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I am preparing an NSF standard grant in mathematics, and I need to prepare a budget. As is typical I am requesting two months' summer salary, a travel budget, some money for student support, and a couple of other minor odds and ends -- but I'm not sure how much to request. I don't need anything, but I could make good use of essentially an unlimited amount of money.

One guideline is the average award sizes, which are published by the NSF. It seems quite reasonable to request approximately the average, and this is what I will probably do. But sometimes I wonder if I am wasting the opportunity to request more, for example to allow more of our students to travel to conferences. This is especially true since I would still be happy to be funded even if my budget was cut.

When I get the opportunity, I will ask my question in person to someone who has served on a panel in my discipline. For now, perhaps it is useful to ask the interwebs: generally speaking, what is the relationship between the amount of the requested budget and the likelihood of funding?

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A badly written budget could put your proposal out of contention, but a well written budget that scrimps on costs isn't likely to help you get funded (what are the odds that your project is "on the bubble" for funding and just fits within the total funds available?)

In your proposal you should ask for what you need to get the research project done and to support the "broader impact" of the proposal. Don't load up the budget with unnecessary expenses just so that you can get a larger award. On the other hand, don't prepare a low-ball budget that doesn't include adequate funding for travel, students, etc. Being too extreme in either direction can hurt the reviews of your proposal.

Be aware of your institution's overhead rate and if it is higher than normal, don't be surprised if your budget is larger than average for the program that you're applying to. If your institution has a relatively low overhead rate, than don't be surprised if your budget comes out on the low side of average. A lot of the variation in budgets is due to differences in overhead rates (along with PI salaries and the cost of students.)

Also, work with your "restricted funds" office to make sure that your budget conforms to your institution's regulations as well as the applicable federal regulations.

In my experience, the likelihood of getting funded seems to have little connection to the size of the budget, as long as the budget is within the normal range for the program, the expenditures make sense for the project, and there aren't any very expensive looking items.

For a grant in mathematics you really should have a very a simple budget and it shouldn't be hard to justify the budget. Compare this with some grants I've worked on with earth scientists that included international travel to places like Peru and Tibet, shipping boxes of rocks internationally, expensive laboratory tests, etc.

  • Thank you for this. I have a fairly simple and well-justified budget, and I could easily request 20K more and justify that as well. Your next-to-last paragraph is what I'm interested in. Can I please ask you to elaborate on how you know? Thank you very much. – Anonymous Sep 25 '16 at 22:06
  • "In my experience" means that I've been submitted many NSF proposals over the years (some of which have resulted in awards), reviewed many more proposals and participated in panel discussions. – Brian Borchers Sep 25 '16 at 22:11
  • $20K (on a budget of $200K or more) isn't very much money. Put in what you think you need and can justify. If your proposal is is otherwise fundable then about the worst that can happen is that you get asked to revise the budget. – Brian Borchers Sep 25 '16 at 22:15
  • Okay, if you've been on the panels then that is indeed very helpful; thank you very much. But you say (twice) I should simply ask for what I need -- it doesn't seem that you don't believe what I wrote in my original question: that I don't need anything at all. Since I can however make good use of as much money as I get, I almost feel that I should try to maximize (amount of money I request) times (probability I get it). I'm aware that this is a strange perspective, and that your perspective rather than mine is what the NSF would recommend. Perhaps I just need to find my way onto an NSF panel. – Anonymous Sep 28 '16 at 11:42

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