ERC aims to support excellent PIs in executing their frontier research. To successfully achieve this, researchers are awarded with academic freedom that is significantly greater than in other funding schemes. This academic freedom provides PIs with flexibility throughout their research project. Amongst other aspects, such flexibility is also portrayed in the way ERC applications are expected to present the budget. Simply put – academic freedom does not go hand in hand with a rigid and highly detailed budget structure. So how should the budget be presented in ERC? This complete guide is exactly what you need to get it right.
Understanding the nature of the ERC budget
It is easily noticeable that the ERC budget table details only the “bottom lines” of each budget category without requesting more specific breakdowns of the items or periods within the project in which these expenses will be made. This is in direct correlation to the academic freedom discussed above, and in line with the nature of the ERC grant: a high-risk, high-gain research project, which is expected to produce groundbreaking research with an open-end approach. Inherent to this type of research, is a certain level of uncertainty and flexibility. It follows that the schedule of the research plan, the volume of the tasks, or the focus of the research may change in response to unexpected scientific developments or delays as the research progresses. As such, it is agreed that the resolution of information in the work plan and budget plan cannot be very high during the grant proposal phase.
Therefore, while many other grants have meticulous, high-resolution and detailed budget requirements (to the extent of being rigid), drafting a budget plan in ERC is shorter, more open, macro-level, and in general of lower resolution de facto. A budget plan in ERC should essentially only provide a bird’s eye view of the expected expenses of the project. However, while this sounds ideal, in reality “shorter” and “more open” do not necessarily make ERC applicant’s lives any easier. Keep reading to better understand how to construct the budget justification text and yield an excellent budget presentation in ERC.
Presenting the budget in ERC
As of May 2019, the budget presentation (including the text providing descriptions and justifications) of the ERC project (excluding SyG) is located in Part A, “3 – Budget” of the proposal (in the electronic form). This is the only section through which the budget needs to be presented. This means the budget should not be presented in the extended synopsis (‘section a’ in Part B1) or anywhere in Part B2, unlike before.
The budget section is divided into two parts:
- The budget table
- The budget description and justifications
The budget table can be seen in the figure below (click the image to enlarge):
Just below this budget table, there is a section termed “Section C. Resources”, which is where the applicants should provide justifications to the requested budget, in plain text. This section is limited to 8000 characters, including spaces. Note that it is forbidden to include any description of resources or a budget table in Part B2.
The ERC budget resources description
The resources description, which is the budget justification text, should detail the reasoning for the numbers appearing in the budget table and explain the calculations. There is no specified structure, but there is an 8000 character limit to this text, as explained above.
The requested budget and its justification should be in line with the project’s work plan. For example, key equipment and materials for which budget is requested, should be mentioned in the methodology, and vice versa – the budget justification text should correspond to the methodology. The same logic applies to the profile of hired personnel. If, for example, personnel costs of a biological project include hiring an Artificial Intelligence expert, the need for such expertise and tasks that would be relevant to this expert should be apparent from the methodology section as well.
Below is a description of all the budget categories that should always be addressed in the ERC resources description, and in relation to the specific project.
Important note: The guide below does not substitute professional guidance about any of the listed financial aspects below. The EC model grant agreement is the sole official reference to these issues. This means that any implementation of budget items must be in line with it. We advise you to consult with your institution’s financial department about these issues, or with us.
Personnel: This item should refer to the cost of the expected personnel that will work in the project. This should clearly include the PI first (if PI salary is not requested, this should also be clearly indicated, more on that below), followed by the senior staff, post-docs, students and/or other personnel, as needed. The team can consist of existing members, as well as future potential recruits. In each category (PI, senior staff, post-docs, students or other), it is expected that the justification text will provide:
- a cost breakdown which includes the category and number of respective team members that will be employed by the grant
- the expected duration of their employment
- the main tasks they will be assigned to
- and finally – present the cost of employment of the detailed personnel. Cost of employment should refer to the salary (be it on a monthly or annual basis) in addition to any relevant social benefits or any other remuneration component allowed by the host institution’s financial department, and subject to local relevant legislation or policy.
