New Rules!

Here’s what you need to know about the federal government’s new grant regulations

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 19, 2014

The federal government has released some new research-grant rules, and they’re here to help you. Seriously.

The new document, informally known as the "Uniform Guidance," represents a major overhaul, consolidating more than half a dozen separate sets of rules. Most of the changes concern business and accounting practices and won’t directly affect faculty members in preparing their grant proposals. But a few will. Here are some of the changes that researchers will encounter firsthand, and some of them really will make the task easier.

Just the facts. First, you will have more time to plan and write your grant proposal. Applicants will generally have 60 days to prepare a proposal. In the past, agencies published announcements as few as 30 days before the due date, leaving little time for researchers to pull together large collaborative projects, such as partnerships with school districts or other universities. Federal agencies now have a little wiggle room for shorter deadlines only in unusual circumstances.

Second, information should be easier to find. Because the format of grant announcements varies widely across agencies, the new rules spell out critical information that must be included in every such announcement. That may sound trivial, but it will make a major difference. I have been at grant-planning meetings where people leafed through dozens of pages of an announcement searching for basic information like the maximum dollar amount of the award.

Under the new rules, the announcements must contain summary information that can help you decide whether it’s worth applying to the program. That may include the total dollar amount available as well as the number of awards to be made and the expected amount, start date, and duration of each award. With such information in hand, you might decide that the odds of securing the grant are too slender to justify spending hours on a 50-page proposal.

Who is eligible to apply to a grant program must be spelled out in the announcement. For example, a program may be limited to certain types of institutions, certain principal investigators (new faculty members, for example), or certain types of projects.

Any limit on the number of proposals an applicant can submit to a given program must also be stated in the announcement. If there is a limit, it should be clear whether it affects the submitting organization or the principal investigator.

Another section of the announcement must deal with the format of the grant application, stating any particular limits on the number of pages, font size, typeface, margin size, and order of the application components.

Review process revealed. For a new faculty member, the review process can seem like a cabalistic session whose workings are known only by their academic elders. But the new rules aim to "make the application process transparent," according to the document.

For competitive grants, agencies must design and use a merit-review process to assess applications. It must be outlined in the funding announcement or described on the agency’s website. Although grant programs use established merit-review processes, not all agencies have been clear about how they make award decisions.

The new rules state that agencies will also provide you with a good road map for preparing a successful narrative about your project. The criteria to be used in reviewing proposals must be specified in the grant announcement. If the criteria vary in importance, the weight given to each one will be stated. That should help grant writers in organizing their proposals and deciding how much space to devote to each topic. Some applicants might even decide that the program is not a good fit for the work they want to do and seek money elsewhere. That saves the applicant and the agency a lot of wasted time and effort.

Simplified financing. A few money-related changes are worth noting because they can make grant applications less complicated for faculty members.

The rules should bring some clarity to the issue of cost sharing or matching funds—always a contentious topic between researchers and their universities. Cost sharing is the amount that an institution contributes to a project in addition to the outside grant award. The university’s contribution can include such things as donated faculty time or cash for a new microscope. In recent years, program announcements have become ambiguous about whether cost sharing was needed to make an application competitive. As a result, scientists pleaded with their universities to contribute to projects, while universities, watching their pennies, questioned the need for such investments.

"Vague statements that cost sharing is encouraged, without clarification as to what that means, are unhelpful to applicants," the Uniform Guidance document states. The new rules require grant announcements to indicate whether or not cost sharing is required to make an application eligible for a grant. Any required amount of cost sharing can be stated as a percentage, as an amount, or in the form of a contribution of items or activities.

Professors at small institutions should see a roadblock removed from their efforts to apply for federal grants. Sometimes small colleges find it difficult to apply because they don’t have a standing negotiated rate with the federal government for reimbursement of facilities and administrative costs, also known as "overhead"—the expense of keeping the lights on and the library stocked while the research is under way. Negotiating a rate with the government is a complex and time-consuming process for any institution, but it can be a major obstacle for small ones, which have a less-specialized administrative staff. The new rules allow institutions that have never had a negotiated rate to simply charge 10 percent.

In another step toward simplifying the grant process, all agencies must accept the overhead rate that an institution has negotiated with the federal government, unless a statute or regulation requires otherwise. Today many of these negotiated rates are upward of 50 percent, yet some agencies refuse to pay more than 8 percent. It remains to be seen how agencies will manage their grant money in light of this new requirement.

Family-friendly policies. Several new provisions aim to make it easier for female scientists with children to travel to conferences. Grant money can now be used to cover certain temporary child-care costs that an investigator may need to attend a conference. Child-care costs have been a barrier that "prevents more women from maintaining careers in science," according to the document.

Conflicts of interest. All federal agencies must now have conflict-of-interest policies for their awards, which means that institutions will have to provide written disclosure of any potential conflicts. Major federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, already have such policies and documentation requirements, and the others are now required to follow suit.

The effective date for the new rules is December 26, 2014. The document, also called the "Omnicircular" or "Supercircular," is more than 100 pages long and contains many more provisions. For those want to delve into the details, the rules are officially titled "Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards." They are available to read here.

Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University of Rhode Island’s research office.