Participant Support Costs: What’s Allowable?

A common question we receive is how to categorize students who will be working on grant-funded projects, particularly for NSF or NIH grants: “In my budget, should I include students under the ‘Personnel’ or the ‘Participant Support Costs’ section?” The answer is the same as it is for many questions in our office: “It depends.” While the name “participant support costs” suggests that students may naturally fall under this section as they are participating on a grant, agencies have specific definitions and rules about when and where to include students in a budget.

For example, the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) distinguishes participant support costs from student employees as follows:

  • Participant support costs: “direct costs such as stipends or subsistence allowances, travel allowances, and registration fees paid to or on behalf of participants or trainees (but not employees) in connection with NSF-sponsored conferences or training projects”
  • Student employees: “Student employees are compensated for services rendered and their level of compensation is tied to the number of hours worked. Participant support costs should be used to defray the costs of students participating in a conference or training activity related to the project.”

As an example, NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduate Research (REU) program is intended to provide educational training experiences for students, and any funds related to their participation should be included in the participant support costs section.

When it comes to budgeting for students on a grant, the answer of where to include them comes down to what their intended role in the project will be: Is their main purpose to participate in an educational/training capacity (as a participant), or to work on the project as a fellow researcher/research assistant (as an employee)? This should inform how their role is written in the application narrative and budget justification. ORSP can help guide how student involvement is described in an application so that students’ roles are clearly defined.

Additional questions about what is and is not allowable under the participant support costs section are included in the source link below. If you have any questions about budgeting for students on your grants, please contact ORSP.

Source: NSF Proposal & Award Policy Newsletter