Corresponds with: OSR Policy 900.1 Research Service Centers

Procedure Statement

The University administers Research Service Centers (RSCs) in accordance with Federal costing standards, State of North Carolina, and University policies and procedures. RSCs are created, operated and administered by University schools and departmental business units with central review and oversight from Cost Analysis and Compliance (CA&C) in the Office of Sponsored Research (OSR). RSCs may also be subject to additional policies and procedures at the discretion of the administering school or college.



All costs recovered by established RSC recharge rates must be allowable under Federal and University guidelines. Charges must meet all Cost Principles and be allowable as Direct Costs.

Direct Costs
Direct Costs are recovered through the rates charged to users. These costs are beneficial and easily be attributed to RSC activities with a high degree of accuracy. Direct costs include both personnel and non-personnel costs.

Indirect Costs
Any costs incurred for a common or joint purpose are not considered direct costs. Costs not specifically attributed to the RSC are also not direct costs. These are categorized as indirect costs and should not be budgeted into RSC recharge rates or charged to the RSC.

Unallowable Costs
Select cost types are considered unallowable from being be paid from RSC operations funds and cannot be included in the RSC recharge rate calculation:

  • Scholarship/Fellowships
  • General Office Supplies
  • Entertainment Costs/Alcoholic Beverages
  • Bad Debts
  • Advertising and Publicity/Public Relations
  • Goods or services for personal use
  • Fines and penalties resulting from violations of (or non-compliance with) Federal, state or local laws and regulations
  • Donations and Contributions
  • RSC operations costs used as a source for Cost Sharing


RSC rates charged should be designed to achieve a break-even operation over a long-term period, usually two years. Rates should be formally reviewed at least annually at the department level and every two years by the CA&C office. Written approval by CA&C is required whenever a new rate or fee is added, revised or deleted.

This rate is determined as follows:
Break-even Direct Cost Rate = Total Estimated Annual Direct Cost ÷ Total Estimated Annual Usage

Internal Users
These users are generally charged the break-even direct cost rate. This rate should include all the appropriate allowable direct costs associated with providing the service. Examples include personnel costs for individuals conducting the RSC usage activities; materials and supplies for RSC usage activities; maintenance and repairs for equipment used for RSC usage activities; select cases of equipment; and other costs allocable and directly benefiting RSC usage activities.

Internal user or sponsored agreement are to be charged the break-even rate. Subsidies are only allowed when pre-identified groups are provided a reduced fee and the subsidized portion is charged to a prescribed and appropriate funding source when services are invoiced.

External Users
Research Service Centers are established primarily to meet the needs of the University’s research community. However, it is possible the external users may wish to use RSC services. External users are defined as entities governed and administered independently from UNC-Chapel Hill. This includes UNC Hospitals, UNC General Administration and its other constituent institutions, other institutions of higher learning, state and local governments, non-profit organizations and commercial enterprises. External users are charged the higher of the prevailing market rate or the internal break-even direct cost rate. External users are also charged the applicable negotiated on-campus organized research Indirect Cost rate.

Sales to external customers fall under special scrutiny due to the NC Umstead Act which addresses government agencies conducting business operations, and also the IRS Unrelated Business Income regulations which deal with nonprofit organizations (including schools and universities) realizing gross income from regularly conducted business that is not substantially related to its educational and other exempt purpose. CA&C can help the RSC determine whether they are in compliance as to its external sales.

Other Pricing Models
Volume discounts or other special pricing mechanisms may be allowable. However, they must be equally available to all users who meet the criteria and must not be subsidized by other users of RSC services. The RSC must be able to demonstrate that the Federal government is not paying more than the cost of the service it is receiving. The sources and nature of RSC subsidies must be fully documented and disclosed in the operating plan. Discount rate calculations must be presented on the rate development schedules.

Required Rate Documentation

RSC Rates and revision to rates must be submitted to the OSR CA&C for institutional approval. OSR reviews rate proposals and rate revisions to ensure compliance with federal regulations.The proposal submission materials should include:

  • RSC Operating Plan documenting key personnel, a description of operations, and the resources used for RSC operations
  • Rate Development Worksheets and supporting documents which are used to calculate rates for each service or product. An updated operating plan and related rate calculations and support schedules must be submitted to CA&cmp;C for review with each rate proposal.


