In my research group, some time we use our funding to buy things required for our research. They can be pretty cheap (e.g. books) or quite expensive (e.g. machines).

When the funded by the project is over, I wonder who will own those stuff.

3 Answers 3


In the US, at least, there is a generally clear distinction between two classes of things bought with funding:

  • "Capital expenditure" items are individually identified in a project budget, e.g., "36-node computing cluster" or "Materials for building prototype robot".
  • 'Overhead' or 'Material and Supplies' items are more routine items that are not individually identified, but are considered part of the routine cost of business, e.g., office supplies, laptops, laboratory reagents.

Capital expenditure items are typically owned by the funder, and their disposition at the end of the project is at the discretion of the funder. When this is the US government, it is called GFE - Government Furnished Equipment. In most cases, the funder lets it stay at the institution (effectively giving it to them), but not always. An institution might even be required to give the equipment to another researcher.

Overhead items are generally owned by the institution that is executing the project, and are often owned by the institution in general, rather than being associated with the particular project. These typically further break down into two sub-categories: tracked, and untracked. Tracked is things like laptops, that many institutions still consider expensive enough to keep track of who they give them to and (at least theoretically) ask for them back eventually. Untracked is things like paper and staplers, which are below the threshold where the institution cares. Again, typically all of it technically belongs to the institution, but in practice many institutions will let somebody keep a low-value 'personalized' item such as an old laptop.

The exact definitions of which things go in which categories depend on the institution, the funder, and the particular contract, but this covers most of the typical cases. Make sure you check particular regulations and customs with any particular institution before taking anything, though!

  • 2
    While GFE status used to be the norm, we are seeing more and more that agencies don't want computer equipment specifically on the books. If they retain the title, then it's up to them to pay to dispose of it when it has reached the end of its useful life. Our grants are, more and more, coming with provisions that give explicit title up front to the institution for many kinds of equipment purchanses.
    – Bill Barth
    Nov 13, 2014 at 13:29
  • @BillBarth That's lovely to hear, though I haven't yet had the experience---probably due to the fact that at a company we typically are under the more restrictive forms of funding rules. Eventually, they do catch up with the times. I remember 10 years ago budgeting individual laptops for grad students on a grant...
    – jakebeal
    Nov 13, 2014 at 13:47
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    Also, the latest rules interpretations lead to requiring that 100% of whatever is bough on a grant needing to be used for the grant and nothing else. Pretty much means no more laptops for students.
    – Bill Barth
    Nov 13, 2014 at 14:11
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    @BillBarth Your institution can't categorize laptops as expendable office supplies, in with the staplers and copier paper? That's what most of the ones that I have worked with do... it's a pretty accurate view of a normal laptop too, I think.
    – jakebeal
    Nov 13, 2014 at 14:16
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    I think that might not audit well.
    – Bill Barth
    Nov 13, 2014 at 14:16

The funding agreement or regulations by the sponsor will usually clarify this. In most cases, it can be expected that the legal institution where the project is run buys these things and also owns them after the project. In some cases, the sponsor may own expensive equipment himself, so that it can go with the PI when changing affiliations.

I've also seen regulations where the sponsor only pays the depreciation of long-lasting equipment during the runtime of the project, so the institution would have to cover for the remaining costs.


Research contracts are generally to institutions, not to individuals, so major equipment belongs to institutions. Often, though, the big equipment often leaves with the investigatop if they change jobs. The idea is that in the normal course of business, gear will move both in and out of the university, and things work out over time.

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