Guide for Grant Seekers

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Part I: The Role of the Grants Office

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We aim to reduce as much as possible the difficulties that may be encountered in the course of submitting a grant proposal. Our office stands ready to fund visits to program officers and to bring collaborators to Penn State to work on preparing significant proposals. If faculty working on such proposals desire, we can also arrange pre-reviews of proposals by scholars who are knowledgeable in a particular disciplinary area. Should an honorarium be necessary, we will provide it. If released time or research assistance will increase the probability of a significant submission, we will work with the respective department head to provide such support. (complete list of Research Office Services)

The grants office assists with proposal preparation, budget preparation, and other application requirements. Our staff obtain required signatures, assist with completion of required forms, take care of University clearance procedures, and ensure that all proposals reach the sponsor by the stated deadline. We encourage faculty to consult with us as early as possible in any submission process. The more lead time we have before a deadline, the more we can help with your proposal. Our experience is that proposals rushed through channels a few days before a deadline get turned down much more frequently than those for which we have ample time to suggest budgetary or editorial revisions. Two weeks lead time is usually sufficient for us to provide such input.


Part II: Make Contact With the Sponsor

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After identifying a potential sponsor and/or program for a research project, we suggest that faculty obtain as much information as possible about program priorities and guidelines, types of eligible activities, recipient requirements, review cycles, funding mechanisms, and projected number and size of awards. We also strongly encourage faculty to make direct contact with agency staff before writing the proposal. The only exceptions would be certain foundations where direct contact is highly restricted. Our staff will be glad to provide agency staff names/phone numbers/e-mail addresses, and where available, web addresses.


Part III: Gifts, Contracts, and Grants Explained

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Differences exist in the types of awards made by sponsors and these differences determine the formal nature of the principal investigator’s obligations and the extent of sponsor involvement in the project.

At the least formal end of the spectrum are GIFTS and UNRESTRICTED GRANTS. These are monies from industry or private organizations in support of a faculty member's research, in support of fellowships, or for the use of particular instructional programs. No formal reports or reviews are required by the sponsor, no formal documents are exchanged between the sponsor and the University, and no "deliverables" are specified. The sponsor has no involvement in the conduct of the project for which the money is given.

Penn State assesses no overhead on gifts; unrestricted grants carry an overhead charge of 15%. These awards are commonly received in the form of a check, which is often accompanied by a letter from the donor specifying the nature of the contribution (e.g., support for the research of Professor X). If funds are given as a gift, this must be clearly stated in the sponsor’s letter.  Faculty receiving such support should bring both the check and the letter to the Grants Office as soon as they are received. Grants and contracts personnel will process the award, and the faculty member should have access to the funds in a matter of days. Commonwealth faculty receiving such an unrestricted grant would ordinarily process the award through the business office of the respective campus.

At the other end of the spectrum are CONTRACTS, the most formal type of award made for any kind of project. The sponsor supports clearly defined activities, and has a considerable amount of involvement in the conduct of the project. Project performance is monitored, technical and detailed financial reports are required, and very specific deliverables are stipulated. A series of pre-negotiations between the sponsor and the principal investigator and formal negotiations between the sponsor and the University must take place before a contractual award is accepted.

GRANTS are the most common type of award in the academic environment. For a grant, the project has been described in a proposal, and the sponsor expects the researcher to work toward the stated objectives and goals on a "best effort" basis. Deliverables usually consist of a final performance report and a financial report supporting expenditures that are in compliance with a previously approved budget. The sponsor typically has minimal involvement in the conduct of the project itself.


Part IV: Proposal Preparation

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Most funding agencies issue specific guidelines and forms for the preparation of proposals, and the Grants Office staff are here to ensure that all proposals meet these prior to submission. Guidelines can be extremely detailed and must be followed scrupulously to avoid the possibility of summary rejection without review. There may be limitations on page length, font, point size, size of margins, length of the title and any number of other items; and some guidelines will specify particular subheadings or topics to be covered.

If a sponsor does not provide formal guidelines, as is often the case with foundations, there are nonetheless basic steps to be followed. For example, a proposal should always have a cover page that states the title of the project, the name(s) of the principal investigator(s), the name(s) of the submitting unit, the dollar amount requested, and the beginning and ending dates requested for the project. Space should be left for signature(s) of the PI(s) and for official university approval. It is essential that a proposal have page numbers and reviewers find often a table of contents to be very helpful.

Care should be taken with the abstract since this is usually the first -- and sometimes the only -- part of the proposal that will be read by some reviewers. It must therefore present a concise yet complete picture of the proposed study. We suggest that the abstract be written after the proposal is completed. The proposal narrative should include a discussion of the project significance, objectives, methodology, any preliminary work already done by the researcher(s), and relevant studies conducted by others in the field. References should always be included and a full bibliography may be desirable. The budget should be detailed enough to allow a review to take place independently of the narrative. To the extent possible, all line items should be broken down into explanatory components (i.e., don't have a line item that stipulates "travel = $5,000"). It is also a good idea to provide budget notes with explanations of personnel functions, travel costs, equipment, and all items that may appear unusual to someone not intimately familiar with the scope of the project.

With enough lead time, Grants Office staff will look over all proposals prior submission, even those submitted to agencies or foundations that do not provide specific guidelines.


Part V: Building Budgets: A Quick Reference to Common Line Items

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All University salaries and wages in a proposal budget must include an additional line item for fringe benefits. These are percentages of salary amounts negotiated annually with the federal government. Since the rates change every year, please check with the Grants Office before attempting to draft a budget for a proposal.