Infrastructure Details
RSC key contacts and management personnel, moveable equipment, space resources, funding subsidies, and potential customers.

Services List
A description of all services to be provided and rates for services based on the type of user.

Annual Operating Budget

  • Documentation for all direct costs by account group including salaries and benefits of RSC staff, materials and supplies needed for services, equipment maintenance and repairs, equipment lease or rental costs, machine and lab supplies and other direct expenses.
  • Unallowable costs must be specifically excluded from the RSC direct cost budget (entertainment, bad debts, non-recruitment advertising, public relations, alcohol, etc.).
  • Total budgeted direct cost for each account group must be distributed to the proposed rate or service category that the cost item benefits, accurately reflecting the causal and beneficial relationship between the budgeted cost, proposed service, and rate to be charged.
  • Identify costs that benefit more than one service. Provide a list of the costs and benefitting services or an allocation plan accurately measuring the relationship between the budgeted cost and service category.

Estimated Services Usage
Estimated usage or output for each service such as number of units for each service category. Documentation of historical usage rates can be used to inform these estimates.

Rate Calculation

  • Calculate the direct-cost based rate for services provided for each type of user as appropriate.
  • Include supporting information, usage logs, objective calculations, and other documentation to support rate and costing compliance.

Administrative Unit Approval

  • The proposal should be signed by the responsible department chair, dean of the school, or director of the center or institute and provide a default chartfield as a guarantee to cover operating shortfalls. In the event deficit funding is required, OSR will consult with the school or college to identify the actual source of deficit funding.

RSC Administration and Operations
RSCs must maintain separate accounting records for operating expenditures and revenue collection. OSR will request a new ConnectCarolina chartfield for newly established RSCs and will provide them when created by Accounting Services. For revised rate plans, OSR will provide updated documentation to Account Service and notify the RSC when they can institute the newly approved rates.

The break-even rate is meant to recover the total direct cost required for RSC activities over the operating cycle. It is important that operating unit new RSC fund balances frequently to ensure the accuracy of the estimated rate. New RSCs are to monitor and improve their cost structure moving forward. This will reduce variance between budget estimates and actual costs.


Records and Reconciliation

  • RSCs are required to maintain sufficient documentation for operations which may be required for period RSC review. Financial and operational records must:
    • Capture all equipment usage and RSC output
    • Identify the rate charged for all activities performed
    • Adequately track charges and identify the customer paying for the service
    • Reconcile billed amounts with payments made by customers
  • RSC monthly activity must be reconciled to ensure all services and output are accounted for and invoiced to customers per the approved rate schedule.

Internal Billing

  • RSCs must invoice for all services to internal and external customers on a monthly basis. Invoicing RSC customers on a regular and timely basis ensures that revenue is appropriately recovered.
    • Allowable activities incurred on a project scheduled to end during the billing period must be charged within 60 days of the end date of the project. Relevant charges not billed by the RSC within this period are not the responsibility of the customer and must be covered by the RSC.
    • RSCs may not charge Federal sponsored agreements in advance of the performing the services.
    • RSCs are not responsible for charges if the internal customer has provided an incorrect chartfield string for billing.
  • Record internal revenue at least monthly in ConnectCarolina.

External Billing

  • For external customer billing, please refer to the required special monitoring and documentation procedures for external revenue located in the Special Costing Issues section of this procedure.
  • Invoice external customers no less frequently than monthly at approved external rates.
  • Invoices for external use should specify a “due date” no more than 30 days from invoice date. Deposit payments with the Student Accounts and University Receivables Office. Credit external revenues to account 441911 (Sales – Other Outside).
  • UNC Finance Policy 503 – Accounts Receivable specifies that accounts receivables should be billed monthly and a “concerted effort should be made to collect all accounts.” For guidelines regarding the collection of unpaid billings due the University please refer to the UNC Finance Procedure 503.1 – Collecting Past Due Accounts Receivable.
  • Uncollected external revenue is the responsibility of the departmental unit. The original revenue transaction must be reversed and charged to a departmental chartfield. The cost of uncollected revenues cannot be charged to or absorbed by other RSC customers or sponsored projects.

