's pre-award office nor am I a university-trained accountant within a department. This is what I must say. Yet my unequivocal reply would suggest that I do not know how to prepare a grant budget (which I do) or that I am unwilling to help (which I am).


In response to this conundrum, I lean on the concept of macro budget development, a useful one in academic settings where the grant professional may not be directly responsible for populating a detailed budget template either for routing / institutional approval purposes or for completing the agency's budget form.

Early career investigators, however, may be in the process of learning what their proposed research may cost and how to build this budget for a particular agency. This is where I can provide a link, either a direct or indirect communication line, between PI and budget preparer — without overstepping his/her responsibilities.

Since my role is to provide guidance to enhance competitiveness of grant applications, I cannot neglect the instructive capacity of budget development when constructing the specific aims or objectives of the proposal. Here, I find that my macro budget tool, in tandem with the detailed milestones in the timeline, can reveal whether the scope of the grant is realistic or overambitious. The latter is a critique that is commonly received in peer review, particularly of early career faculty submissions.

To circumvent or address this critique, I guide the faculty member through a table of broad cost categories:
  • Personnel: Who will be included? What is the role of each — and on which aims?
    Brainstorming personnel effort can aid in a realistic assessment relative to the milestones before the PI works with the budget preparer on actual numbers.

  • Consultant/Contractual Work: What discrete fee-for-service costs or consulting rate might be requested?
    Once the nature of the work is determined, the budget preparer can ensure that the categorical breakdown conforms to the PI's institutional policies as well as those of the granting agency (e.g., designation of a subaward versus salary and/or materials cost).

  • Supplies: What are the major types of expenses — by aim and year?
    Often a systematic discussion, based on the proposal draft, can reveal the major needs, helping the PI communicate with the budget preparer.

  • Animal Experiments:  How many animals will be purchased? For each set of experiments, how long will animals be housed?
    Parsing out the overall plan will enable the budget designee to populate their spreadsheet with the per diem and other rates to get a realistic approximation.

  • Publications / Travel: What is desired? What does the funding opportunity require or allow?
    Because it is often expected that a nominal amount for each will be included, I encourage adding these costs as a placeholder when considering the total allowable budget request.

I find the use of a tailored macro budget template to be a less intimidating and dynamic approach to helping the PI identify the key cost elements and subsequently provide their budget preparer with appropriate starting information. Best of all, when the macro budget template reveals that the scope of the grant is not consistent with the allowable budget and/or project period, I have the validation for assisting the PI in modifying the proposal's scope.

How do you respond when caught in the crosshairs between a faculty member seeking budget guidance and those who serve the critical grant accounting function within the submitting institution?
Michele Zacks is a biomedical grant professional who works with clinical, translational, and basic science research faculty on federal and peer-reviewed foundation proposals, a specialty recently branded as “research development.” She persistently seeks to combine artistry and grantsmanship in her approach to advising her faculty clients.

GPC Competencies:
  • Knowledge of how to craft, construct and submit an effective grant application
  • Knowledge of strategies for effective program and project design and development
  • Knowledge of practices and services that raise the level of professionalism of grant developers