Salary increments should be built into any budget as of each July 1. These are generally estimated at 2.5%. It should also be kept in mind that most academic salaries in Liberal Arts are based on 9-month appointments. If work on a project is to take place during the summer months, the 9-month salary must be annualized to 12 months.

Graduate assistant stipends are based on the level of appointment chosen. Although stipend amounts increase as the grade increases, tuition remission does not. All budgets should include annual salary increases of 4%.  Please contact the Grants Office to ascertain the amounts that should be used.

Facilities and Administrative Costs (often referred to as "overhead" or "indirect costs") are charged to all proposal budgets if the sponsor has no written guidelines stating that overhead will not be paid. These represent the University's operational expenses for all research (not just your particular project). The rates are negotiated with the Office of Naval Research on the basis of a review of research-related expenses University-wide. They are based on the portion of the budget included in the Modified Total Direct Costs (MTDC).

To calculate the MTDC, subtract from the bottom line (total direct costs): (a) capital equipment valued at more than $5,000 per item, (b) all tuition remission for grad students, and (c) all subcontract amounts in excess of $25,000. For example, if your project has a subcontract in the amount of $100,000, only the first $25,000 would be subject to the indirect cost charge. If the subcontractee remains the same on a multi-year project, indirect costs will be assessed only for the first year.

Once again, please remember that F&A rates are re-negotiated each July 1. Therefore, it is essential that you check with Grants Office before drafting or submitting any budgets.

Important Information for Federal Budgets:

Federal regulations (Office of Management and Budget Circular A-21) prohibit charging as direct costs the salaries of clerical or administrative personnel, office supplies, postage, local telephone costs, and memberships in all but unusual and fully justifiable circumstances. This ruling is intended to establish the principle that such costs should normally be treated as F & A costs by universities. Please contact the Grants Office if you have any questions about these regulations.


Part VI: Moving the Proposal Through University Channels

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After the proposal and all requisite sponsor forms have been prepared, electronic approval signatures are obtained from the Principal Investigator(s). These signatures must be obtained before the proposal is submitted. The proposal, accompanied by internal documents called Internal Approval Forms (IAFs), are then approved via signature by the appropriate department head(s). PIs are reminded that department heads need to be familiar with the proposal and budget before receiving the IAF. This is especially true if commitments are being made for academic year effort or any other departmental resources. No departmental commitments may be made without specific approval from the department head. Commonwealth College and faculty not based at University Park must obtain the approval of their campus before clearance is sought at the departmental level. The Associate Dean for Research must approve the proposal next, before its transmittal to the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP). There are several additional approval stages if your project is identified as instructional or continuing education, or if there are other colleges or units involved. Please keep in mind that our staff needs sufficient time to ensure that all internal approvals are sought and received.


Part VII: Receiving the Award

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The University assumes fiscal responsibility for awards, and, in essence, guarantees that the project will be completed. As a result, the acceptance process is comprised of several steps.

In the case of a grant, the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) receives and processes the award notice from the sponsor.

Should any award documentation be sent directly to the PI, this should be forwarded immediately to the College Grants Office. Under no circumstances should PIs sign any forms or return any paperwork to the sponsor.

If the award is a contract, the review process actually begins before an award is offered. During a pre-negotiation phase, the researcher(s) and the sponsor discuss the content of the proposal. The College Grants Office then verifies all budgetary details and confirms all rates quoted in the proposal. OSP then begins formal negotiations with the sponsor on such aspects as copyright, patent, default, and termination clauses. The Research Accounting Office also enters the review process. Only after all parties agree on all aspects of the contract is the award accepted by the University.


Part VIII: Accessing the Funds

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Funds are not released to the University until the official start date of the project. Grants are usually stipulated by sponsors in the terms of the award. The start date may or may not be exactly the same as requested in the proposal. If the award is a contract, the official start of the project may be specified in the terms of the contract or it may be based on the date of the final signature on the document itself. Depending on the contract, the critical signature may be the University's or it may be the sponsor's. Regardless, the determination of the start date is the signal for the Grants Office to request a fund number for this particular award. Upon receipt of the fund number, the Grants Office and the appropriate departmental staff set up the budget structure in the University's central accounting system. This is the account from which the PI will draw funds.

Setting up an Advance Account

If the College or PI is informed that funding for a particular proposal is imminent, and if the proposed start date of the award is known, a temporary budget structure can be created in order to permit expenditures to be incurred against the project budget while waiting for the actual award documents to arrive. Under the Federal Demonstration Partnership certain Federal agencies (e.g., NSF, NIH, NASA) allow such expenses to be incurred. Approvals for both advance accounts and pre-award expenditures must be processed through the Grants Office. The department head must send an email request to the Grants Office. If the award does not materialize or if the start date turns out to be other than stated on the request for an advance account, the department is responsible for all expenses incurred.


Part IX: What if the Proposal is Not Funded?

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It is not unusual to have a proposal turned down. As experienced researchers are aware know that revision and resubmission are often necessary in order to be successful. New applicants, however, may become discouraged at the receipt of a "no." We encourage faculty to think of grant seeking as an on-going process, and to request reviewer comments as soon as notification of non-funding is received. A careful re-thinking of the proposal and the project in the context of these comments will often result in a favorable outcome upon resubmission.


Part X: Project Director Responsibilities

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Although the University assumes legal responsibility for externally funded projects, the Principal Investigator/Project Director is responsible for the day-to-day fiscal management of the project, for the proper conduct of the research activities themselves, and for all technical project-reporting requirements. All programmatic and budgetary modifications must be initiated by the PI, and, where required, be approved by the sponsor's administrative or program contact. The PI must also ensure that all project expenses are made in compliance with sponsor and university regulations, and that no conflict of interest arises during the course of the project. The Grants Office is available to assist with these determinations as needed.

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