Surplus/Deficit Balances

  • Federal auditors are primarily interested in reviewing RSC operating chartfield to determine if Federal funds are being used to subsidize other users through inflated rates.
    • Track any conceptual surpluses generated from depreciation and external revenue components in approved rates in order to reconcile and determine actual fund balance surplus or deficit. Under normal operating conditions, if a significant surplus occurs in the RSC operating chartfield the use rate may be too high; if in deficit, the use rate may be too low.

Reviews and Proposal Submission

  • Notify OSR CA&C when RSC rates should be revised and forward the rate materials, including the proposed new rate schedule, for review.


Capital Equipment and Equipment Depreciation
Capital equipment is defined as equipment with an acquisition cost of $5000 or more and a useful life of more than one year. Generally, capital equipment may not be included in RSC rates, however in certain circumstances, equipment depreciation may be included in RSC rates.

  • Depreciation must be included in the OSR approved RSC rate structure
  • The depreciation is not related to equipment purchased with sponsored funds
  • The RSC must maintain strict accounting of the operating surplus generated from charging the depreciation component of the approved RSC rate
  • Depreciation reserves must be used solely to purchase capital equipment
  • All depreciation funded equipment purchases must be approved by OSR in advance
  • Surplus operating account fund balances that are not generated by an approved depreciation rate component may not be used to purchase capital equipment

Incorporating Equipment Depreciation
An RSC may include annual equipment depreciation in the break-even rate calculation when all of the following apply:

  • The equipment is tagged and accounted for by University Asset Management.
  • The annual depreciation amount is in accordance with the University’s schedule of annual depreciation
  • The equipment was not purchased with sponsored funds
  • The equipment item is used only by the RSC or a usage log accurately supports the proportion of the use being proposed
  • An allocation plan for the annual depreciation is created to benefit activities/services
  • The amount generated from charging for depreciation must be tracked as a separate reserved portion of the RSC’s balance. Department management accepts responsibility to set up, generate, monitor, and account for the equipment depreciation balance.

External Revenue
Special monitoring and documentation is required when carrying out transactions with external parties. External revenue is comprised of two components: break-even portion of external revenue and above-cost portion of external revenue. Both components of external revenue must be monitored and separately documented by the operating unit.

  • Break-Even External Revenue
  • The break-even portion of external revenue is defined by the applicable internal rate multiplied by the quantity of service output supplied to the external patron:

    Break-even External Revenue = Approved Internal Rate * Quantity Supplied

  • Above-Cost External Revenue
  • The above-cost portion of external revenue is determined by multiplying the service output provided to the customer by the difference between the approved external rate and the applicable internal rate:

    Above-cost External Revenue = (Approved External Rate – Internal Rate) * Qty. Supplied

Both the break-even and above-cost components of external revenue must be documented by the in order to monitor financial compliance and reconcile balances for rate adjustment purposes. The external revenue operating surplus is not subject to rate carryforward adjustments and can be set aside to be used by RSC management solely for the benefit and improvement of the RSC’s operations.

Fund Balances
The book fund balance is provided as a line item of the RSC’s budget in ConnectCarolina at any point in time. This balance is the difference between recorded revenues and expenditures from the time the RSC was first established to the present:

Book Fund Balance = Posted Revenues – Posted Expenditures

RSCs should not accumulate large surpluses or deficits. Federal regulations specify that rates should be established to achieve a break-even operation over an operating cycle. An operating RSC surplus is identified by a credit fund balance. Surpluses are generated when revenues exceed expenditures over time. An operating RSC deficit is identified by a debit fund balance. Deficits are generated when expenditures exceed revenues over time.

RSC management should monitor transactions and operating balances to ensure the operation is breaking even over time. Break-even is achieved when the operating account’s fund balance results in zero after all outstanding revenues and outstanding expenditures have been recorded and posted to the financial system as of a given point in time.

