Clarification about Buying Computers (or Tablets) with Federal Grant Funds

posted Dec 20, 2011, 12:26 PM by Raymond Muzic   [ updated Dec 20, 2011, 12:26 PM ]
This item appeared in the 12/20/2011 issue of "CWRU Research - News and Updates"

Generally speaking, computers and tablets are viewed as “general use” business items and should not be charged directly to a federal grant unless justified for a specific research purpose. Computers costing less than $5,000 are not considered equipment, and, as such, are treated as indirect cost expenses (just like paper, pens and other general use supplies).

  • Getting a new award does not automatically mean that a computer can be purchased to support the project.
  • Adding a new member to the research team is not a sufficient justification to purchase a computer with federal grant funds.
  • Just because a computer or tablet was included in a proposal budget does not make it an allowable purchase on federal grant.

However, under certain circumstances, it may be appropriate to request to purchase a computer or tablet with federal funds. To be appropriate, the expense must be “allocable, allowable, consistent, and a reasonable cost,” which means:
  • The computer/tablet is necessary, will be used specifically and exclusively for the purpose of a research project (i.e. to collect study data), can be assigned directly to such activities with a high degree of accuracy, and is justified as such.
  • The computer/tablet will be functioning as (or in direct support of) specialized scientific equipment.
  • There must be an informed, prudent decision regarding the cost, utility, and value to the project.
  • The planned computer/tablet use is described in the grant in such a way as to clearly meet the criterion of being an "unlike circumstance,” as described in OMB Circular A-21.
Please consult with the Office of Research Administration if you should have any questions about whether you may use federal funds to purchase a computer or tablet. All grant-related purchases must conform to the cost principles for educational institutions described in the OMB Circular A-21.