Specifically, when addressing the PI’s personnel cost there are a few things to consider:
- The PI’s cost of employment should derive from realistic budget planning, which takes into account all the PI’s obligations in the institution (researchers are potentially expected to be involved in other research projects, in addition to some institutional responsibilities, such as teaching).
- The percentage of the PI’s salary requested from the ERC grant cannot be higher than the declared dedication to the ERC project, as indicated in the application. In principle, it is typically expected that the PI’s cost of employment charged to the ERC budget will fully correlate to the PI’s time dedication (e.g. PI’s time dedication of 65% entails that the cost of employment of the PI in the ERC budget is 65% of the full cost of employment of the PI). However, it is important to emphasize that this is not mandatory, and you may request a lower percentage of your salary or no salary at all from the ERC budget. For example, in cases in which the PI’s full cost of employment is covered by the institution, and not by grants, it is perfectly fine to ask for a zero budget for the PI’s salary, while explaining the specific situation that allows this. Again, this must be in line with the institution and local policies & legislation. Consult with your financial department on this matter, and make sure to fully justify this in the resources justification text.
Travel: Travel is an integral component of any research project. The budget for travel in an ERC project should provide an estimation of the expected travel costs, based on the number of trips and their nature (duration, distance, etc.). Clearly, trips to conferences, as well as any other relevant scientific meetings, should be part of this budget. This can cover trips made by the PI or other team members for that matter. Note that the travel budget should include airfare, accommodation, local transportation, subsistence costs, etc. All of these need to be in line with the institutional and local regulations and policies.
There are two important aspects to remember about travel budget planning:
- The ERC budget is relatively flexible, meaning that even in cases where the actual budget for travel during the project execution is eventually significantly different than the original budget, this is fine as long as you have the right justification for this change;
- Our experience shows that there are reviewers who are not happy with a travel budget that exceeds 100,000 Euro (we don’t know why, we just report what we’ve seen), and may comment on this in their evaluation report. Therefore, we recommend keeping the original travel budget below that. During the project execution, provided that there is a justified reason, the original budget can be exceeded (as explained above).
Equipment: Purchase (or usage) of any equipment needed for the project is an eligible cost and therefore needs to be included in the budget.
When preparing the budget for equipment, note the following:
- The cost of the equipment in the budget has to be the “depreciation value” calculated for the actual time in which the equipment will be used during the project execution. This calculation should be done by the financial department in your institution, and in accordance with the local tax laws.
- There is no need to provide evidence demonstrating the procurement costs.
- In case you are asking for an extra budget (see more details in the dedicated section below) for equipment, we’d recommend:
- That this extra budget is requested only for budget items bearing significant costs. We’d refrain from ‘accumulating’ costs of minor equipment or experimental and field work costs, just in order to justify such extra budget. For example, requesting extra budget for purchasing a new expensive Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope is legitimate. However, requesting it for purchasing a collection of simple lab microscopes is not considered reasonable for this matter.
- That the base budget per category is fully exhausted, before placing a request for extra budget (see further explanation in the dedicated section below).
Consumables including fieldwork and animal costs: Purchase of consumables is eligible as well under the ERC budget. The full costs of procuring consumables can be charged to the project’s budget, in contrast to the “depreciation value” mechanism applied with costs of equipment. The procurement of consumables should be justified and in line with the suggested project methodology. To the extent possible, detail the type of consumables you budgeted and link them to the relevant methods and experiments planned.
Publications: Being a classic research output, costs associated with publications are eligible in ERC. Note that ERC grantees are required to ensure open access to all peer-reviewed scientific publications relating to the output of their project. Therefore, charges associated with various open access fees should be included in the budget.
Other additional direct costs: This can include other direct costs which do not fall under any of the above mentioned categories, for example other services such as financial audit costs. In addition, this category can include ‘Direct costing for Large Research Infrastructures’, if applicable.
The following two entries are not subject to the indirect costs (overhead) rate, but should be included in the total amount, if requested. Note: the full explanation about these two categories is rather complex and definitely beyond the scope of this article. In case you believe that any of these categories is relevant to your budget presentation, make sure to consult about that with your institution’s financial department, or with our team.
