FAQs Answered in Plain English for Faculty Grant Applicants
Please contact Dr. Gil Harootunian, Executive Director, University Initiatives, for clarification or additional questions related to pursuing grants. Dr. Harootunian is the POC for grants initiatives in the Provost’s Office to streamline communication and ensure timely attention to your requests.
What is considered a “major” grant, and what are the first things I should do when pursuing one?
Major grants are eligible for enhanced support through the Office of University Initiatives. A “major grant” generally is one for $1 million or more. The first things you should do are contact the Dean of your College to request college-level support and next contact the Provost to request institutional-level support.
What determines the size and composition of the PI Team, especially for National Science Foundation proposals?
The expertise needed to accomplish the project’s goals determines the size and composition of the PI team. The National Science Foundation’s Fastlane form only has space to enter one PI and four Co-PIs, but faculty are still in charge of the size and composition of the PI team. Faculty should describe the full PI team in the Project Narrative, the binding document for the proposed work. The language of the NSF Grants.Gov guide (5 October 2020 edition) clarifies this: “Applications submitted to NSF may identify a maximum of four co-Principal Investigators. In cases where applications are submitted that include more than four co-PIs, NSF will only use the first four co-PIs entered on this form. Any person identified as co-PI after the first four co-PIs listed will have their role changed to “Senior Key Person” in NSF’s Fastlane system” (page 47). Clearly, faculty can identify “more than four Co-PIs.” An electronic form never trumps the Project Narrative.
Budget: Scaled Salary for Multi-Year Proposals.
“People Costs” are often the largest budget category on a grant. This can create a problem when budgeting a five-year award because salary increases and the fringe benefit rates tied to salary will grow significantly, eventually edging out costs for non-personnel categories. University Initiatives secured approval for distributed salary increases over the life of an award. This new approach sets a five-year salary increase target (15%) but allows flexibility to distribute and adjust the percentages over the years. Grant applications can allocate slightly higher percentages in Y1, Y2, and Y3, and slightly lower percentages in Y4 and Y5 to balance overall budget needs during the five-year period. This works well because federal sponsors permit carryover of funds from one year to the next.
Budget: Student Scholarships and Financial Aid Eligibility.
Grant-funded scholarships can affect a student’s financial aid eligibility. Make sure to communicate with the Financial Aid Office when awards come in that include student support. You may need to be innovative in finding ways to allocate funds to students in ways that will not affect their financial aid eligibility. For example, you may use the funds to help students earn more units by paying the CGE fees for a summer or intersession class. Sometimes, the funds can pay the CGE instructor to lower the cost per unit substantially. You may need this option when you cannot pay the students’ CGE fees because they are not current students. You can reimburse students for direct expenses without affecting the students’ financial aid. Direct expenses can cover items such as travel to and registration for conferences, books, professional fees (e.g., licensing examinations), or memberships in professional organizations.
Budget: Cost Share.
Sponsors can require or prohibit cost share or permit voluntary cost share.
- Required. If cost share is required, a project will be ineligible without it.
- Voluntary. All cost share, whether required or voluntary, is subject to audit, so balance the need for cost share against the auditing burden post-award.
- Prohibited. Some sponsors, particularly the National Science Foundation, prohibit cost share. One key reason is to level the playing field (wealthier institutions can easily out-compete others by offering significant cost share).
- What happens when time and resources are being committed to a project whose sponsor prohibits voluntary cost share? The National Science Foundation prohibits voluntary cost share, but you can detail all time and resources committed in the “Facilities, Equipment, and Resources” supplemental document as long as you do not assign dollar value to the time and resources.
- What are eligible costs for cost share? Sponsors will stipulate eligible costs to count toward cost share, such as waived indirect costs.
Budget: Indirect Costs versus Direct Costs.
Indirect Costs are those costs not specific to a project, such as the effort of administrators (e.g., deans, chairs) and institutional resources such as the library, parking facilities, and pre-award services. The university’s current federally negotiated indirect cost rate is 40%. Direct costs are project-specific costs. If you are purchasing a large amount of chemicals and molecular bio reagents; consumable lab supplies; specimens and samples; growth media (bacteria), and so on that are specific to the project, you may bill for those under Direct Costs.
