No-Cost Extensions to Grants (and a bit about carryover funds)

May 16 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

I love the new Scientopia blog DataHound. I was a statistician before I was a biologist, and he brings experience and sensibility to understanding trends in funding. His latest post, on gaps in funding, seems typical of what he is doing. It analyzes the data, shows what happens when a person has a year without funding in terms of getting funded again, and in the end offers insight to the implications. In this case, the world can be an unsure place and that the insecurity  people feel stems from something real in the data.

In the comments about the post, Drug Monkey asks a good question about No-Cost Extensions and how they fit into this analysis. I was talking about this to a colleague and they said "what's a no-cost extension?".  So here's the answer:

The No-Cost Extension feature, accessed via eRA Commons, is an electronic means for a grantee organization to electronically submit a notification that they have exercised their one-time authority to extend without funds the final budget period of a project period of a grant. This extension can be up to 12 months in additional time. This assumes all internal review and approval processes at the grantee organization have already taken place.

In short, both NIH and NSF have a mechanism that lets you extend your grant in time, and spend any money you may not yet have spent. It is mostly automatic. The institution (not PI!) gets to ask for this (one time), and it is fairly automatic. The Signing Officials at the grantee organization (someone in the sponsored research/projects/grants office) are the ones who do the electronic paperwork. This happens no earlier than 90 days before the official end of project. More information for the grantee is here. As NIH says in several places, this is a one-time deal.

There can only be one no cost extension through Commons per grant. If you have applied previously for an extension for this grant, an Extension link will not be available. Any future request needs to be directed to a Grants Management Specialist.

Here is some of the official verbage about NCE's, including the following rules:

  • no term of award specifically prohibits the extension,
  • no additional funds are required to be obligated by the NIH awarding IC, and
  • the project's originally approved scope will not change.

Now  for some implementation and de facto info for PI's. Where does NCE money come from? It comes from something called carryover funds.  In NIH lingo this is:

Carryover is the process by which unobligated funds remaining at the end of a budget period may be carried forward to the next budget period to cover allowable costs in that budget period. The carryover of funds enables grantees to use unexpended prior year grant funds in the current budget period.

Most grants have automatic carryover authority, and grantees do not have to request approval from the NIH in order to carry over funds from one budget period to the next.

In the olden dayes, carryover was money you started squirreling away for a rainy day. Carryover is money you haven't spent. Used to be you could budget wisely and have some left over for the future.  Rules have changed. And have likely changed again. Now, if you carry over more than 20% of your annual budget you need to justify it. Seriously justify it (moving and not doing experiments, have 6 months leave for whatever reason, procreating, honoring your parents, etc). This is from the NIH instructions:

When preparing a justification for a carryover request, grantees should answer the following questions:

  • Why were the funds not spent in the past year?
  • What additional work will be done during the current grant year that is not possible with the budget currently allotted to this year? Thought must be given to how the work will be accelerated; for example, will more staff be hired, effort increased or more assays run?
  • Is the request essential? Are costs reasonable, allowable, necessary and in line with the existing budget? Are there new costs that were previously unforeseen? How will the work be impacted if the funds are not carried over?

I know two people, who in the last year requested carry-over of about 18% and were questioned by NIH for not spending the money. The message at this point in time is very clear: NIH is hurting and money you didn't spend is obviously money you don't need, and NIH might take it back.  NIAID even says:

NIAID funds you by budget period (usually one year) and expects you to use funds during that budget period.

BTW, here is a link to "Pay attention to how you spend your money" from NIH. This is worthy of its own post. Soon to follow. Promise.  But the most important message about this is: Don't depend on your institution to monitor your spending.

Back to carryover. Why do you want it, and why is a NCE a Good Thing. Part of this is about timing for your next grant. Its good to have some carryover so that if you are not immediately re-funded, you are able to do a little bit more if you need that preliminary data. That you are not immediately refunded is becoming more common, more expected and less of a kiss of death. But this money, and a no-cost extension are important, not so much for making your department happy, but to ensure your sanity in the funding process. To ensure that you can keep a lab going. That you can pay the absolutely critical tech. That you do not leave trainees high and dry because you've run out of money.

On the other hand, do NOT stint yourself, and be a cheapskate in getting done what you need to do. I have had junior people ask me about saving each year. The best advice I ever got was: the most important thing you need to do with your grant is get data, analyze it, and publish it. Saving money to carryover or for a NCE is good. But doing the science is better.

 

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