The delay of time between billing and when customer payments are received is referred to as timing differences. Accordingly, book fund balance must be adjusted for timing differences in order to reconcile book fund balance to actual fund balance.

Any external revenue or depreciation components contained in approved service center rates will cause a planned surplus. Depreciation and the amount charged to external customers above the break-even rate will exceed the actual direct cost. Reconciling book fund balances to actual fund balance reconciliations must include adjustments for external revenue and depreciation.

The actual fund balance is the book fund balance that has been analyzed and adjusted for timing differences, equipment depreciation, and external revenue reserves contained in book fund balance.

Actual Fund Balance = (Book Fund Balance ± Timing Differences) – Conceptual Reserves

RSC reviews the actual fund balances and billing rates to avoid the accumulation of unallowable surpluses and deficits.

Fund Balance Ratio and Working Capital
Actual fund balance should not exceed 60 days of working capital or approximately 17% fund balance ratio surplus or deficit.

First determine the fund balance ratio percentage:

Fund Balance Ratio % = Actual (Reconciled) Fund Balance ÷ Average Annual Expenditures

Next, calculate dates of working capital (stated in number of days):

Days of Working Capital = Fund Balance Ratio * 360

Reconcile the fund balance and calculate the fund balance ratio and days of working capital regularly. Actual fund balance should be zero after allowing for timing differences and reserves. Pay particular attention to actual surplus and deficit fund balances and the trend. The RSC should understand the possible causes of fund balance trends: timing differences, depreciation, external sales, rates are too low, rates are too high.

An excessive surplus fund balance is eliminated by reducing current rates in future periods or crediting over charges back to users. An operating fund balance surplus may not be reduced by purchasing equipment or incurring other expenditures which would not be reasonably expensed in normal operations.

An excessive deficit fund balance is eliminated by increasing rates in future periods, back charging users, or charging the default or other designated departmental chartfield.

Rate adjustments are made by submitting a proposal to OSR for rates review and/or modification at least every two years and more often if necessary, before the actual fund balance surplus or deficit consistently exceeds 60 days of working capital. If the RSC has a surplus or deficit book fund balance that is consistently greater than 60 days of working capital, OSR may request that an interim proposal (between biennial reviews) to modify rates be submitted for review and carryforward adjustments. OSR targets a fund balance ratio of 10% surplus or one month of working capital when establishing new rates to eliminate excessive surpluses or deficits.


Conflict of Interest and External Professional Activities for Pay
Policies and procedures must be observed by all employees performing activities associated with a research service center.

Value of Year-end Inventory and Accounts Receivable
The University’s annual financial statements must be prepared in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Therefore, any units that have unrecorded accounts receivable or normally carry or anticipate having on hand at the end of the fiscal year a two month or greater prepaid supplies or commodities inventory, must contact the Accounting Services Department to arrange fulfilling year-end financial reporting requirements.

Unrelated Business Income (UBI) from External Revenue
The University is required by the Internal Revenue Service to monitor and report unrelated business income. Units conducting relationships with outside parties to generate external revenue should complete and submit the questionnaire developed by UNC Finance Controller’s Office for that office to review and determine if UBI exists.

Percentage of Effort
The amount of salaries for any employee charged to the RSC operating chartfield must be commensurate with that individual’s percentage of effort expended in direct support of the RSC.

Document Retention
Document all operating activities and usage and maintain records according to University record retention guidelines to support expenditures, billings and transfers. These records include:

  • Documentation on how the rate was calculated
  • Published rate schedules
  • Usage logs supporting equipment utilization and level of activity
  • Time cards for hourly staff used to allocate time to multiple services
  • Billing records

Revision History

Prior Revisions: 11/30/2017 Revised procedure to align with policy changes that reflect updated Guidelines for Cost Recovery.

The policies in the Office of Sponsored Research Policies & Procedures Manual supersede any OSR policies, procedures and appendices previously included in the University Business Manual, a publication of UNC Chapel Hill’s Finance Division.