- What is it? “External” evaluation is just that: external. Evaluators should not be associated with the university in any manner so they provide the highest level of objectivity and credibility when evaluating a university project.
- What does it do? External evaluation measures project effectiveness. Is the project meeting goals and objectives, on time, and, in general, being implemented as represented in proposal?
- How is it different from the work of an internal researcher? Sometimes funding agencies also require an internal researcher. The internal researcher measures learning associated with the program’s components, such as which are most effective with first generation students, which develop efficacy among at-risk students, which encourage a growth mindset among all stakeholders, and so on.
- What does it cost? A good range would 5%-8% of total project costs. The exact percentage depends on the demands of the project, for example a single institution vs. multi-institutional project. A streamlined method to handle budgeting of costs is to offer the 5%- 8% as an “all- inclusive flat fee” to the external evaluator, who can then break out the costs (e.g., time, travel) within that lump sum.
- Should I use an expert individual or an established evaluation center? An expert individual will often provide a good amount of individual attention to the project at a more cost effective rate. Individual experts may contract with the Fresno State Financial Foundation as independent consultants, streamlining post-award administration. An established evaluation center often has higher costs that include the overhead of the center in addition to evaluation activities.
Grants.Gov and NSF Fastlane: Electronic Submission Systems.
These electronic submission systems standardized grants submissions across multiple funding agencies. Technology has advanced to the point that electronic submission systems empower you as PI and Co-PIs. Grants.Gov now creates applications in “Workspace,” a collaborative site that allows everyone working on an application to log in and review it at any time. NSF Fastlane has long had this capacity. The simplicity of this technology makes easy ownership of your work. You need only take 10 minutes to create an ID for Grants.Gov or Fastlane to have full access to your proposal at all times.
“IRB” (“Institutional Review Board”).
At California State University, Fresno, the “IRB” is the “Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects” - fresnostate.edu/academics/humansubjects/index.html. Not a few external sponsors such as the National Science Foundation allow applicants to submit proposals with IRB approval marked as “pending” and only require formal IRB approval upon award. Yet it is best to err on the side of caution if you have questions or concerns. Contact the current Chair of the Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects, and ask for guidance as necessary about your project’s work.
Best Practice: Proposal Development.
The best approach is to talk with the program officer(s) of the sponsor. A limited number of programs allow you to submit preliminary drafts, an opportunity to obtain high value feedback. Most programs will allow you to submit a one-page overview of the proposed project to receive feedback from the program officer, either in a conference call or through written feedback in an email. The guidelines capture the explicit requirements of the grant program. The discussion with a program officer may clarify the implicit expectations of that grant program.
Worst Practice: Proposal Development.
The worst approach is not to talk with the program officer(s) of the sponsor. The program officers prepared the guidelines, so they understand them in a special way. If you do not communicate with the program officers, you risk submitting a proposal that is not fully compliant with the guidelines.
When should I start writing the proposal?
While you should brainstorm project ideas all the time, you should not commit to designing a project in writing until you have read the current published guidelines. Sponsors update annual opportunities, so last year’s priorities may no longer be this year’s priorities.
Should I re-submit a proposal that scored well but was not funded?
Yes. For many programs, the percentage of awarded proposals is higher for second time submissions than for first time submissions. Second time submissions have benefitted from the feedback of the panel of reviewers.
Which university classifications are important to mention?
One of the most important classifications to mention right away is the university’s “D/PU” (Doctoral/Professional University) Carnegie classification. This confirms for program officers and reviewers that California State University, Fresno has the research capacity to produce documentable results suitable for national publication. Two other important classifications to clarify are the U.S. Department of Education classifications, “Hispanic-Serving Institution” (“HSI”) and “Asian American, Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution” (“AANAPISI”). These two classifications confirm the rich diversity of the university’s student body.
How should I refer to our university?
The best practice is to use “California State University, Fresno.” That name reminds
program officers and reviewers that our campus is a major university and part of the
nation’s largest four-year university system. That name also preempts negative assumptions
that reviewers in other parts of the country sometimes make about “state schools”
or “state colleges” So submit with pride from …
California State University, Fresno!