Internally invoiced goods and services: This refers to in-house facilities and services provided by your institution (e.g. proteomics or bioinformatic services) that are charged as unit costs. Add such expenses as relevant to your project, and after consulting with your institution’s financial department.
Subcontracting: this includes any task that will be completed by an outside performer who is capable to work independently and is not motivated by the research itself.
Understanding the “Requested EU contribution”, a.k.a the requested grant
There are two important issues to be aware of with respect to the “Requested EU contribution”:
- The first has to do with a question we hear quite often from ERC applicants: “shall I request the maximum grant allowed, or shall I ask for less budget to be more competitive?”. The answer to that is rather simple: evidence shows that there is no real competitive advantage in asking for a lower budget in ERC. However, keep in mind that the budget in your ERC proposal must be realistic and correlate to the project’s goals and methodology. Therefore, if your project design requires less funds for successful execution, then a smaller budget should definitely be requested. In contrast, if you do need the maximum budget – by no means should you reduce the requested budget on the expense of efficient and smooth project execution. Simply put – request exactly what you need, as long as it is within the ERC category limit for the budget.
- The second issue has to do with the case in which the “Total Eligible Costs” is higher than the maximum allowed “Requested EU contribution”. In other words – the grant requested, although at the upper bound available for the category, is less than 100% of the project budget. This is perfectly eligible, as long as the applicant can show that the rest of the project budget is covered by other funding sources. In such cases, the requested grant should be fixed at the upper bound (e.g. 1.5 Million Euro), while the presented budget will remain the same (e.g. 1.8 Million Euro). In such cases, the budget justification text has to refer to this and provide an explanation about the funding sources covering the difference (e.g. contributed by the host institution).
Extra budget requests
The ERC allows requests for extra budget in 4 distinct cases (that can also be combined):
- “Start-up” costs for a PI moving to the EU or an AC from elsewhere as a consequence of receiving the ERC grant
- Purchase of major equipment
- Access to large facilities
- Other major experimental and fieldwork costs, excluding personnel costs
The extra budget for StG, CoG and AdG can be up to 1M Euro. The extra budget for SyG can be up to 4M Euro.
Applicants are required to carefully describe any additional funding requested for the project and indicate under which of the above-mentioned four cost categories the request falls. The requested extra costs should also be taken into account as part of the relevant budget category in the table.
Note the following important point: asking for a full extra budget on top of a partially exhausted ‘regular’ budget, might be perceived as a way of bypassing the total allowed budget (for the category). Such ‘abuse’ might not be accepted well by reviewers.
- The budget presentation should clearly demonstrate that the original budget for the category is fully exhausted before utilizing the extra budget request. Avoid budget presentation in which the project’s budget (excluding the request for the extra budget) is significantly lower than the maximum allowed grant (for the category). Meaning – if it is possible to include everything within the regular budget, without asking for the extra budget, then it should be presented as such.
- Only once the base budget request is fully exhausted, an extra budget is in place.
Final comments about the ERC budget:
- As mentioned several times in this article – we strongly recommend consulting with the financial office of your institution in the process of preparing your budget. Tell them what you need in order to execute your project, and discuss with them the best way to present it, its size and composition. In addition, they should be aware of any institutional or local regulations / legislation / policies / limitations that should be taken into consideration. This information is of utmost importance and your budget must reflect it.
- Having mentioned earlier the flexibility that goes along with the academic freedom, we wish to highlight that the only ‘fixed’ element of the budget that may not change during the project execution is the total approved grant. Typically, this total grant will not increase, but one should be aware that it may decrease during the project’s execution. The main reason for decreasing the total grant is underutilisation of the budget by the PI (this happens quite often). Meaning – if the PI does not consume the total budget, and provide proof for actual eligible costs incurred by the project, then the total grant will eventually be aligned (by the ERC) with actual consumption of the budget (according to the financial reporting). Therefore, the PI must properly manage the budget during the project’s execution.
To conclude – curating the budget section of your ERC application is an immensely important process. We advise you to consult with your institution’s financial department for successful execution. And, as always, the Enspire Science team is here to support you as well.