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I'm at an engineering department at a public US university, and I'm somewhat new to writing proposals. The call I'm submitting to wants know if the project budget is higher than the amount of the grant, what other sources of funding the PI will use, presumably to ensure the success of the project.

First, I'm not rich. But this leads to me to think, is it okay to use personal funds to do research? For example, if a piece of equipment costs $4000 and I only have $3950 left, can I supplement it with personal funds?

What might end up happening is that I might convince a colleague to lend me his instrument. But I don't want to say this in the proposal. Also, I'm not sure saying the project will be "supplemented by personal funds" is a good idea.

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I'm confused. Why don't you just apply for $4000 instead of $3950? – David Richerby Feb 1 at 19:31
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@DavidRicherby, He is saying if something costs N dollars and he only has N-1 dollars left, can reach into his pocket and use $1 to pay the difference. It is independent of how much he initially received in the grant. – user1717828 Feb 1 at 19:56
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@user1717828 One can imagine the answer being very different if the question is about N-1 dollars, rather than N-50 or N-5000. – David Richerby Feb 1 at 22:10
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@DavidRicherby At which point one might ask at what point N-n' does the answer change, but now we have a problem for mathematics stack exchange I think... – Michael Feb 2 at 1:47
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@Michael We might ask that but it would be futile and unnecessary. – David Richerby Feb 2 at 2:59

I think you shouldn't offer private fund to supplement a research budget, and I also think people won't let you for the two following reasons (among others):

1. It's not your private responsibility to fund your research. For the sake of your own self respect, you shouldn't pay to work. It will give a bad signal, even subjectively, about the quality of your work. It's important for an academic career to be able to show that you can secure complete funding for your research.

2. Personal funding is not reliable: People reviewing your application will see that the project is underfunded and will doubt that you will effectively be able to compensate with your own money. There will be no ways for the institution to enforce a funding commitment like "the project will be supplemented by personal funds". Funding is generally secured via contracts or other forms of legal documents. Besides, any institution that relies on researchers breaking their piggy banks to pay for equipment is doing a sloppy job and it's going to hurt its reputation.

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Absolutely I agree with the answer when we're talking about substantial sums of money, or contributions to larger purchases. But small and relatively incidental purchases shouldn't be a problem if you get some personal benefit as well. e.g. if you want a nicer notebook than what's in the department's stationery cupboard, I think it's fine to buy a Leuchtturm on your own dime. – Moriarty Feb 1 at 11:18
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+1 Never mention that you are going to use your own funds, even if you decide doing it. – Captain Emacs Feb 1 at 11:27
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If I have a $40 pen that I just love, it seems like using that (or perhaps even getting a second one) while working would bring much greater satisfaction while working than if I were to use the institution-provided good, but just not quite right for me, pen to make the same markings on the same papers. If I needed a $4000 piece of equipment to get started... well, that's a different matter. Now, you could argue that using my own pen isn't "offering private funds to supplement a research budget", but it's obvious that just like in all walks of life, there are shades of grey here too. – Michael Kjörling Feb 1 at 17:46

The call I'm submitting to wants know if the project budget is higher than the amount of the grant, what other sources of funding the PI will use, presumably to ensure the success of the project.

Almost certainly the answer to that is not "my private money". I can see three "correct" answers from the point of view of the funding agency:

  1. The PI will make sure that this does not happen. Optimally, you will attach a detailed cost planning that is well within the grant amount to substantiate this point.
  2. The host institution is co-funding the project. This is often quite popular with funding agencies, as it shows commitment from side of the host institution.
  3. Another funding agency is (potentially) paying for it (see info on other submitted or accepted grants). This one is a bit iffy, as relying on another submitted grant is high-risk. Also, depending on the concrete setup, you may involuntarily raise the suspicion that if your current project is not accepted, the "other" agency may fund it in full - and as you can imagine this is an impression you want to avoid at all costs.

For example, if a piece of equipment costs $4000 and I only have $3950 left, can I supplement it with personal funds?

You can definitely do that, and in practice this can sometimes happen (maybe subtly - for instance by going on self-paid conference travels, using your own laptop, etc.). However, the project proposal is certainly not the right place to mention this.

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#2 in your list is usually called "voluntary committed cost-sharing" and is basically forbidden by the NSF in the US except where it is explicitly required. Cost-sharing gives large institutions with deep pockets an advantage over smaller ones with smaller budgets since their projects can propose to do more. Out of fairness to everyone, NSF has basically banned it. It used to be popular until the smaller schools complained enough about the well-endowed universities buying their grant opportunities out from under them. – Bill Barth Feb 1 at 14:31
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@BillBarth I was not aware of NSF's stance on this, but it's definitely not uncommon here in Switzerland. Not so much for the NSF-equivalent, but for various smaller foundations. The grants they provide are usually not that big, so by themselves they are not sufficient to fund ambitious projects. Hence, commonly one proposes a big project, says the host uni finances 50% of it, and only asks for the other half from the foundation. – xLeitix Feb 2 at 12:10
    
When NSF or another federal agency wants to do something bigger than it can, they can demand cost-sharing so that the overall size of the pot gets bigger. It's pretty uncommon to do these days here, but I have seen it. – Bill Barth Feb 2 at 13:35

Not sure about the US, but over here in Europe (Britain to be specific) we usually ask the university to top-up the grant as to fill the gaps. If a researcher succeeds to get 90%, the institution that gets credit for the research should give something in return in the form of 10%.

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